George Washington - Ada Russell

The War of Independence


After the evacuation of Boston by the British troops, Washington had left Cambridge for New York, where the next act in the drama was to be played. As Lee had been making wholesale arrests of Tories in that city and his views of the sacrosanctity of the Governor were well known, Governor Tryon and his friends had thought it prudent to take refuge on a British man-of-war in the harbour.

Washington arrived in the city on 13th April, 1776, and the position appeared to him, and with reason, much more desperate than that at Boston had done. In fact the tables were to be turned here. Within the city were the American patriots, without a great besieging force. His one encouragement, one that never left him, was the thought of the justness of his Cause.

While the Americans at Philadelphia were busy with the Declaration of Independence, Great Britain, little dreaming of this awful blow awaiting her, had decided, only too late, to make a supreme effort. A large force was to be sent out to reduce the colonists if necessary, but the plan had a silver lining, for Lord Howe, who was given the command of this expedition, was instructed to try the effect of offers of compromise and reconciliation.

On leaving Boston, Lord Howe, on his side, had gone to Canada to obtain reinforcements, and he now arrived off New York with his brother, Admiral Howe, a few days after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In reply to his request, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and others went to Staten Island to confer with him, hut the chief object of their visit was to tell him of the step taken, and assure him politely of the colonists' intention to abide by their action. They departed, leaving Howe clear that his instructions were so much waste paper and that he should now have to fight to a finish.

Both sides strained every nerve, and—another step that had cost a good deal of debate—Franklin was despatched to beg help from the old enemy of the colonists and of England, France. Washington solemnly addressed his army, saying:



"The time is now near at hand which must determine whether Americans are to be free men or slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own; whether their houses and farms are to be pillaged and destroyed and themselves consigned to a state of wretchedness from which no human efforts will deliver them. The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army. . . . We have therefore to resolve to conquer or to die."

In August began the duel for New York with the British resolve to capture Brooklyn Heights on Long Island, commanding the city. To prevent this, Washington sent 5,000 men—all he could spare—to hold the Heights, and on the 21st 15,000 British troops proceeded to the attack. For seven days the struggle continued and just when the Americans, with nearly half their men lost, saw nothing before them but surrender, a storm came to their rescue and they were able to get away almost unharmed. Tinder cover of the darkness Washington got the detachment away from the Heights and recrossed the river from Long Island to New York. For 48 hours he never closed his eyes and scarcely dismounted from his horse, and so achieved what has always been considered an almost miraculous retreat. Of course, it meant leaving the Heights for the British to occupy, and it then became impossible to hold New York, just as the British had found it impossible to hold Boston when Dorchester Heights were captured by the Americans. Both Washington and Putnam, neither of them fond of half-measures, and both having staked their all, in lands and hopes, on this gigantic combat, wanted to destroy New York before evacuating it, as it was terrible to think what a splendid centre it would be for the British and what comfortable and secure winter quarters it offered them. Its possession meant an indefinite prolongation of the combat. The Commander-in-Chief, however, thought it right to mention the matter to Congress and Congress could not frame its heart to consent. There was therefore nothing for it but to get out with as little loss as possible, under the guns of the foe, and this was another record achievement of Washington; nothing but his personal influence, even to the extent of facing the fugitive with pointed pistols, saved the retreat from being a flight of terrified men. These two maneuvers, the rescue of the detachment on Brooklyn Heights and the retreat from New York, perhaps won Washington more renown in the British army, where such achievements were duly appreciated, than among his fellow-countrymen, who were inclined to look principally at the facts of losses and gains, and as unskilled citizens rather than professional soldiers.

The retreat did not end with the evacuation of New York, for the army was then gradually pushed up the Hudson River, and the colonists began to be discontented with Washington. He wrote to his brother: "I am wearied almost to death with the retrograde movement of things; and I solemnly protest that a pecuniary reward of 20,000 a year would not induce me to undergo what I do, and, after all, perhaps to lose my character; as it is impossible under such a variety of distressing circumstances to conduct matters agreeably to public expectation."

He still believed in ultimate success.

When the British attempted to surround him between the Hudson and Hackensack Rivers, a further retreat had to be made in the utmost haste, and this time a large quantity of stores and ammunition had to be abandoned. Lee would not come to his aid and the retreat was continued to Trenton. The British thus held New York, nearly the whole of the Jerseys and part of Pennsylvania, while the colonists' great plan of raising Canada against British rule had failed miserably. Burgoyne had suppressed any tendency to revolt in Canada, and was now to be expected to descend with his army on the revolted colonies. So hopeless did the American cause seem that all but the most ardent returned to their allegiance to Great Britain. Washington anticipated that a time would come for retreat into Virginia and ultimately for retirement across the Alleghany Mountains, and unlike so many other rich colonists with everything at stake he determined never to surrender, never to make terms, never to waver before British offers of reconciliation. "If it becomes necessary," he said proudly to one who criticised him, "we will retreat over every river and mountain in America."

His immediate fear was that Philadelphia would fall, and "Old Put," the "Grand Old Man" of the Cause, was placed in command there, while Congress adjourned to Baltimore.

Full of wearing anxiety but ever hoping that the country would send him reinforcements, Washington in another marvellous retreat crossed the Delaware. Thomas Payne tells us how: "With a handful of men we sustained an orderly retreat for near an hundred miles, brought off our ammunition, all our field-pieces, the greater part of our stores, and had four rivers to pass. None can say that our retreat was precipitate, for we were three weeks in performing it, that the country might have time to come in. Twice we marched back to meet the enemy."

All this time, Lee was not dealing fairly with Washington, but dawdling about with his troops, and many of the colonial party rejoiced when he was surprised in a tavern by British cavalry and taken prisoner. Washington was perhaps more vexed than grieved at the incident, due, as he remarked, to Lee's own folly and imprudence. It helped to show Congress what Lee was and to restore to Washington that confidence he enjoyed before the fall of New York. Reinforcements began to come in and he was granted extraordinary powers of dictatorship. The strengthening of his hands led him to decide on a surprise attack on the foe, Howe and Cornwallis having gone into winter quarters at New York, it not being the practice in that age to fight in the winter.

Christmas night was fixed on for the recrossing of the Delaware, and while Washington recrossed the dangerously swollen stream, amid floating ice-blocks, in the dead of the night and in a tempest of snow and wind, above Trenton, Putnam and troops from Philadelphia crossed it below Burlington. Generals Ewing and Cadwalader, who were also to cross, could not do so. Hessian troops in the British service were guarding the river, and they were completely taken aback by the reappearance of Washington at this season. Trenton at once fell into the Americans' hands, with over 1,000 persons and large quantities of stores and artillery. Something like a panic followed, and Howe at once sent Cornwallis off to Princeton to bring troops out of their winter quarters. He imagined that he would catch Washington when he came up with him at the Assanpink on the 2nd of January, 1777. As he was retiring for the night, he said:

"The old fox can't make his escape now; for, with the Delaware behind him so filled with floating ice that he cannot cross, we have him completely surrounded. To-morrow morning, fresh and strong, we will fall upon him and take him and his ragamuffins all at once." In vain those who knew Washington assured him that there was little likelihood of Washington, whatever happened, being found in the morning. Cornwallis knew his ground and went to sleep in faith and peace. In the morning the British found the stream hard frozen and Washington and his "ragamuffins" gone. The ground between here and Princeton, which had been almost an impassable bog the night before, hardened as if macadamized, and Washington hastened on to Princeton, where after a fierce fight the British garrison surrendered to him. Ile would then have proceeded to take the great depot at New Brunswick, and that he would do so was the first sad thought of Cornwallis on awaking that cold January morning, but. Washington's force was too exhausted to carry out this tempting plan. However, the two victories, Trenton and Princeton, had an enormous effect on public opinion. Washington was winning for himself in Great Britain the fame of a great rebel leader like Spartacus—for the eighteenth century, as we have seen, was fond of classical allusions—or even of an heroic Hannibal, doomed in the end to failure, but meanwhile threatening the entire British Empire with disruption. In America, on the other hand, and on the Continent of Europe, he was likened, not to the invader Hannibal, but to the consul Fabius, whose retreats and delays saved Rome from Hannibal and have been famous through all ages and times. The brightest hopes were entertained of his ultimate success, and the French in particular began to give lavish if unofficial aid. Beaumarchais, the author of The Marriage of Figaro, organized expeditions of aid, and the young Marquis de Lafayette came over in person at this point, and met Washington at Philadelphia, whither Washington proceeded after his exploits at Princeton. Lafayette had been attracted to the revolutionary cause by Franklin, who found aristocratic France, on the eve of the revolution that was to bring their own order to an end, ripe for sympathy with a movement that put into action the social and political creeds of their beloved Rousseau. Rousseau had preached the doctrine of the "contract social," a contract between governors and governed for the benefit of the latter, and the consequent right of the people to resume the sovereignty they had confided to their rulers in trust. The American colonies of Great Britain had just resumed this authority, so long vested in the sovereigns of Great. Britain, and France was submerged in a wave of enthusiasm for this magnificent deed, now apparently to proceed to a triumphant issue. It was the irony of fate that sympathy and help should come to the American democracy from an aristocracy that was so soon to rue the day when it had first lent an ear to revolutionary doctrines and had listened so fondly and so lightly to the preaching of the Rights of Man. It was soon to learn that it is a matter of extreme peril to touch the foundations of government. The French aristocracy carried out a very great work in extreme lightness of heart and without in the least realising the inevitable results of its enthusiastic speculations—results for which it was soon called upon to pay with its best blood. Meanwhile, it gave priceless aid to the Americans.

Great Britain formed a plan of campaign for 1777 that should have brought America to her feet, namely for Burgoyne to march south from Canada to the upper Hudson River and join Howe, who was to come north to meet him, and thus cut the rebel army in two. Unfortunately for the success of this masterly scheme, Burgoyne suffered a disastrous defeat on his way at Bennington, where the Republican General Stark, despatched by Washington to check Burgoyne, is said to have spurred his men to great things. "Come on, boys, and conquer the Redcoats," he is reported to have cried, "or Molly Stark will be a widow!" The Republicans utilized the moral effects of this battle to turn the tables and cut off Burgoyne. Howe, for his part, was on his way to join Burgoyne when Washington met him at the River Brandywine on 8th September, with only 11,000 men to his 18,000, and on the 11th the British general inflicted a signal defeat on Washington. A panic followed on the Republican side, and Congress again fled from Philadelphia, but Washington merely retreated, with his usual calm patience and resignation. He stopped at Germantown and planned another surprise attack, on Howe, on the night of 2nd October, but after a brilliant maneuver a heavy fog baffled him and he was obliged to fall back again, whereupon Philadelphia was compelled to submit to the entry of the British army. There was much wailing in America over the fate of this city; only the wise Franklin, when informed that Howe had taken Philadelphia, replied mysteriously: "No! Philadelphia has taken Howe!"

And so it proved. Hardly had the city fallen than news arrived that Burgoyne, lacking the aid Howe should have brought him, had surrendered with his whole army on 6th October, 1777, to the American General Gates at Saratoga.

Making the best of a bad job, Howe took up winter quarters at Philadelphia, and made himself as comfortable as he could, while Washington established himself at Valley Forge, twenty miles away, to watch the enemy and to endure all the hardships of cold, privation and disease among his men. It is told that, one day, observing the critical condition of a famished soldier, he said to him:

"Go to my table and help yourself!"

"I cannot," replied the soldier, "I am on guard." Taking his rifle from him, Washington just said "Go!" indicating that he would take his place. The men were without clothes, without blankets, without shoes (so much so that their marches might be traced by their bleeding feet), without food, without shelter but the huts they built, and yet they had come to suffer these things without a murmur. They had caught the spirit of Washington's patriotism, and also they had become inspired by that feeling which made the soldiers of Caesar and Napoleon march on through whatever hardships and afflictions might befall them so long as their General bade them.

England declared war on France in 1778 and so ended an impossible position, and as there had existed throughout the eighteenth century a "Family Compact" between the Bourbon sovereigns of France and Spain, England now had to face the united attack of those powers, and this fact was the salvation of America and gradually transformed the nature of the struggle. It amounted indeed to tying Great Britain's hands; it gave infinite encouragement to the Americans; and the substantial aid of France in America was the decisive factor in her winning the war. When it arrived, however, it seemed as if nothing could save America, for Cornwallis with the help of the brilliant cavalry officer Tarleton had overrun the Carolinas and Georgia, and in spite of minor successes and acts of desperate valour, the Republicans were steadily losing. There came, moreover, the treason of Benedict Arnold, once beloved and trusted by Washington. After long and traitorous correspondence, Benedict Arnold stole over into the British camp and accepted a position in the British army that was fighting his fellow-countrymen, betraying at the same time all that he knew of the Republican plans and resources, and arranging to hand over West Point, where Washington had placed him in command. He used to meet Major Andre, the emissary of Sir Henry Clinton, who had succeeded Howe as Commander-in-Chief, at midnight, and he drew up a plan for a feigned attack by the British and apparent surrender by himself. Andre was captured in one of these missions by three American yeomen, and promptly hanged as a spy, while his papers, including those compromising Arnold, were sent to Washington. Arnold managed to escape, and received a general's commission in the British army and proved one of the bitterest foes of his old comrades in arms, He has been called the "Judas Iscariot" of the Cause.

Great Britain after Saratoga had offered every possible concession to her revolted colonies, but when France and Spain came on to the scene the day of reconciliation was felt to be over, and both parties felt also that the end was approaching. Great. Britain had her hands ever fuller. The French sent ever increasing aid to the Americans. Rochambeau landed with an army in 1730 and finally the French West Indian fleet in 1781 appeared in the Chesapeake under De Grasse. Weary of waiting Washington may well have been, but this would never have nerved him to the great coup he was now to make, namely the capture of Cornwallis in Yorktown. He saw clearly that the moment had come, that after all this weary time when all he could do was to preserve his army and retire, the naval assistance which De Grasse gave him permitted him at last to strike. Calling at Mount Vernon for the first time since the beginning of the war, he bade farewell to his wife, telling her that "he was on his way to seek a battle, an unequal though glorious contest from which he might never return."

On the 30th September he and Rochambeau, the French commander, held the heights above Yorktown, and soon the French fleet under De Grasse filled the harbour. On the 6th October he himself put a match to the first cannon and a bombardment terrific for those times started. Washington's exposure of his person in warfare was always extraordinary, and never more than in this bombardment, in spite of the expostulations of his officers. When an aide-de-camp ventured to remark that he was in a very exposed spot, he remarked somewhat shortly:

"If you think so, you are at liberty to stand back!"

As at the time of Braddock's rout in his youth, balls flew round him and he stood unharmed, a charmed, heroic figure, in the thickest of the fray. Washington in a battle was a sight to call forth memories of heroes of old.

The 17th October, 1781, was the greatest day in his life, and perhaps the happiest, for on that day he received a flag of truce from Cornwallis, who could hold out no longer. On the 19th Cornwallis accepted his conditions of surrender. Who can tell his feelings at this moment! The weary years of war and misery were over; the separation from Great Britain was an irrevocable fact, her stern parental authority was thrown off for ever, and who could say what would be the future of his country? Not Washington! He was no political prophet that he could foresee the glorious future of the United States. He only knew that he and his fellow citizens had won something very precious, Liberty, and that in their own hands it now lay to make that. Liberty a permanent possession.

"My brave fellows," he said to the soldiers, "let no sensation of satisfaction for the triumphs you have gained induce you to insult your fallen enemy. Let no shouting, no clamorous huzzaing, increase their mortification. Posterity will huzza for us."

Cornwallis, unable to face the music, pleaded indisposition, and O'Hara carried out the surrender. The garrison of 7,000 marched out between the serried rows of American and French troops and surrendered to Major-General Lincoln. He conducted them to a field where the ceremony of grounding their arms was carried out, and twenty-eight British captains handed over the twenty-eight flags of their companies.

A courier was then sent post-haste to the Congress at Philadelphia, Arriving after midnight, as the night-watchmen were going their rounds, he gave them the word, and soon the cry:

"One o'clock—Cornwallis is taken!" roused the inhabitants from their beds. The first incredulity gave way to rapture, and the citizens began to ring the city bells and let off artillery. Only the sick stayed in the house that night. Immediately after daybreak Congress assembled and heard Washington's letter read. Great rejoicing followed and enthusiastic votes of thanks were passed to Washington, Rochambeau, De Grasse and the officers of both armies.

Washington with his usual prudence expostulated that the war was not yet over, but as a matter of fact it was, at least so far as America was concerned.

At Home, the news produced the height of sorrow. To Lord North it was like "a ball in the breast." He opened his arms and paced wildly up and down the apartment, exclaiming:

"Oh God! It is all over!" He was compelled to resign, and Rockingham succeeded him as Prime Minister and began negotiations for a treaty of peace with America.

By the Treaty of Paris, signed on the 30th November, 1782, Great Britain recognised the independence of her thirteen rebel colonies. All the forts were evacuated and the army returned to Britain, whereupon Washington disbanded the Republican army.

"With a heart full of love and gratitude," he said, "I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former have been glorious and honourable. I cannot come to each of you to take my leave, but shall be obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand."

As the soldiers advanced one by one, the tears started into Washington's eyes, and the long ceremony took place in utter silence.