James Fenimore Cooper.

Notions of the Americans: picked up by a travelling bachelor (Volume 1-2) online

. (page 19 of 58)
Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperNotions of the Americans: picked up by a travelling bachelor (Volume 1-2) → online text (page 19 of 58)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

scribe. She was permitted to go first to her friends
m Philadelphia, and soon after was sent, under the
protection of a flag, to her husband in New- York.
There is something consoling to humanity to find.


•sven at a moment when war is assuming its most
revolting and horrid forms, that principles can be
grafted so deeply in our natures, as to leave no fear
that the more sacred ties of society shall be in danger
of violation, and that the feeble and dependent may
be confident of receiving the tenderness and protec-
tion which are their due.

The fate of Andre became an object of the keenest
solicitude to both armies. From the commencement
of the struggle, to the last hour of its continuance,
the American authorities had acted with a moderation
and dignity that gave it a character far more noble
than that of a rebellion. In no one instance had the
war been permitted, on their part, to assume the ap-
pearance of a struggle for personal aggrandizement.
It was men battling for the known rights of human
nature. But a crisis had arrived when it was to be
seen whetlier they would dare to expose the defence-
Jess of their land, to the threatened retahation of a
powerful foe. Such is the wayward feeling of man,
tliat it is far less offensive to his power to kill a gen-
eral in open conflict, than to lead a subordinate de-
liberately to an execution, which is sanctioned only by
a disputed authority. In the present instance, how-
ever, the offender was not only an oflicer of a high and
responsible situation, but he was one who had made
himself dear to the army by his amiable qualities, and
eminently useful to its commander by his attainments.
I think, among men of high and honourable minds,
there can be but one opinion concerning the* merit
of his enterprise. There is something so repugnant
to every loyal sentiment in treason, that he who is
content to connect himself, ever so remotely, with its
baseness, cannot expect to escape altogether from its
odium. It is true that public opinion has, of neces-
sity, fixed bounds which military men may approach,
without committing their characters for manliness
and honour. Without this privilege, it is plain that

Vol. I. U

218 OPINION OF Andre's enterprise.

a general could not arrive at the knowledge which is
requisite to enable him to protect his command against
attempts, that admit of no other control, than the
law of the strongest. But it is also true, that the
same sentiment has said it is dangerous to reputation
to pass these very limits. Thus, while an officer may
communicate with, and employ a spy, he can scarcely
with impunity, become a spy himself. There is no
doubt that the motive and the circumstances may so
far qualify, even more equivocal acts, as to change
their moral nature. Thus, Alfred, seeking to vindi-
cate the unquestionable rights of his country, was no
less invested with the moral majesty of a king, while
wandering through the Danish camp, than when
seated on his throne ; but it may be permitted to
doubt whether the young military aspirant, who sees
only his personal preferment in the distance, has a
claim to be judged with the same lenity.

Major Andre was the servant of a powerful and
liberal government, that was known never to reward
niggardly, and the war in which he served, was waged
to aggrandize its power, and not to assert any of the
natural rights of man. With doubtful incentives, and
for the attainment of such an object, did this accom-
plished young soldier condescend to prostitute his high
acquirements, and to tamper with treason. He did
more. He overstepped the coy and reserved distance
which conscious dignity preserves, even while it
stoops to necessity, and entered familiarly and per-
soiially^ into the details of the disgusting bargain. The
mere technicalities of posts and sentinels, though they
may be important for the establishment of rules which
are to soften the horrors of war, can have but little
influence on the moral views of his conduct. The
higher the attainments of the individual, the greater
must have been the flexibility which could see only
the reward in an undertaking like this. As to the
commonplace sentiment of serving king and country,


every man of an honest nature must feel that he
would have done more honour to his sovereign and
to himself bj proving to the world, that the high trust
he enjoyed was discharged by a man who disdained
lending his talents to the miserable work of decep-
tion, than by degrading his office, his character, and
his name, by blending them all, in such familiar union,
with treachery. In short, while it cannot be denied
that the office of a spy may be made doubly honour-
able by its motives, since he who discharges the
dangerous duty may have to conquer a deep moral
reluctance to its service, no less than the fear of
death, I think it must be allowed that the case of
Major Andre was one that can plead no such extra-
ordinary exemption from the common and creditable
feeling of mankind.

The Americans were determined to assert the dig-
nity of their government. The question was not one
of vengeance, or even one of mere protection from
similar dangers in future. It involved the more lofty
considerations of sovereignty. It was necessary to
show the world that he who dared to assail the rights
of the infant and struggling republics, incurred a
penalty as fearful as he who worked his treason against
the majesty of a king. The calmness, the humanity,
the moderation, and the inflexible firmness, with which
this serious duty was performed, are worthy of all
praise. While the English general was vainly resort-
ing to menaces, the American authorities were pro
ceeding with deliberation to their object. A feeling
of universal compassion was excited in favour of him
who had been captured, which probably received
some portion of its intenseness from the general indig-
nation against him who had escaped. While the
necessity of an example, in an oifence as grave as
this, was felt by all, it required no peculiar moral
vision to see that the real criminal was free. Some
time is said to have been lost, during which Wash-


ington had reasonable hopes of capturing Arnold,*
in which case he intended that justice should be
appeased bj one victim. But this plan was frustrated
bj an unforeseen occurrence, and then it became
necessary to let the law take its course.

It has often been erroneously stated, that, anxious
to vindicate himself in the eyes of foreign nations,
Washington employed the European generals in the
service, on the court which was to decide the fate
of Andre. Every general officer in his army was
a member, and the foreigners were necessarily in-

Whatever might have been the original error of
Andre, in accepting a duty of so doubtful a nature,
there is but one opinion of his subsequent conduct.
It was highly noble and manly. The delicacy of the
court, and his own frankness, were alike admirable.
Though admonished to say nothing that might com-
mit himself, he disdained subterfuge, or even con-
cealment. A pretence had been set up by the British
general, that he had entered the American ranks,
under the protection of a flag. He was asked if he
himself had entertained such an opinion. "Had I
come with a flag, I might have returned with a flag;"
was his noble answer. He had landed at the entrance
of the Highlands, and at a point where a sentinel had
not been posted for a long time. It was thought, in
the army, that Arnold had caused a sentinel to be
posted there anew as a precaution of safety, in the
case of detection. He might have pretended that his
only object was to entrap his enemy. Andre himself
confessed, that when hailed by this sentinel, he thought
himself lost. This confession, alone, had other proofs
been wanting, was enough to show his own opinion
of the legal character of his enterprise. He proceeded,
however, and was conducted by Arnold farther into

* See History of Serjeant Champe, in Lee's Memoirs.


the works, (how far is not known,) and then, he con-
cluded, after having confessed these circumstances
himself, "I was induced to put on this wretched
coat !'" laying his hand on the sleeve of the disguise
he had assumed. The opinion of the court was
unanimous : he was judged to come perfectly within
the technical denomination of a spy, and was sen
tenced to meet the fate of one.

After his condemnation. Major Andre received
every possible indulgence. A fruitless negotiation
took place between the adverse generals, with a
hope, on the part of Clinton, to intimidate, and on the
part of Washington in order to manifest a spirit of
moderation, Yio less than to give the time necessary to
complete the plan to arrest the arch-traitor. It was
once suggested to Andre that he might still be ex-
changed for Arnold. " If Arnold could — '' said Ham-
ilton, who made the proffer. " Stop," returned the
condemned man, "such a proposition can never come
from 771 e."

There is reason to think that Andre had soothed
himself in the earlier part of his captivity, with hopes
that were fated to be deceived. It had iDcen the mis-
fortune of the English to undervalue the Americans,
and it is quite in nature for a young man, who, it is
well known, had often indulged in bitter sarcasms
against enemies he despised, to believe that a nation
he held so cheap, must have some of his own awe of
a government and a power he thought invincible
It is certain he always spoke of Sir Henry Clinton
(the English commander-in-chief) with the affection
and conlidence of a child, until he received his last
letter, which he read in much agitation, thrust into
his pocket, and never afterwards mentioned his gen-
eral's name. He confessed his ancient prejudiees,
but admitted they were all removed by the tender
treatment he had received. He neither acknowledged
Dor denied the justice of his sentence. It is known,
U 2


that though he experienced a momentary shock at
finding he was to suffer on a gallows, he met his death
heroically, and died amid the tears of all present.

There were in England (naturally enough perhaps)
many who affected to believe this execution had
sullied the fair character of Washington. But these
miserable moralists and their opinions have passed
away ; and while they are consigned to oblivion to-
gether, the fame they thought to have impeached is
brightening, as each day proves how difficult it is to
imitate virtues so rare. Among impartial and intelli-
gent men, this very act of dignity and firmness,
tempered as it was by so much humanity, adds to the
weight of his imposing character.

We came-to at West Point, where La Fayette
landed amid a magnificent uproar of echoes, which
repeated, from the surrounding mountains, the quick
discharges of a small park of artillery. The great
military school of the republic is established here.
The buildings stand on an elevated plain, which is
washed by the river on two of its sides, and is closely
environed with rocky mountains on the others. It is
altogether a wild and picturesque scene, equalling in
beauty almost any that I remember to have visited.
Perhaps a better site could not possibly have been
selected for the purpose to wiiich it is at present
devoted, than West Point. The eleves^ who are to all
intents young soldiers, enjoy, by means of the river,
and the great number of steam-boats that pass and
repass each hour of the day, the advantage of speedy
communication with the largest town in the country,
while they are as completely secluded by their nearly
inaccessible mountains, as can be desired. It is quite
common for travellers to pass a few hours at this spot ;
a circumstance which affords to the cadets the incen-
tive of a constant interest in their establishment, on
the»part of the better portion of the community, while
they are completely protected from the danger of


intercourse with the worst. The discipline, order,
neatness, respectability, and scientific progress of the
young men, are all admirable. It is scarcely saying
too much to add, that perhaps no similar institution
m the world is superior. In Europe the military
student may enjoy some means of instruction that
cannot be obtained here, (though scarcely in the
schools,) but, on the other hand, there are high moral
advantages, that are peculiar to this country. As
detailed reports, however, are annually made con-
cerning the state of this school, it is unnecessary for
me to enter into a more minute account of the situa-
tion in which I found it. I shall therefore content
myself with adding, that there are between two and
three hundred students, who devote four years to the
school, that they undergo numberless severe examina-
tions, and that those who are found wanting are
invariably dismissed, without fear or favour, while
those who pass are as regularly commissioned to serve
in the army of the confederation.

Sfc. 8fc,

New- York,

Neither the geographical situation of the United
States, nor the habits of their citizens, are very fa-
vourable to the formation of a military character.
Though the republic has actually been engaged in
six wars, since the year 1 776, only two have been
of a nature to require the services of land troops in
the field. The two struggles with England were
close, and always, for the number engaged in the


combats, obstinate and bloody, but the episode of a
war with France in 1799, the two with Algiers, and
that with TripoH, only gave occasion for the courage
and skill of the marine.

By studying the character of the people, and by
looking closely into their history, it will be found
that they contain the elements to form the best of
troops. In point of physique they are certainly not
surpassed. So far as the eye can judge, I should say
that men of great stature and strength are about as
common in America as elsewhere ; while small men
are more rare. I am much inclined to think that the
aggregate of mere animal force would be found to be
somewhat above the level of Europe in its best parts.
This is not at all surprising, when one remembers
the excellence and abundance of nutriment which is
within the reach of the very poorest. Though little
men are, without doubt, seen here, they are by no
means as frequent as in England, in the southern
provinces of France, in Italy, Austria, and indeed
almost every where else.*

As might be expected, the military qualities which
the Americans have hitherto exhibited, are more re-
sembling those which distinguish the individual char-
acter of the soldier, than those higher attainments
which mark an advanced knowledge of the art of war.
As courage in its best aspect is a moral attribute, a
nation of freemen must always be comparatively
brave. In that collective energy which is the fruit of
discipline, the Americans, except in a few instances,
have been sadly deficient ; but in that personal spirit,
for which discipline is merely a substitute, they have
as often been remarkable. They are certainly the
only people who have been known to resist, with
repeated success, in their character of armed citizens,

* The writer afterwards found what he is almost tempted to
call a race of big men in the south-western States.


the efforts of the disciplined troops of modern times.
The militia and national guards of Europe should not
be compared to the militia of America, for the for-
mer have always been commanded and drilled by
experienced soldiers ; while the latter, though regu-
larly ofiicered, have been led to the field by men in
all respects as ignorant as themselves. And yet,
when placed in situations to rely on their personal
efforts, and on their manual dexterity in the use of
arms, they have often been found respectable, and
sometimes stubborn and unconquerable enemies.

The investigation of this subject has led me, per-
haps, into a singular comparison. At the great battle
of Waterloo, the actual English force in the field is
said to have been 36,000 men. These troops un-
dauntedly bore the assault of perhaps rather more
than an equal number. This assault was supported
by a tremendous train of artillery, and directed by
the talents of the greatest captain of the age. It en-
dured, including the cannonading of the artillery, for
at least five hours. The oificial account of the British
loss is 9,999 men, killed and wounded. At the affair
of Bunker's hill, the Americans might have had be-
tween 2,000 and 2,500 yeomen actually engaged.
Though these men were marshalled in companies,
their captains knew little more of military service
than the men themselves. There was positively no
commander, in the usual sense of the word. The
aptitude of these people soon enables them to assume
the form of an army; but it is plain that nothing ex-
cept practice can impart the habits necessary to create
good troops. At Bunker's hill, they enjoyed, in their
preliminary proceedings, the advantage of a certain
degree of order and method, that elevated them some-
thing, it is true, above an armed mob ; but it is prob-
able that they could not have made, with any tolera-
ble accuracy, a single complicated movement at their
greatest leisure, miich less in the confusion of a com-


bat. Just so far, then, as the ability to place them-
selves behind their imperfect defences with a certain
mihtary front was an advantage, they might be deem-
ed soldiers ; but in all other respects they were
literally the ordinary inhabitants of the country, with
very indifferent fire-arms in their hands. A great
deal has been said of the defences and of the position
of Bunker's hill. It is not possible to conceive a re
doubt better situated for an assault than the little
mound of earth in question. It could be approached
within a short distance with perfect im.punity, and
might easily be turned. It was approached in this
manner, and it was turned. As to the rail fences on
the level land beneath, where much of the combat
was fought, and where the British were twice repulsed
with terrible loss, the defences were rather ideal than
positive. Now, against this force, and thus posted,
the Enghsh general directed 3,000 of his best troops.
His attack was supported by field artillery, by the fire
of a heavy battery on an adjacent height, and by that
of several vessels of war. The Americans were in-
capable of making any movements to profit by the
trifling advantages their position did afford, and they
had no artillery. They merely remained stationary
to await the assault, relying solely on that quality of
moral firmness, and on that aptitude which it is the
object of this statement to elucidate by a comparison
of the results of this combat with the results of Wa-
terloo. The Enghsh made three different attacks.
Their average continuance under the fire of the
Americans was less than fifteen minutes. Their loss
was certainly 10.56 men, and possibly more, for it is
not probable that their general would be fond, under
the peculiar circumstances, of proclaiming its full
extent. Here, then, assuming our data to be true,
(and that they are substantially so I fully believe,)
we have a greater comparative loss produced by
2,500 husbandmen, armed solely with muskets, in


forty-five minutes, than was produced by all the
reiterated and bloody attacks at Waterloo. After
making the necessary deductions for the difference in
effect between great and small numbers, it will be
found that there is something pecuhar in the destruc-
tion occasioned by the peaceful citizens of this coun-
try. I should not have drawn this comparison, if it
were not to demonstrate what I believe to be one of
the inevitable consequences of the general dissemina-
tion of thought in a people. The same directness, of
application is observable in the manner that the
American handles his arms, as in handling his plough.
The battles of this country, both by sea and land,
when there has been sufficient inducement to make
their undisciplined bodies fight at all, have always
been distinguished for their destruction. Many of
their olHccrs have been so certain of the fatal eifects
of their own fire as to have implored their men
(militia) to give but .two or three discharges, and
they would answer for the victory with their heads.
No doubt they often failed in their entreaties, for the
history of their wars is full of frank and manly ac-
knowledgments of cases in which the militia yielded
to the force of nature; but it is also full of instances in
which their eloquence or influence had more effect,
and these have always proved fatally destructive to
their enemies. The battle of New-Orleans will fur-
nish a subject for a similar comparison.

There is another point of view, in which it is con-
solatory to study the short military history of this
country. The States of New-England, in which in-
formation has been so generally diffused, have always
been the most dangerous to assail. A powerful force
(for the times and the duty) was, in the war of 1775,
early driven disgracefully from their soil by the peo-
ple of New-England. It is true, rapid, predatory ex-
cursions were afterwards made in the country, but
always under the protection of a superior naval force,


and with the most jealous watchfuhiess of detention.
The only time that an army of any magnitude was
trusted to manoeuvre near their borders for a cam-
paign, it was assailed, surrounded, and captured.
Such are the fruits of intelligence, disseminated among
a people, that, while it adds to all their sources of
enjoyment, it gives a double security to their pos-

It would be vain to deny the excellence of the
American troops when properly equipped and disci-
plined. If the English soldiers are admitted to be as
good as common, the Americans are equal to the best.
I have examined with deep interest the annals of both
their wars, and I can find but a solitary instance in
which (other things being equal) their disciplined
troops have been defeated in open combat. Their
generals have often been out-manoeuvred and de-
servedly disgraced ; but their disciplined soldiers,
when fairly engaged, have, except in the case named
(Hobkirk's hill,) invariably done w^ell. The instances
in which drilled soldiers have been left to their own
efforts, are certainly rare, compared to those in w hich
they have been blended with nominal regulars and
militia ; but they are sufficiently numerous to show
the qualities of the troops. I refer you to the affairs
of Cowpens, Eutaw, and to the whole war of the
south, under Greene, which was almost all the service
that was exclusively done with drilled men in the
revolution, and to the battles on the Niagara, during
the late w^ar. There are also many instances in which
the regular troops (drilled men) did excellent service,
in battles v^^here they were defeated in consequence
of being too few to turn the fate of the day.

It is another evidence of the effects of general intel-
ligence, that, disciplined or not, the Americans are
always formidable when entrenched. They have been
surprised (not as often, perhaps, as they have surpris-
ed,) taken by siege, though rarely, and frequently dis-


graced by the want of ability in their chiefs, but sel-
dom carried by open assault. Indeed, I can find but
one instance of the latter (if Bunker's hill be excepted,
where they retreated for want of ammunition, after
repelling the English as long as they had it,) in a case
of any importance, and in that the assault partook of
the nature of a surprise (Fort Montgomery.) There
are fifty instances, on the contrary, in which they have
given their foes a rough reception, both against attacks
by land and by sea. Bunker's hill v^^as certainly a
victory, while the means of resistance lasted. To these
may be added, the affairs of New-Orleans, Fort
Mifflin, Fort Moultrie, Sandusky, Red Bank, Tiger
River, Fort Erie, and numberless others.

With this brief review of their miHtary character,
which does not stand as high as it deserves, merely
because there has been a sa4.dearth of efficient leaders,
capable of conducting operations on a concerted and

Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperNotions of the Americans: picked up by a travelling bachelor (Volume 1-2) → online text (page 19 of 58)