Robert Tomes.

Battles of America by sea and land. With biographies of naval and military commanders (Volume 01) online

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banks of the Delaware at that point, and
as far north as Pennington ; and Lee was
directed to take a northerly route through
Pittstown to Tinicum ferry, at Alexan
dria, by which he might avoid the British;
and join Washington s enfeebled force at

Orders, it will be recollected, had been
sent by Washington to General Schuyler
to despatch the northern troops as rapid
ly as possible to the aid of the army in
New Jersey. These orders were commu
nicated to General Gates, then at Albany,
who despatched a detachment of three
regiments, under General St. Clair, to de
scend the North river to New Windsor,
and then march to reinforce the army in
New Jersey. Lee, however, intercepted
all that remained of these troops, with an
order to join him ! Gates himself, accom
panied by General Arnold, led the rem
nant of the northern army, consisting of
four regiments, and, having sailed down
the North river, landed at Esopus, whence
he proposed to join Washington in New



[PART 11.

Dec. 14.

Jersey. The latter, aware of his approach,
sent a despatch, with the hope
of its meeting him on his route.
In this, Gates was entreated not to delay
a moment in hastening to Pittstown. " I
expect General Lee will be there," says
Washington, "this evening or to-morrow."
At the moment this was written, Lee was,
however, unknown to Washington, in the
hands of the enemy. The lofty flights of
that ambitious general had been suddenly
checked, on the morning of the 13th, by
his capture, the particulars of which we
now give in the words of one who was

Wilkinson (then a major), whose story
we relate, presented himself to General
Gates on the 5th of December, having
been temporarily absent from his com
mand in consequence of ill health. Gates,
says he, " had at that time heard of Gen
eral Washington s crossing the North riv
er, and the loss of Fort Washington, but
had received no satisfactory information
of posterior incidents and movements,
though a thousand vague reports were in
circulation. Thus circumstanced, his in
structions led him to take the back route
from Esopus, by the Delaware and the
Minisink, and we reached Van Kempt s,
near the Wallpeck, in very intemperate
weather. In this sequestered valley we
were thrown out of the ordinary current
of intelligence, and cut off from all au
thentic information respecting the ad
verse armies. The winter had set in with
severity; our troops were bare of cloth
ing ; numbers barefoot, and without tents,
provisions, or transport of any kind. The
men and officers sought shelter wherever

they could find it in that thinly-settled
tract. We were halted on the llth [of
December] by a heavy fall of snow, which
increased the general s anxiety for infor
mation from General Washington, and, to
relieve his solicitude, I volunteered my
services to find him. The proposition
was adopted, and a letter (to Washington)
prepared, with which I was despatched
on the morning of the 12th of Decem

"I crossed the hills to Sussex court
house, where I received advice that Gen
eral Washington had passed the Dela
ware several days before, and that the
enemy had reached Trenton. In conse
quence of this information, I employed a
guide, and proceeded down the country.
On the road I casually met an officer of
my acquaintance, who informed me that
the boats had been removed from the fer
ries, and that I should find some difficulty
in getting across the Delaware, and that
Major-General Lee was at Morristown.

" Finding such obstacles in my way to
the commander-in-chief, I determined to
seek his second, and to ask orders from
him for General Gates; and, although
dark, I continued my journey without
halt. About midnight, passing a house
by the wayside, I discovered a glimmer
ing light, and, on application to my guide,
was informed it issued from a tavern. I
dismounted, and, after a short parley at
the door, gained admittance, and found
the women on the watch over the embers
of an expiring fire ; for I perceived the
whole country to be in terror and alarm.
These women knew nothing of General
Lee; but, after some whispering, informed




me two strange officers were in bed above
me, on which I desired one of the party
to awaken and inform them an express
desired to speak with them. The maid
proceeded with a candle to execute my
orders, and soon after I heard a loud

" I instantly mounted the stairs, and,
guided by the light, entered the cham
ber, when a momentary scene of some
interest took place. Two gentlemen were
sitting up in the same bed, and the maid
standing at a distance from them, in an
apparent agony, with the candle in her
hand. The shriek had been caused by
the conduct of one of the gentlemen,
whom the girl had awoke ; but his wan
ton levity was in a moment changed into
painful apprehensions. Awaking out of
a sound sleep in the dead of night, the
unexpected and menacing appearance of
an officer, with a Canadian capot, a scarlet
under-coat, and a gold-laced hat, with a
pistol in each hand, was sufficient to dis
sipate all sense of an amorous nature, and
to excite those frigid sensations which
can not be realized so sensibly as when
an unarmed man believes himself in the
power of an enemy. For a moment the
gentlemen were struck dumb with alarm ;
literally naked and defenceless, and be
lieving me to be a British officer, their
situation appeared hopeless, and it was
several seconds before they demanded,
Who are you? "

The major soon relieved their fright,
and, after making himself known, and re
ceiving their names and quality in return,
a greeting ensued, which was, however,
so emphatic in expression proving in-

dubitably that " our army swore terribly"
in the Jerseys that we prefer to omit
the verbal relation of Wilkinson. The
gentlemen thus suddenly aroused wer
Colonel Gibson and a Mr. Nourse. They
" had parted from General Lee the even
ing before, and were absent on furlough ;
and Mr. Nourse being General Lee s pri
vate secretary," continues Major Wilkin
son, " they could of course direct me with
precision where to find him. Taking
leave of them, I pursued my journey, and
about four o clock in the morning reached
his quarters at White s tavern, on Bask
ing ridge.

" I was presented to the general as he
lay in bed, and delivered into his hands
the letter of General Gates. He exam
ined the superscription, and observed it
was addressed to General Washington,
and declined opening it, until I apprized
him of the contents, and the motives of
my visit ; he then broke the seal and read
it, after which he desired me to take re
pose. I lay down on my blanket before
a comfortable fire, amidst the officers of
his suite ; for we were not in those days
encumbered with beds or baggage.

" I arose at the dawn, but could not see
the general, with whom I had been pre
viously acquainted, before eight o clock.
After some inquiries respecting the con
duct of the campaign on the northern
frontier, he gave me a brief account of
the operations of the grand army, which
he condemned in strong terms. He ob
served that our siege of Boston had led
us into great errors ; that the attempt to
defend islands against a superior land and
naval force was madness; that Sir Wil-




liam Howe could have given us check
mate at his discretion ; and that we owed
our salvation to his indolence, or disincli
nation to terminate the war. When I
reached the army on York island/ said
Lee, all hands were busily employed in
collecting materials and erecting bar
racks ; and I found little Mifflin exulting
in the prospect of fine winter-quarters at
Kingsbridge. I replied to him : " Winter-
quarters here, sir ! and the British army
still in the field ! Go, set fire to those
you have built, and get away by the
light, or Sir William Howe will find quar
ters for you !"

" General Lee wasted the morning in
altercation with certain militia-corps who
were of his command, particularly the
Connecticut light-horse, several of whom
appeared in large, full-bottomed perukes,
and were treated very irreverently. One
wanted forage, another his horse shod,
another his pay, a fourth provisions ; to
which the general replied : Your wants
are numerous ; but you have not men
tioned the last: you want to go home,
and shall be indulged, for, d n you, you
do no good here ! The call of the adju
tant-general for orders also occupied some
of his time, and we did not sit down to
breakfast before ten o clock.

" General Lee was engaged in answer
ing General Gates s letter, and I had risen
from the table, and was looking out an
end-window, down a lane about one hun
dred yards in length, which led to the
house from the main road, when I discov
ered a party of British dragoons turn a
corner of the avenue at full charge. Star
tled at this unexpected spectacle, I ex

claimed, Here, sir, are the British caval
ry ! Where? replied the general, who
had signed his letter in the instant.
Around the house ! for they had opened
files, and encompassed the building. Gen
eral Lee appeared alarmed, yet collected,
and his second observation marked his
self-possession: Where is the guard?
d n the guard! why don t they fire?
And, after a momentary pause, he turned
to me and said, Do, sir, see what has be
come of the guard.

" The women of the house at this mo
ment entered the room, and proposed to
him to conceal himself in a bed, which he
rejected with evident disgust. I caught
up my pistols, which lay on the table,
thrust the letter he had been writing into
my pocket, and passed into a room at the
opposite end of the house, where I had
seen the guard in the morning. Here I
discovered their arms ; but the men were
absent. I stepped out of the door, and
perceived the dragoons chasing them in
different directions; and, receiving a very
uncivil salutation, I returned into the

" Too inexperienced immediately to
penetrate the motives of this enterprise,
I considered the rencontre accidental ; and,
from the terrific tales spread over the
country, of the violence and barbarity of
the enemy, I believed it to be a wanton,
murdering party, and determined not to
die without company. I accordingly
sought a position where I could not be
approached by more than one person at
a time, and with a pistol in each hand I
awaited the expected- search, resolved to
shoot tlip first and the second person who




might appear, and then to appeal to my

" I did not remain long in this unpleas
ant situation, but was apprized of the ob
ject of the incursion by the very audible
declaration i If the general does not surren
der in five minutes, I will set fire to the house!
which, after a short pause, was repeated,
with a solemn oath ; and within two min
utes I heard it proclaimed, Here is the
general he has surrendered! A general
shout ensued ; the trumpet sounded the
assembly ; and the unfortunate Lee,
mounted on my horse, which stood ready
at the door, was hurried off in triumph,
bareheaded, in his slippers and blanket-
coat, his collar open, and his shirt very
much soiled from several days use."

It seems that a New- Jersey tory " a
domestic traitor," as Major Wilkinson calls
him who had passed Lee s quarters that

morning, fell in on the road with Colonel
Harcourt, at the head of a troop of British
dragoons, out reconnoitring, and gave in
formation of the general s whereabouts.
Harcourt, however, might not have been
in time, had not Lee lingered so long in
bed, and spun out the morning chatting
with his visiter, scolding at his militia-
officers, and writing his letter to General
Gates. If it had not been for this un
timely delay, he would probably not have
been caught at White s tavern, but have
reached his camp at Veal town. . The guard
were al careless as the general. The
morning being cold and the sun bright,
the men had stacked their guns, left their
station, crossed the main road, and were
sunning themselves on the south side of
a house about two hundred yards from
the tavern, when the British colonel rode
up and cut them off from their arms.


General Lee s Motives explained. His Letter to General Gates. A Traitor? The Effect of the Capture. Exultation
of the Enemy. Major Wilkinson s Escape, and his Account of it. Gates affected by Lee s Capture. Gates on his
Route to join Washington in New Jersey. Washington perplexed, but not in Despair. The Congress at Philadelphia
alarmed by the Approach of the Enemy. Baltimore appointed as the Next Place of Meeting. Washington s Powers
extended. His Scrupulous Exercise of them. The Condition of the American Army. Effort to save Philadelphia.
The Banks of the Delaware guarded. The Enemy will not cross the River. The Provincial Force strengthened.
Washington resolves upon Offensive Operations. A Letter of Advice from Colonel Reed. A Day appointed for an
Attack. General Gates goes to Philadelphia. His Opinion of Washington as a Tactician. " On his Way to Con
gress ! on his Way to Congress !"


GENERAL LEE, at the time of his
capture, was evidently not disposed
to cross the Delaware, as he had repeat
edly and most urgently been ordered to
do by Washington. After lingering at

Morristown for several days, he left it on
the 12th of December; but, when taken,
his army had only marched twelve miles,
to Vealtown. Major Wilkinson, moreo
ver, tells us that " when Colonel Scammel,




the adjutant-general, called on him from
General Sullivan, who was encamped with
the troops, for orders of march on the
morning of his capture, after musing a
minute or two, he asked the colonel if he
had with him the manuscript map of the
country, which was produced and spread
on a table. It attracted my attention,
and I observed General Lee trace with
his finger the route from Vealtown to
Pluckimen, thence to Somerset court
house, and on by Rocky hill to Prince
ton ; he then returned to Pluckamin, and
traced the route in the same manner, by
Boundbrook to Brunswick, and, after a
close inspection, carelessly said to Scam-
mel, Tell General Sullivan to move down
toward Pluckimen that I will be soon
with him. "

The order to Sullivan to march to
Pluckimen was not inconsistent with an
intention to obey the command of Wash
ington to cross the Delaware at Alexan
dria ; but if the tracing of his finger on
the map, so closely observed by the vigi
lant eye of Wilkinson, is to be taken as
an indication of Lee s intended march, he
clearly at the last moment was preparing
to strike a blow against the enemy, at the
risk of his fair fame. He was ready to
hazard all on the chance of success. A
victory, he thought, would raise such a
flood of popular applause as to drown all
inquiry. A defeat, he knew, could only
result in disgrace and punishment for dis
obedience of orders. Lee was not, how
ever, apparently very confident of win
ning in the hazardous game he was play
ing. His letter to Gates, which Wilkin
son hurriedly thrust into his pocket be

fore it was folded, is desponding, although
it confirms the suspicion that he was about
to act independently of Washington, and
in disobedience to his orders. Here it

"BASKING RIDGE, December 13, 1776.

" MY DEAR GATES : The ingenious ma
noeuvre of Fort Washington has unhinged
the goodly fabric we had been building.

There never was so d d a stroke. En-

tre nous, a certain great man is most dam
nably deficient. He has thrown me into
a situation where I have my choice of
difficulties : if I stay in this province, I
risk myself and army; and, if I do not
stay, the province is lost for ever. I have
neither guides, cavalry, medicines, mon
ey, shoes, or stockings. I must act with
the greatest circumspection. Tories are
in my front, rear, and on my flanks ; the
mass of the people is strangely contami
nated ; in short, unless something, which
I do not expect, turns up, we are lost:
our counsels have been weak to the last
degree. As to what relates to yourself,
if you think you can be in time to aid the
general, I would have you by all means
go ; you will at least save your army. It
is said that the whigs are determined to
set fire to Philadelphia : if they strike this
decisive stroke, the day will be our own ;
but unless it is done, all chance of liberty
in any part of the globe is for ever van
ished. Adieu, my dear friend ! God bless



General Lee s capture was suspected
by many at the time to have been made
by collusion with the enemy. The letter
just read, however, proves that the senti



ment at least of that eccentric command
er was at the last moment true to liber
ty ; and his rude treatment by his British
captors is unquestionable evidence that
Lee was not considered by them as their
friend. They exulted greatly, however,
in his capture, declaring, " We have taken
the American palladium !" Some of the
Americans thought no less, and seemed
to imagine that, with the loss of Lee, had
passed away all hopes of the salvation of
the country. Washington spoke calmly
of the event thus, in a letter to his broth
er Augustine : " Before you receive this
letter, you will undoubtedly have heard
of the captivity of General Lee. This is
an additional misfortune, and the more
vexatious, as it was by his own folly and
imprudence, and without a view to effect
any good, that he was taken."

Let us, however, return to Major Wil
kinson, and learn from his own account
how he escaped from the dilemma in
which he found himself on the capture
of Lee. "So soon," says Wilkinson, "as
Lieutenant- Colonel Harcourt retreated
with his prize, I repaired to the stable,
mounted the first horse I could find, and
rode full speed to General Sullivan, whom
I found under march toward Pluckimen.
I had not examined General Lee s letter,
but believing a knowledge of the con
tents might be useful to General Sullivan,
who succeeded him in command,! handed
it to him, who, after the perusal, returned
t with his thanks, and advised me to re
join General Gates without delay, which
I did the next morning at Sussex court
house, whither he had led the troops from
Van Kempt s."

Gates seems to have been greatly af
fected by the capture of his old comrade
and friend, and no doubt sympathized
fully with the views expressed in Lee s
letter. Immediately after Wilkinson s ar
rival, the troops were put in motion.
Brigadier-General Arnold led them di
rectly to Easton, in Pennsylvania. Gates
and his suite, with a light-guard of horse,
took a more circuitous route, and, having
reached the Delaware river some distance
above Easton, in the night, lodged at "one
Levy s." Gates had a predilection for his
host, for he said that the Jews were whigs.
Levy, however, in the course of the first
interview, let drop certain remarks " a
little mysterious," which made his guests
somewhat suspicious of their host s patri
otism. Gates accordingly desired those
who accompanied him to conceal his name
and rank, as well as those of Colonel John
Trumbull, then adjutant-general, and at
terward the patriotic panel-painter. The
general presented himself as " Captain
Smith, of Berkeley, Virginia." Levy s
sharp eyes seemed to recognise an old ac
quaintance in Trumbull, and he observed
that " he thought he had seen the colonel
in Connecticut." General Gates, however,
quickly answered, " No ! he is a neigh
bor s son in Berkeley." The scrutinizing
observation of Levy so alarmed his guests,
that it was thought more prudent to short
en their stay ; and accordingly the gen
eral, although the night was very inclem
ent, ordered the horses to be saddled,
" and," says Wilkinson, " we made a per
ilous passage of the river, through float
ing ice, and marched until midnight, be
fore we lay down, in a dirty store-room,




Dec. 16.

which almost suffocated me." The next
morning they reached Nazareth in good
time, and then pushed on for Bethlehem,
where they overtook Arnold with the
troops from the North, and Lee s army,
with General Sullivan, who had changed
his route the moment he found himself
in command, and hurried forward to join
Washington. While Gates was at Beth
lehem, he received that letter from Wash
ington which, as we have seen, was wrii>
ten on the 14th of December, and con
tained an account of the " melancholy sit-
nation" of affairs in New Jersey. The
troops were now hurried on, and joined
the commander-in-chief in the
neighborhood of Coryell s ferry.
Washington s forces were considerably
increased by the addition of Sullivan s
and Gates s divisions, but his difficulties
were " not sensibly diminished." His ar
my was rapidly dissolving, and in ten days
there would be (in consequence of the
expiration of the time of service of many)
only fourteen hundred men left, and "mis
erably provided in all things." Washing
ton was deeply sensible of the dangers of
the country. " I saw him," says Wilkin
son, " in that gloomy period, dined with
him, and attentively marked his aspect;
always grave and thoughtful, he appeared
at that time pensive and solemn in the
extreme." Perplexed as he was, however,
Washington did not despair. To his broth
er he writes, " Under a full persuasion of
the justice of our cause, I can not enter
tain an idea that it will finally sink, though
it may remain for some time under a

Such was the imminency of the ap-

Dec. 12.

proach of the British to Philadelphia, that
it was thought advisable by Congress on
its adjournment to choose Balti
more as the next place of meet
ing. Before adjourning, however, it was
"resolved, that, until Congress shall oth
erwise order, General Washington be pos
sessed of full power to order and direct
all things relative to the department and
to the operations of war." This was a
wide extension of authority ; but Wash
ington, always so scrupulous in the exer
cise of his delegated powers, does not as
sume it without an explanation, which
seems almost like an apology to the state.
He orders three battalions of artillery to
be recruited. He promises officers and
men that their pay shall be increased
twenty-five per cent. This was obviously
not transcending the authority conferred
upon him by the resolution of Congress,
but Washington fears that what he has
done may appear " premature and unwar
rantable." In the same letter to
Congress, however, he can not
refrain ( urged as he is by the emergencies
of his position) from declaring the neces
sity of acting occasionally on his own re
sponsibility. If, in the short interval in
which great and arduous preparations
must be made against the enemy, " every
matter that in its nature is self-evident
is to be referred to Congress, at the dis
tance of a hundred and thirty or forty
miles, so much time must elapse," he says,

" as to defeat the end in view

" It may be said," continues the scrupu
lous and disinterested Washington, " that
this is an application for powers that are
too dangerous to be intrusted. I can

Dec. 20.



only add that desperate diseases require
desperate remedies ; and I with truth de
clare that I have no lust after power, but
I wish with as much fervency as any man
upon this wide-extended continent for an
opportunity of turning the sword into the
ploughshare. But my feelings, as an offi
cer and a man, have been such as to force
me to say that no person ever had a great
er choice of difficulties to contend with
than I have. It is needless to add that
short enlistments, and a mistaken depend
ence upon militia, have been the origin
of all our misfortunes, and the great ac
cumulation of our debt. We find, sir, that
the enemy are daily gathering strength
from the disaffected. This strength, like
a snowball by rolling, will increase, unless
some means can be devised to check
effectually the progress of the enemy s
arms. Militia may possibly do it for a
little while ; but in a little while also, and
the militia of those states, which have
been frequently called upon, will not turn
out at all ; or, if they do, it will be with
so much reluctance and sloth as to amount
to the same thing. Instance New Jersey !
Witness Pennsylvania ! Could anything
but the river Delaware have saved Phila

Online LibraryRobert TomesBattles of America by sea and land. With biographies of naval and military commanders (Volume 01) → online text (page 53 of 126)