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had betrayed him, and writhed most pitiably under the exposure.
Washington's replies are models of cold dignity, and the calm
indifference with which he treated the whole matter, while holding
Gates to the point with relentless grasp, is very interesting. The
cabal was seriously shaken by this sudden blow. It must have dawned
upon them dimly that they might have mistaken their man, and that the
silent soldier was perhaps not so easy to dispose of by an intrigue as
they had fancied. Nevertheless, they rallied, and taking advantage of
the feeling in Congress created by Burgoyne's surrender, they set to
work to get control of military matters. The board of war was enlarged
to five, with Gates at its head and Mifflin a member, and, thus
constituted, it proceeded to make Conway inspector-general, with the
rank of major-general. This, after Conway's conduct, was a direct
insult to Washington, and marks the highest point attained by his

In Congress, too, they became more active, and John Jay said that
there was in that body a party bitterly hostile to Washington. We know
little of the members of that faction now, for they never took the
trouble to refer to the matter in after years, and did everything that
silence could do to have it all forgotten. But the party existed none
the less, and significant letters have come down to us, one of them
written by Lovell, and two anonymous, addressed respectively to
Patrick Henry and to Laurens, then president, which show a bitter and
vindictive spirit, and breathe but one purpose. The same thought is
constantly reiterated, that with a good general the northern army had
won a great victory, and that the main army, if commanded in the same
way, would do likewise. The plan was simple and coherent. The cabal
wished to drive Washington out of power and replace him with Gates.
With this purpose they wrote to Henry and Laurens; with this purpose
they made Conway inspector-general.

When they turned from intrigue to action, however, they began to fail.
One of their pet schemes was the conquest of Canada, and with
this object Lafayette was sent to the lakes, only to find that no
preparations had been made, because the originators of the idea were
ignorant and inefficient. The expedition promptly collapsed and was
abandoned, with much instruction in consequence to Congress and
people. Under their control the commissariat also went hopelessly to
pieces, and a committee of Congress proceeded to Valley Forge and
found that in this direction, too, the new managers had grievously
failed. Then the original Conway letter, uncovered so unceremoniously
by Washington, kept returning to plague its author. Gates's
correspondence went on all through the winter, and with every letter
Gates floundered more and more, and Washington's replies grew more
and more freezing and severe. Gates undertook to throw the blame on
Wilkinson, who became loftily indignant and challenged him. The two
made up their quarrel very soon in a ludicrous manner, but Wilkinson
in the interval had an interview with Washington, which revealed an
amount of duplicity and perfidy on the part of the cabal, so shocking
to the former's sensitive nature, that he resigned his secretaryship
of the board of war on account, as he frankly said, of the treachery
and falsehood of Gates. Such a quarrel of course hurt the cabal, but
it was still more weakened by Gates himself, whose only idea seemed
to be to supersede Washington by slighting him, refusing troops, and
declining to propose his health at dinner, - methods as unusual as they
were feeble.

The cabal, in fact, was so weak in ability and character that the
moment any responsibility fell upon its members it was certain to
break down, but the absolutely fatal obstacle to its schemes was the
man it aimed to overthrow. The idea evidently was that Washington
could be driven to resign. They knew that they could not get either
Congress or public opinion to support them in removing him, but they
believed that a few well-placed slights and insults would make him
remove himself. It was just here that they made their mistake.
Washington, as they were aware, was sensitive and high-spirited to
the last degree, and he had no love for office, but he was not one of
those weaklings who leave power and place in a pet because they are
criticised and assailed. He was not ambitious in the ordinary personal
sense, but he had a passion for success. Whether it was breaking a
horse, or reclaiming land, or fighting Indians, or saving a state,
whatever he set his hand to, that he carried through to the end. With
him there never was any shadow of turning back. When, without any
self-seeking, he was placed at the head of the Revolution, he made
up his mind that he would carry it through everything to victory, if
victory were possible. Death or a prison could stop him, but neither
defeat nor neglect, and still less the forces of intrigue and cabal.

When he wrote to his brother announcing Burgoyne's surrender, he had
nothing to say of the slight Gates put upon him, but merely added in
a postscript, "I most devoutly congratulate my country and every
well-wisher to the cause on this signal stroke of Providence." This
was his tone to every one, both in private and public. His complaint
of not being properly notified he made to Gates alone, and put it in
the form of a rebuke. He knew of the movement against him from the
beginning, but apparently the first person he confided in was Conway,
when he sent him the brief note of November 9. Even after the cabal
was fully developed, he wrote about it only once or twice, when
compelled to do so, and there is no evidence that he ever talked about
it except, perhaps, to a few most intimate friends. In a letter to
Patrick Henry he said that he was obliged to allow a false impression
as to his strength to go abroad, and that he suffered in consequence;
and he added, with a little touch of feeling, that while the
yeomanry of New York and New England poured into the camp of Gates,
outnumbering the enemy two to one, he could get no aid of that sort
from Pennsylvania, and still marvels were demanded of him.

Thus he went on his way through the winter, silent except when obliged
to answer some friend, and always ready to meet his enemies. When
Conway complained to Congress of his reception at camp, Washington
wrote the president that he was not given to dissimulation, and that
he certainly had been cold in his manner. He wrote to Lafayette that
slander had been busy, and that he had urged his officers to be
cool and dispassionate as to Conway, adding, "I have no doubt that
everything happens for the best, that we shall triumph over all our
misfortunes, and in the end be happy; when, my dear Marquis, if you
will give me your company in Virginia, we will laugh at our past
difficulties and the folly of others." But though he wrote thus
lightly to his friends, he followed Gates sternly enough, and kept
that gentleman occupied as he drove him from point to point. Among
other things he touched upon Conway's character with sharp irony,
saying, "It is, however, greatly to be lamented that this adept in
military science did not employ his abilities in the progress of the
campaign, in pointing out those wise measures which were calculated to
give us 'that degree of success we could reasonably expect.'"

Poor Gates did not find these letters pleasant reading, and one more
curt note, on February 24, finished the controversy. By that time the
cabal was falling to pieces, and in a little while was dispersed.
Wilkinson's resignation was accepted, Mifflin was put under
Washington's orders, and Gates was sent to his command in the north.
Conway resigned one day in a pet, and found his resignation accepted
and his power gone with unpleasant suddenness. He then got into a
quarrel with General Cadwalader on account of his attacks on the
commander-in-chief. The quarrel ended in a duel. Conway was badly
wounded, and thinking himself dying, wrote a contrite note of apology
to Washington, then recovered, left the country, and disappeared from
the ken of history. Thus domestic malice and the "bitter party" in
Congress failed and perished. They had dashed themselves in vain
against the strong man who held firmly both soldiers and people.
"While the public are satisfied with my endeavors, I mean not to
shrink from the cause." So Washington wrote to Gordon as the cabal
was coming to an end, and in that spirit he crushed silently and
thoroughly the faction that sought to thwart his purpose, and drive
him from office by sneers, slights, and intrigues.

These attacks upon him came at the darkest moment of his military
career. Defeated at Brandywine and Germantown, he had been forced from
the forts after a desperate struggle, had seen Philadelphia and the
river fall completely into the hands of the enemy, and, bitterest of
all, he had been obliged to hold back from another assault on the
British lines, and to content himself with baffling Howe when that
gentleman came out and offered battle. Then the enemy withdrew to
their comfortable quarters, and he was left to face again the harsh
winter and the problem of existence. It was the same ever recurring
effort to keep the American army, and thereby the American Revolution,
alive. There was nothing in this task to stir the blood and rouse the
heart. It was merely a question of grim tenacity of purpose and of the
ability to comprehend its overwhelming importance. It was not a work
that appealed to or inspirited any one, and to carry it through to a
successful issue rested with the commander-in-chief alone.

In the frost and snow he withdrew to Valley Forge, within easy
striking distance of Philadelphia. He had literally nothing to rely
upon but his own stern will and strong head. His soldiers, steadily
dwindling in numbers, marked their road to Valley Forge by the blood
from their naked feet. They were destitute and in rags. When they
reached their destination they had no shelter, and it was only by the
energy and ingenuity of the General that they were led to build huts,
and thus secure a measure of protection against the weather. There
were literally no supplies, and the Board of War failed completely to
remedy the evil. The army was in such straits that it was obliged
to seize by force the commonest necessaries. This was a desperate
expedient and shocked public opinion, which Washington, as a
statesman, watched and cultivated as an essential element of success
in his difficult business. He disliked to take extreme measures, but
there was nothing else to be done when his men were starving, when
nearly three thousand of them were unfit for duty because "barefoot
and otherwise naked," and when a large part of the army were obliged
to sit up all night by the fires for warmth's sake, having no blankets
with which to cover themselves if they lay down. With nothing to eat,
nothing to burn, nothing wherewith to clothe themselves, wasting away
from exposure and disease, we can only wonder at the forbearance which
stayed the hand of violent seizure so long. Yet, as Washington had
foreseen, there was even then an outcry against him. Nevertheless, his
action ultimately did more good than harm in the very matter of public
opinion, for it opened men's eyes, and led to some tardy improvements
and some increased effort.

Worse even than this criticism was the remonstrance of the legislature
of Pennsylvania against the going into winter-quarters. They expected
Washington to keep the open field, and even to attack the British,
with his starving, ragged army, in all the severity of a northern
winter. They had failed him at every point and in every promise, in
men, clothing, and supplies. They were not content that he covered
their State and kept the Revolution alive among the huts of Valley
Forge. They wished the impossible. They asked for the moon, and then
cried out because it was not given to them. It was a stupid, unkind
thing to do, and Washington answered their complaints in a letter to
the president of Congress. After setting forth the shortcomings of the
Pennsylvanians in the very plainest of plain English, he said: "But
what makes this matter still more extraordinary in my eye is that
these very gentlemen should think a winter's campaign, and the
covering of these States from the invasion of an enemy, so easy and
practicable a business. I can answer those gentlemen, that it is a
much easier and less distressing thing to draw remonstrances in a
comfortable room, by a good fireside, than to occupy a cold, bleak
hill, and sleep under frost and snow, without clothes or blankets.
However, although they seem to have little feeling for the naked and
distressed soldiers, I feel superabundantly for them, and from my soul
I pity those miseries which it is neither in my power to relieve or

This was not a safe man for the gentlemen of Pennsylvania to cross too
far, nor could they swerve him, with all his sense of public opinion,
one jot from what he meant to do. In the stern rebuke, and in the
deep pathos of these sentences, we catch a glimpse of the silent and
self-controlled man breaking out for a moment as he thinks of his
faithful and suffering men. Whatever happened, he would hold them
together, for in this black time we detect the fear which haunted
him, that the people at large might give way. He was determined on
independence. He felt a keen hatred against England for her whole
conduct toward America, and this hatred was sharpened by the efforts
of the English to injure him personally by forged letters and other
despicable contrivances. He was resolved that England should never
prevail, and his language in regard to her has a fierceness of tone
which is full of meaning. He was bent, also, on success, and if under
the long strain the people should weaken or waver, he was determined
to maintain the army at all hazards.

So, while he struggled against cold and hunger and destitution,
while he contended with faction at home and lukewarmness in the
administration of the war, even then, in the midst of these trials, he
was devising a new system for the organization and permanence of his
forces. Congress meddled with the matter of prisoners and with the
promotion of officers, and he argued with and checked them, and still
pressed on in his plans. He insisted that officers must have better
provision, for they had begun to resign. "You must appeal to their
interest as well as to their patriotism," he wrote, "and you must give
them half-pay and full pay in proper measure." "You must follow the
same policy with the men," he said; "you must have done with short
enlistments. In a word, gentlemen, you must give me an army,
a lasting, enduring, continental army, for therein lies
independence."[1] It all comes out now, through the dust of details
and annoyances, through the misery and suffering of that wretched
winter, through the shrill cries of ignorance and hostility, - the
great, clear, strong policy which meant to substitute an army for
militia, and thereby secure victory and independence. It is the burden
of all his letters to the governors of States, and to his officers
everywhere. "I will hold the army together," he said, "but you on all
sides must help me build it up."[1]

[Footnote 1: These two quotations are not literal, of course, but give
the substance of many letters.]

Thus with much strenuous labor and many fervent appeals he held his
army together in some way, and slowly improved it. His system began to
be put in force, his reiterated lessons were coming home to Congress,
and his reforms and suggestions were in some measure adopted. Under
the sound and trained guidance of Baron Steuben a drill and discipline
were introduced, which soon showed marked results. Greene succeeded
Mifflin as quartermaster-general, and brought order out of chaos. The
Conway cabal went to pieces, and as spring opened Washington began to
see light once more. To have held on through that winter was a great
feat, but to have built up and improved the army at such a time was
much more wonderful. It shows a greatness of character and a force of
will rarer than military genius, and enables us to understand better,
perhaps, than almost any of his victories, why it was that the success
of the Revolution lay in such large measure in the hands of one man.

After Howe's withdrawal from the Jerseys in the previous year, a
contemporary wrote that Washington was left with the remnants of an
army "to scuffle for liberty." The winter had passed, and he was
prepared to scuffle again. On May 11 Sir Henry Clinton relieved Sir
William Howe at Philadelphia, and the latter took his departure in
a blaze of mock glory and resplendent millinery, known as the
Mischianza, a fit close to a career of failure, which he was too dull
to appreciate. The new commander was more active than his predecessor,
but no cleverer, and no better fitted to cope with Washington. It was
another characteristic choice on the part of the British ministry, who
could never muster enough intellect to understand that the Americans
would fight, and that they were led by a really great soldier. The
coming of Clinton did not alter existing conditions.

Expecting a movement by the enemy, Washington sent Lafayette forward
to watch Philadelphia. Clinton and Howe, eager for a victory before
departure, determined to cut him off, and by a rapid movement nearly
succeeded in so doing. Timely information, presence of mind, and
quickness alone enabled the young Frenchman to escape, narrowly but
completely. Meantime, a cause for delay, that curse of the British
throughout the war, supervened. A peace commission, consisting of the
Earl of Carlisle, William Eden, and Governor Johnstone, arrived. They
were excellent men, but they came too late. Their propositions three
years before would have been well enough, but as it was they were
worse than nothing. Coolly received, they held a fruitless interview
with a committee of Congress, tried to bribe and intrigue, found that
their own army had been already ordered to evacuate Philadelphia
without their knowledge, and finally gave up their task in
angry despair, and returned to England to join in the chorus of
fault-finding which was beginning to sound very loud in ministerial

Meanwhile, Washington waited and watched, puzzled by the delay, and
hoping only to harass Sir Henry with militia on the march to New York.
But as the days slipped by, the Americans grew stronger, while the
British had been weakened by wholesale desertions. When he finally
started, he had with him probably sixteen to seventeen thousand men,
while the Americans had apparently at least thirteen thousand, nearly
all continental troops.[1] Under these circumstances, Washington
determined to bring on a battle. He was thwarted at the outset by his
officers, as was wont to be the case. Lee had returned more whimsical
than ever, and at the moment was strongly adverse to an attack, and
was full of wise saws about building a bridge of gold for the flying
enemy. The ascendancy which, as an English officer, he still retained
enabled him to get a certain following, and the councils of war
which were held compared unfavorably, as Hamilton put it, with the
deliberations of midwives. Washington was harassed of course by all
this, but he did not stay his purpose, and as soon as he knew that
Clinton actually had marched, he broke camp at Valley Forge and
started in pursuit. There were more councils of an old-womanish
character, but finally Washington took the matter into his own
hands, and ordered forth a strong detachment to attack the British
rear-guard. They set out on the 25th, and as Lee, to whom the command
belonged, did not care to go, Lafayette was put in charge. As soon as
Lafayette had departed, however, Lee changed his mind, and insisted
that all the detachments in front, amounting to five thousand men,
formed a division so large that it was unjust not to give him the
command. Washington, therefore, sent him forward next day with two
additional brigades, and then Lee by seniority took command on the
27th of the entire advance.

[Footnote 1: The authorities are hopelessly conflicting as to the
numbers on both sides. The British returns on March 26 showed over
19,000 men. They had since that date been weakened by desertions, but
to what extent we can only conjecture. The detachments to Florida
and the West Indies ordered from England do not appear to have taken
place. The estimate of 16,000 to 17,000 seems the most reasonable.
Washington returned his rank and file as just over 10,000, which would
indicate a total force of 13,000 to 14,000, possibly more. Washington
clearly underestimated the enemy, and the best conclusion seems to be
that they were nearly matched in numbers, with a slight inferiority on
the American side.]

In the evening of that day, Washington came up, reconnoitred the
enemy, and saw that, although their position was a strong one, another
day's unmolested march would make it still stronger. He therefore
resolved to attack the next morning, and gave Lee then and there
explicit orders to that effect. In the early dawn he dispatched
similar orders, but Lee apparently did nothing except move feebly
forward, saying to Lafayette, "You don't know the British soldiers;
we cannot stand against them." He made a weak attempt to cut off a
covering party, marched and countermarched, ordered and countermanded,
until Lafayette and Wayne, eager to fight, knew not what to do, and
sent hot messages to Washington to come to them.

Thus hesitating and confused, Lee permitted Clinton to get his baggage
and train to the front, and to mass all his best troops in the rear
under Cornwallis, who then advanced against the American lines. Now
there were no orders at all, and the troops did not know what to do,
or where to go. They stood still, then began to fall back, and then to
retreat. A very little more and there would have been a rout. As it
was, Washington alone prevented disaster. His early reports from the
front from Dickinson's outlying party, and from Lee himself, were all
favorable. Then he heard the firing, and putting the main army in
motion, he rode rapidly forward. First he encountered a straggler, who
talked of defeat. He could not believe it, and the fellow was pushed
aside and silenced. Then came another and another, all with songs of
death. Finally, officers and regiments began to come. No one knew why
they fled, or what had happened. As the ill tidings grew thicker,
Washington spurred sharper and rode faster through the deep sand, and
under the blazing midsummer sun. At last he met Lee and the main body
all in full retreat. He rode straight at Lee, savage with anger, not
pleasant to look at, one may guess, and asked fiercely and with a deep
oath, tradition says, what it all meant. Lee was no coward, and did
not usually lack for words. He was, too, a hardened man of the world,
and, in the phrase of that day, impudent to boot. But then and there
he stammered and hesitated. The fierce question was repeated. Lee
gathered himself and tried to excuse and palliate what had happened,
but although the brief words that followed are variously reported to
us across the century, we know that Washington rebuked him in such a
way, and with such passion, that all was over between them. Lee had
committed the one unpardonable sin in the eyes of his commander. He
had failed to fight when the enemy was upon him. He had disobeyed
orders and retreated. It was the end of him. He went to the rear,
thence to a court-martial, thence to dismissal and to a solitary life
with a well-founded suspicion of treason hanging about him. He was an
intelligent, quick-witted, unstable man, much overrated because he
was an English officer among a colonial people. He was ever treated
magnanimously by Washington after the day of battle at Monmouth, but
he then disappeared from the latter's life.

When Lee bowed before the storm and stepped aside, Washington was left
to deal with the danger and confusion around him. Thus did he tell the
story afterwards to his brother: "A retreat, however, was the fact, be
the causes what they may; and the disorder arising from it would have
proved fatal to the army, had not that bountiful Providence, which has
never failed us in the hour of distress, enabled me to form a regiment
or two (of those that were retreating) in the face of the enemy, and
under their fire; by which means a stand was made long enough (the
place through which the enemy were pressing being narrow) to form the

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Online LibraryHenry Cabot LodgeGeorge Washington, Volume I → online text (page 14 of 26)