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their victory, and counting the future as assured,
there was a silent watchful man on the other side


of the redoubts who for forty-eight hours never left
the lines, and who with a great capacity for stub-
born fighting could move, when the stress came,
with the celerity and stealth of a panther.

Washington swiftly determined to retreat. It
was a desperate undertaking, and a lesser man
would have hesitated and been lost. He had to
transport nine thousand men across a strait of
strong tides and currents, and three quarters of a
mile in width. It was necessary to collect the
boats from a distance, and do it all within sight
and hearing of the enemy. The boats were ob-
tained, a thick mist settled down on sea and land,
the water was calm, and as the night wore away,
the entire army with all its arms and baggage was
carried over, Washington leaving in the last boat.
At daybreak the British awoke, but it was too late.
They had fought a successful battle, they had had
the American army in their grasp, and now all was
over. The victory had melted away, arid, as a
grand result, they had a few hundred prisoners, a
stray boat with three camp-followers, and the de-
serted works in which they stood. To make such
a retreat as this was a feat of arms as great as
most victories, and in it we see, perhaps as plainly
as anywhere, the nerve and quickness of the man
who conducted it. It is true it was the only
chance of salvation, but the great man is he who
is entirely master of his opportunity, even if he
have but one.

The outlook, nevertheless, was, as Washington


wrote, " truly distressing." The troops were dispir-
ited, and the militia began to disappear, as they
always did after a defeat. Congress would not
permit the destruction of the city, different inter-
ests pulled in different directions, conflicting opin-
ions distracted the councils of war, and, with utter
inability to predict the enemy's movements, every-
thing led to halfway measures and to intense anx-
iety, while Lord Howe tried to negotiate with Con-
gress, and the Americans waited for events. Wash-
ington, looking beyond the confusion of the mo-
ment, saw that he had gained much by delay, and
had his own plan well defined. He wrote : " We
have not only delayed the operations of the cam-
paign till it is too late to effect any capital incur-
sion into the country, but have drawn the enemy's
forces to one point. ... It would be presumption
to draw out our young troops into open ground
against their superiors both in number and disci-
pline, and I have never spared the spade and pick-
axe." Every one else, however, saw only past de-
feat and present peril.

The British ships gradually made their way up
the river, until it became apparent that they in-
tended to surround and cut off the American army.
Washington made preparations to withdraw, but
uncertainty of information came near rendering his
precautions futile. September 15th the men-of-war
opened fire, and troops were landed near Kip's
Bay. The militia in the breastworks at that point
had been at Brooklyn and gave way at once, com-


municating their panic to two Connecticut regi-
ments. Washington, galloping down to the scene
of battle, came upon the disordered and flying
troops. He dashed in among them, conjuring them
to stop, but even while he was trying to rally them
they broke again on the appearance of some sixty
or seventy of the enemy, and ran in all directions.
In a tempest of anger Washington drew his pis-
tols, struck the fugitives with his sword, and was
only forced from the field by one of his officers
seizing the bridle of his horse and dragging him
away from the British, now within a hundred yards
of the spot.

Through all his trials and anxieties Washington
always showed the broadest and most generous
sympathy. When the militia had begun to leave
him a few days before, although he despised their
action and protested bitterly to Congress against
their employment, yet in his letters he displayed
a keen appreciation of their feelings, and saw
plainly every palliation and excuse. But there was
one thing which he could never appreciate nor real-
ize. It was from first to last impossible for him to
understand how any man could refuse to fight, -or
could think of running away. When he beheld
rout and cowardly panic before his very eyes, his
temper broke loose and ran uncontrolled. His one
thought then was to fight to the last, and he would
have thrown himself single-handed on the enemy,
with all his wisdom and prudence flung to the
winds. The day when the commander held his


place by virtue of personal prowess lay far back
in the centuries, and no one knew it better than
Washington. But the old fighting spirit awoke
within him when the clash of arms sounded in his
ears, and though we may know the general in the
tent and in the council, we can only know the man
when he breaks out from all rules and customs,
and shows the rage of battle, and the indomitable
eagerness for the fray, which lie at the bottom of
the tenacity and courage that carried the war for
independence to a triumphant close.

The rout and panic over, Washington quickly
turned to deal with the pressing danger. With
coolness and quickness he issued his orders, and
succeeded in getting his army off, Putnam's divi-
sion escaping most narrowly. He then took post
at King's Bridge, and began to strengthen and
fortify his lines. While thus engaged, the enemy
advanced, and on the 16th a sharp skirmish was
fought, in which the British were repulsed, and
great bravery was shown by the Connecticut and
Virginia troops, the two commanding officers being
killed. This affair, which was the first gleam of
success, encouraged the troops, and was turned to
the best account by the general. Still a successful
skirmish did not touch the essential difficulties of
the situation, which then as always came from
within, rather than without. To face and check
twenty-five thousand well equipped and highly dis-
ciplined soldiers Washington had now some twelve
thousand men, lacking in everything which goes to


make an army, except mere individual courage and
a high average of intelligence. Even this meagre
force was an inconstant and diminishing quantity,
shifting, uncertain, and always threatening disso-

The task of facing and fighting the enemy was
enough for the ablest of men ; but Washington was
obliged also to combat and overcome the inertness
and dulness born of ignorance, and to teach Con-
gress how to govern a nation at war. In the hours
"allotted to sleep," he sat in his headquarters,
writing a letter, with " blots and scratches," which
told Congress with the utmost precision and vigor
just what was needed. It was but one of a long
series of similar letters, written with unconquerable
patience and with unwearied iteration, lighted here
and there by flashes of deep and angry feeling,
which would finally strike home under the pressure
of defeat, and bring the patriots of the legislature
to sudden action, always incomplete, but still ac-
tion of some sort. It must have been inexpressibly
dreary work, but quite as much was due to those
letters as to the battles. Thinking for other peo-
ple, and teaching them what to do, is at best an
ungrateful duty, but when it is done while an en-
emy is at your throat, it shows a grim tenacity of
purpose which is well worth consideration.

In this instance the letter of September 24th,
read in the light of the battles of Long Island and
Kip's Bay, had a considerable effect. The first
steps were taken to make the army national and


permanent, to raise the pay of officers, and to
lengthen enlistments. Like most of the war meas-
ures of Congress, they were too late for the imme-
diate necessity, but they helped the future. Con-
gress, moreover, then felt that all had been done
that could be demanded, and relapsed once more
into confidence. " The British force," said John
Adams, chairman of the board of war, " is so di-
vided, they will do no great matter this fall." But
Washington, facing hard facts, wrote to Congress
with his unsparing truth on October 4th : " Give
me leave to say, sir, (I say it with due deference
and respect, and my knowledge of the facts, added
to the importance of the cause and the stake I hold
in it, must justify the freedom,) that your affairs
are in a more unpromising way than you seem to
apprehend. Your army, as I mentioned in my
last, is on the eve of its political dissolution. True
it is, you have voted a larger one in lieu of it ; but
the season is late ; and there is a material differ-
ence between voting battalions and raising men."

The campaign as seen from the board of war
and from the Plains of Harlem differed widely. It
is needless to say now which was correct ; every
one knows that the General was right and Con-
gress wrong, but being in the right did not help
Washington, nor did he take petty pleasure in be-
ing able to say, " I told you how it would be."
The hard facts remained unchanged. There was
the wholly patriotic but slumberous, and for fight-
ing purposes quite inefficient Congress still to be


waked ujd and kept awake, and to be instructed.
With painful and plain-spoken repetition this work
was grappled with and done methodically, and like
all else as effectively as was jDossible.

Meanwhile the days slipped along, and Wash-
ington waited on the Harlem Plains, planning de-
scents on Long Island, and determining to make a
desperate stand where he was, unless the situation
decidedly changed. Then the situation did change,
as neither he nor any one else apparently had an-
ticipated. The British war-ships came up the
Hudson past the forts, brushing aside our boasted
obstructions, destroying our little fleet, and getting
command of the river. Then General Howe
landed at Frog's Point, where he was checked for
the moment by the good disposition of Heath,
under Washington's direction. These two events
made it evident that the situation of the American
army was full of peril, and that retreat was again
necessary. Such certainly was the conclusion of
the council of war, on the 16th, acting this time
in agreement with their chief. Six days Howe
lingered on Frog's Point, bringing up stores or
artillery or something ; it matters little now why
he tarried. Suffice it that he waited, and gave six
days to his opponent. They were of little value to
Howe, but they were of inestimable worth to Wash-
ington, who employed them in getting everything
in readiness, in holding his council of war, and then
on the 17th in moving deliberately off to very strong
ground at White Plains. On his way he fought


two or three slight, sharp, and successful skirmishes
with the British. Sir William followed closely, but
with much caution, having now a dull glimmer in
his mind that at the head of the raw troops in front
of him was a man with whom it was not safe to be
entirely careless.

On the 28th, Howe came up to Washington's
position, and found the Americans quite equal in
numbers, strongly intrenched, and awaiting his at-
tack with confidence. He hesitated, doubted, and
finally feeling that he must do something, sent four
thousand men to storm Chatterton Hill, an outly-
ing post, where some fourteen hundred Americans
were stationed. There was a short, sharp action,
and then the Americans retreated in good order to
the main army, having lost less than half as many
men as their opponents. With caution now much
enlarged, Howe sent for reinforcements, and waited
two days. The third day it rained, and on the
fourth Howe found that Washington had with-
drawn to a higher and quite impregnable line of
hills, where he held all the passes in the rear and
awaited a second attack. Howe contemplated the
situation for two or three days longer, and then
broke camp and withdrew to Dobbs Ferry. Such
were the great results of the victory of Long Is-
land, two wasted months, and the American army
still untouched.

Howe was resolved, however,^ that his campaign
should not be utterly fruitless, and therefore di-
rected his attention to tlie defences of the Hudson,


Fort Lee, and Fort Washington, and here he met
with better success. Congress, in its military wis-
dom, had insisted that these forts must and could
be held. So thought the generals, and so most es-
pecially, and most unluckily, did Greene. Wash-
ington, with his usual accurate and keen percep-
tion, saw, from the time the men-of-war came up
the Hudson, and, now that the British army was
free, more clearly than ever that both forts ought
to be abandoned. Sure of his ground, he overruled
Congress, but was so far influenced by Greene that
he gave to that officer discretionary orders as to
withdrawal. This was an act of weakness, as he
afterwards admitted, for which he bitterly re-
proached himself, never confusing or glossing over
his own errors, but loyal there, as elsewhere, to
facts. An attempt was made to hold both forts,
and both were lost, as he had foreseen. From Fort
Lee the garrison withdrew in safety. Fort Wash-
ington was carried by 'storm, after a severe struggle.
Twenty-six hundred men and all the munitions of
war fell into the hands of the enemy. It was a seri-
ous and most depressing loss, and was felt through-
out the continent.

Meantime Washington had crossed into the Jer-
seys, and, after the loss of Fort Lee, began to re-
treat before the British, who, flushed with victory,
now advanced rapidly under Lord Cornwallis. The
crisis of his fate and of the Revolution was upon
him. His army was melting away. The militia
had almost all disappeared, and regiments whose


term of enlistment had expired were departing
daily. Lee, who had a division under his command,
was ordered to come up, but paid no attention, al-
though the orders were repeated almost every day
for a month. He lingered, and loitered, and ex-
cused himself, and at last was taken prisoner. This
disposed of him for a time very satisfactorily, but
meanwhile he had succeeded in keeping his troops
from Washington, which was a most serious mis-

On December 2d Washington was at Princeton
with three thousand ragged men, and the British
close upon his heels. They had him now surely in
their grip. There could be no mistake this time,
and there was therefore no need of a forced march.
But they had not yet learned that to Washington
even hours meant much, and when, after duly rest-
ing, they reached the Delaware, they found the
Americans on the other side, and all the boats de-
stroyed for a distance of seventy miles.

It was winter now, the short gray days had come,
and with them piercing cold and storms of sleet
and ice. It seemed as if the elements alone would
finally disperse the feeble body of men still gath-
ered about the commander-in-chief. Congress had
sent him blank commissions and orders to recruit,
which were well meant, but were not practically of
much value. As Glendower could call spirits from
the vasty deep, so they, with like success, sought to
call soldiers from the earth in the midst of defeat,
and in the teeth of a North American winter.


Washington, baffling pursuit and flying from town
to town, left nothing undone. North and south
went letters and appeals for men, money, and sup-
plies. Vain, very vain, it all was, for the most
part, but still it was done in a tenacious spirit.
Lee would not come, the Jersey militia would not
turn out, thousands began to accept Howe's am-
nesty, and signs of wavering were apparent in some
of the Middle States. Philadelphia was threatened,
Newport was in the hands of the enemy, and for
ninety miles Washington had retreated, evading
ruin again and again only by the width of a river.
Congress voted not to leave Philadelphia, — a fact
which their General declined to publish, — and then

No one remained to face the grim realities of the
time but Washington, and he met them unmoved.
Not a moment passed that he did not seek in some
way to effect something. Not an hour went by
that he did not turn calmly from fresh and ever
renewed disappointment to work and action.

By the middle of December Howe felt satisfied
that the American army would soon dissolve, and
leaving strong detachments in various posts he with-
drew to New York. His premises were sound, and
his conclusions logical, but he made his usual mis-
take of overlooking and underestimating the Amer-
ican general. No sooner was it known that he was
on his way to New York than Washington, at the
head of his dissolving army, resolved to take the
offensive and strike an outlying post. In a letter


of Deceiiibei* 14th, the day after Howe began to
move, we catch the first glimpse of Trenton. It
was a bold spirit that, in the dead of winter, with
a broken army, no prospect of reinforcements, and
in the midst of a terror-stricken people, could thus
resolve with some four thousand men to attack an
army thoroughly appointed, and numbering in all
its divisions twenty-five thousand soldiers.

It is well to pause a moment and look at that
situation, and at the overwhelming difficulties which
hemmed it in, and then try to realize what manner
of man he was who rose superior to it, and con-
quered it. Be it remembered, too, that he never
deceived himself, and never for one instant dis-
guised the truth. Two years later he wrote that at
this supreme moment, in what were called "the
dark days of America," he was never despondent ;
and this was true enough, for despair was not in
his nature. But no delusions lent him courage.
On the 18th he wrote to his brother " that if every
nerve was not strained to recruit this new army
the game was pretty nearly up ; " and added, " You
can form no idea of the perplexity of my situation.
No man, I believe, ever had a greater choice of
difficulties, and less means to extricate himself
from them. However, under a full persuasion of
the justice of our cause, I cannot entertain an idea
that it will finally sink, though it may remain for
some time under a cloud." Tliere is no complaint,
no boasting, no despair in this letter. We can
detect a bitterness in the references to Congress


and to Lee, but the tone of the letter is as calm
as a May morning, and it concludes with sending
love and good wishes to the writer's sister and her

Thus in the dreary winter Washington was plan-
ning and devising and sending hither and thither
for men, and never ceased through it all to write
urgent and ever sharper letters and keep a wary
eye upon the future. He not only wrote strongly,
but he pledged his own estate and exceeded his
powers in desperate efforts to raise money and
men. On the 20th he wrote to Congress : " Jt
may be thought that I am going a good deal out of ^
the line of my duty to adopt these measures, or to
advise thus freely. A character to lose, an estate
to forfeit, the inestimable blessings of liberty at
stake, and a life devoted, must be my excuse."
Even now across the century these words come
with a grave solemnity to our ears, and we can feel
as he felt when he alone saw that he stood on the
brink of a great crisis. It is an awful thing to
know that the life of a nation is at stake, and this
thought throbs in his words, measured and quiet as
usual, but deeply fraught with much meaning to
him and to the world.

By Christmas all was ready, and when the Chris-
tian world was rejoicing and feasting, and the Brit-
ish officers in New York and in the New Jersey
towns were revelling and laughing, Washington
prepared to strike. His whole force, broken into
various detachments, was less than six thousand


men. To each division was assigned, with provi-
dent forethought, its exact part. Nothing was
overlooked, nothing omitted ; and then every divi-
sion commander failed, for good reason or bad, to
do his duty. Gates was to march from Bristol with
two thousand men, Ewing was to cross at Trenton,
Putnam was to come up from Philadelphia, Griffin
was to make a diversion against Donop. When
the moment came. Gates, disapproving the scheme,
was on his way to Congress, and Wilkinson, with
his message, found his way to headquarters by fol-
lowing the bloody tracks of the barefooted soldiers.
Griffin abandoned New Jersey and fled before
Donop. Putnam would not even attempt to leave
Philadelphia, and Ewing made no effort to cross
at Trenton. Cadwalader, indeed, came down from
Bristol, but after looking at the river and the float-
ing ice, gave it up as desperate.

But there was one man who did not hesitate nor
give up, nor halt on account of floating ice. With
twenty-four hundred hardy veterans, Washington
crossed the Delaware. The night was bitter cold
and the passage difficult. When they landed, and
began their march of nine miles to Trenton, a fierce
storm of sleet drove in their faces. Sullivan,
marching by the river, sent word that the arms of
his men were wet. " Then tell your general," said
• Washington, " to use the bayonet, for the town
must be taken." In broad daylight they came to
the town. Washington, at the front and on the
right of the line, swept down the Pennington road.


and as he drove in the pickets he heard the shouts
of Sullivan's men, as, with Stark leading the van,
they charged in from the river. A company of
yagers and the light dragoons slipped away, there
was a little confused fighting in the streets, Colonel
Rahl fell, mortally wounded, his Hessians threw
down their arms, and all was over. The battle
had been fought and won, and the Ee volution was

Taking his thousand prisoners with him, Wash-
ington recrossed the Delaware to his old position.
Had all done their duty, as he had planned, the
British hold on New Jersey would have been shat-
tered. As it was, it was only loosened. Congress,
aroused at last, had invested Washington with al-
most dictatorial powers ; but the time for action
was short. The army was again melting away, and
only by urgent appeals were some veterans retained,
and enough new men gathered to make a force of
five thousand men. With this army Washington
prepared to finish what he had begun.

Trenton struck alarm and dismay into the British,
and Cornwallis, with seven thousand of the best
troops, started from New York to redeem what had
been lost. Leaving three regiments at Princeton,
he pushed hotly after Washington, who fell back
behind the Assunpink River, skirmishing heavily
and successfully. When Cornwallis reached the
river he found the American army drawn up on
the other side awaiting him. An attack on the
bridge was repulsed, and the prospect looked unin-


viting. Some officers urged an immediate assault ;
but night was falling, and Cornwallis, sure of the
game, decided to wait till the morrow. He, too,
forgot that he was facing an enemy who never
overlooked a mistake, and never waited an hour.
With quick decision Washington left his camp-fires
burning on the river bank, and taking roundabout
roads, which he had already reconnoitred, marched
on Princeton. By sunrise he was in the outskirts
of the town. Mercer, detached with some three
hundred men, fell in with Mawhood's regiment,
and a sharp action ensued. Mercer was mortally
wounded, and his men gave way just as the main
army canje upon the field. The British charged,
and as the raw Pennsylvanian troops in the van
wavered, Washington rode to the front, and rein-
ing his horse within thirty yards of the British,
ordered his men to advance. The volleys of mus-
ketry left him unscathed, the men stood firm, the
other divisions came rapidly into action, and the
enemy gave way in all directions. The two other
British regiments were driven through the town
and routed. Had there been cavalry they would
have been entirely cut off. As it was, they were
completely broken, and in this short but bloody ac-
tion they lost five hundred men in killed, wounded,
and prisoners. It was too late to strike the maga-
zines at Brunswick, as Washington had intended,
and so he withdrew once more ^with his army to the
high lands to rest and recruit.

His work was done, however. The country, which


had been supine, and even hostile, rose now, and

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Online LibraryHenry Cabot LodgeGeorge Washington (Volume 1) → online text (page 11 of 22)