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George Washington
by Thayer, William Roscoe

Thus began what seems to us now an impossible war. Although it had been brooding for ten years, since the Stamp Act, which showed that the ties of blood and of tradition meant nothing to the British Tories, now that it had come, the Colonists may well have asked themselves what it meant. Probably, if the Colonists had taken a poll on that fine July morning in 1775, not one in five of them would have admitted that he was going to war to secure Independence, but all would have protested that they would die if need be to recover their freedom, the old British freedom, which came down to them from Runnymede and should not be wrested from them.

A British Tory, at the same time, might have replied: "We fight, we cannot do less, in order to discipline and punish these wretches who assume to deny the jurisdiction of the British Crown and to rebel against the authority of the British Parliament." A few years before, an English general had boasted that with an army of five thousand troops he would undertake a march from Canada, through the Colonies, straight to the Gulf of Mexico. And Colonel George Washington, who had seen something of the quality of the British regulars, remarked that with a thousand seasoned Virginians he would engage to block the five thousand wherever he met them. The test was now to be made.

The first thing that strikes us is the great extent of the field of war. From the farthest settlements in the northeast, in what is now Maine, to the border villages in Georgia was about fifteen hundred miles; but mere distance did not represent the difficulty of the journey. Between Boston and Baltimore ran a carriage road, not always kept in good repair. Most of the other stretches had to be traversed on horseback. The country along the seaboard was generally well supplied with food, but the supply was nowhere near large enough to furnish regular permanent subsistence for an army. A lack of munitions seriously threatened the Colonists' ability to fight at all, but the discovery of lead in Virginia made good this deficiency until the year 1781, when the lead mine was exhausted.

More important than material concerns, however, was the diversity in origin and customs among the Colonists themselves. The total population numbered in 1775 nearly two and one half million souls. Of these, the slaves formed about 500,000. The three largest Colonies, Virginia, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania contained 900,000 inhabitants, of which a little more than one half were slaves. Pennsylvania, the third Colony, had a total of 300,000, mostly white, while South Carolina had 200,000, of whom only 65,000 were white. Connecticut, on the other hand, had 200,000 with scarcely any blacks. The result was a very mottled population. The New Englanders had already begun to practise manufacturing, and they continued to raise under normal conditions sufficient food for their subsistence. South of the Mason and Dixon line, however, slave labor prevailed and the three great staples--tobacco, indigo, and rice--were the principal crops. Where these did not grow, the natives got along as best they could on scanty common crops, and by raising a few sheep and hogs. As the war proceeded, it taught with more and more force the inherent wastefulness of slave labor in the South. It was inefficient, costly, and unreliable.

The Battle of Bunker Hill was at once hailed as a Patriot victory, but the rejoicing was premature, for the Americans had been forced to retreat, giving up the position they had bravely defended. Nevertheless, the opinion prevailed that they had won a real victory by withstanding through many hours of a bloody fight some of the best of the British regiments.

Washington took command of the American army at Cambridge, he was faced with the great task of organizing it and of forming a plan of campaign. The Congress had taken over the charge of the army at Boston, and the events had so shaped themselves that the first thing for Washington to do was to drive out the British troops. To accomplish this he planned to seal up all the entrances into the town by land so that food could not be smuggled in. The British had a considerable fleet in Boston Harbor, and they had to rely upon it to bring provisions and to keep in touch with the world outside.

Washington had his headquarters at the Craigie House in Cambridge, some half a mile from Harvard Square and the College. He was now forty-three years old, a man of commanding presence, six feet three inches tall, broad-shouldered but slender, without any signs of the stoutness of middle age. His hands and feet were large. His head was somewhat small. The blue-gray eyes, set rather far apart, looked out from heavy eyebrows with an expression of attentiveness. The most marked feature was the nose, which was fairly large and straight and vigorous. The mouth shut firmly, as it usually does where decision is the dominant trait. The lips were flat. His color was pale but healthy, and rarely flushed, even under great provocation.

All that had gone before seemed to be strangely blended in his appearance. The surveyor lad; the Indian fighter and officer; the planter; the foxhunter; the Burgess; you could detect them all. But underlying them all was the permanent Washington, deferent, plain of speech, direct, yet slow in forming or expressing an opinion. Most men, after they had been with him awhile, felt a sense of his majesty grow upon them, a sense that he was made of common flesh like them, but of something uncommon besides, something very high and very precious.

Washington found that he had sixteen thousand troops under his command near Boston. Of these two thirds came from Massachusetts, and Connecticut halved the rest. During July Congress added three thousand men from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. They lacked everything. In order to give them some uniformity in dress, Washington suggested hunting-shirts, which he said "would have a happier tendency to unite the men and abolish those Provincial Distinctions which lead to jealousy and dissatisfaction." Among higher officers, jealousy, which they made no attempt to dissemble or to disguise, was common. Two of the highest posts went to Englishmen who proved themselves not only technically unfit, but suspiciously near disloyalty. One of these was Charles Lee, who thought the major-generalship to which Congress appointed him beneath his notice; the other was also an Englishman, Horatio Gates, Adjutant-General. A third, Thomas, when about to retire in pique, received from Washington the following rebuke:
In the usual contests of empire and ambition, the conscience of a soldier has so little share, that he may very properly insist upon his claims of rank, and extend his pretensions even to punctilio;--but in such a cause as this, when the object is neither glory nor extent of territory, but a defense of all that is dear and valuable in private and public life, surely every post ought to be deemed honorable in which a man can serve his country.[Footnote: Ford, George Washington, I, 175.]
Besides the complaints which reached Washington from all sides, he had also to listen to the advice of military amateurs. Some of these had never been in a battle and knew nothing about warfare except from reading, but they were not on this account the most taciturn. Many urged strongly that an expedition be sent against Canada, a design which Washington opposed. His wisdom was justified when Richard Montgomery, with about fifteen hundred men, took Montreal--November 12, 1775--and after waiting several weeks formed a junction with Benedict Arnold near Quebec, which they attacked in a blinding snowstorm, December 31, 1775. Arnold had marched up the Kennebec River and through the Maine wilderness with fifteen hundred men, which were reduced to five hundred before they came into action with Montgomery's much dwindled force. The commander of Quebec repulsed them and sent them flying southward as fast as the rigors of the winter and the difficulties of the wilderness permitted.

By the end of July, meanwhile, Washington had brought something like order into the undisciplined and untrained masses who formed his army, but now another lack threatened him: a lack of gunpowder. The cartridge boxes of his soldiers contained on an average only nine charges of ball and gunpowder apiece, hardly enough to engage in battle for more than ten minutes. Washington sent an urgent appeal to every town, and hearing that a ship at Bermuda had a cargo of gunpowder, American ships were despatched thither to secure it. In such straits did the army of the United Colonies go forth to war. By avoiding battles and other causes for using munitions, they not only kept their original supply, but added to it as fast as their appeals were listened to. Washington kept his lines around Boston firm. In the autumn General Gage was replaced, as British Commander-in-Chief, by Sir William Howe, whose brother Richard, Lord Howe, became Admiral of the Fleet. But the Howes knew no way to break the strangle hold of the Americans. How Washington contrived to create the impression that he was master of the situation is one of the mysteries of his campaigning, because, although he had succeeded in making soldiers of the raw recruits and in enforcing subordination, they were still a very skittish body. They enlisted for short terms of service, and even before their term was completed, they began to hanker to go home. This caused not only inconvenience, but real difficulty. Still, Washington steadily pushed on, and in March, 1776, by a brilliant manoeuvre at Dorchester Heights, he secured a position from which his cannons could bombard every British ship in Boston Harbor. On the 17th of March all those ships, together with the garrison of eight thousand, and with two thousand fugitive Loyalists, sailed off to Halifax. Boston has been free from foreign enemies from that day to this.


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