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George Washington
by Thayer, William Roscoe

This month of July, 1778, marked two vital changes in the war. The first was the transfer by the British of the field of operations to the South. The second was the introduction of naval warfare through the coming of the French. The British seemed to desire, from the day of Concord and Lexington on, to blast every part of the Colonies with military occupation and battles. After Washington drove them out of Boston in March, 1776, they left the seaboard, except Newport, entirely free. Then for nearly three years they gave their chief attention to New York City and its environs, and to Jersey down to, and including, Philadelphia. On the whole, except for keeping their supremacy in New York, they had lost ground steadily, although they had always been able to put more men than the Americans could match in the field, so that the Americans always had an uphill fight. Part of this disadvantage was owing to the fact that the British had a fleet, often a very large fleet, which could be sent suddenly to distant points along the seacoast, much to the upsetting of the American plans.

The French Alliance, ratified during the spring, not only gave the Americans the moral advantage of the support of a great nation, but actually the support of a powerful fleet. It opened French harbors to American vessels, especially privateers, which could there take refuge or fit out. It enabled the Continentals to carry on commerce, which before the war had been the monopoly of England. Above all it brought a large friendly fleet to American waters, which might aid the land forces and must always be an object of anxiety to the British.

Such a fleet was that under Count d'Estaing, who reached the mouth of Delaware Bay on July 8, 1778, with twelve ships of the line and four frigates. He then went to New York, but the pilots thought his heavy draught ships could not cross the bar above Sandy Hook; and so he sailed off to Newport where a British fleet worsted him and he was obliged to put into Boston for repairs. Late in the autumn he took up his station in the West Indies for the winter. This first experiment of French naval coöperation had not been crowned by victory as the Americans had hoped, but many of the other advantages which they expected from the French Alliance did ensue. The opening of the American ports to the trade of the world, and incidentally the promotion of American privateering, proved of capital assistance to the cause itself.

The summer and autumn of 1778 passed uneventfully for Washington and his army. He was not strong enough to risk any severe fighting, but wished to be near the enemy's troops to keep close watch on them and to take advantage of any mistake in their moves. We cannot see how he could have saved himself if they had attacked him with force. But that they never made the attempt was probably owing to orders from London to be as considerate of the Americans as they could; for England in that year had sent out three Peace Commissioners who bore the most seductive offers to the Americans. The Government was ready to pledge that there should never again be an attempt to quell the Colonists by an army and that they should be virtually self-governing. But while the Commissioners tried to persuade, very obviously, they did not receive any official recognition from the Congress or the local conventions, and when winter approached, they sailed back to England with their mission utterly unachieved. Rebuffed in their purpose of ending the war by conciliation, the British now resorted to treachery and corruption. I do not know whether General Sir Henry Clinton was more or less of a man of honor than the other high officers in the British army at that time. We feel instinctively loath to harbor a suspicion against the honor of these officers; and yet, the truth demands us to declare that some one among them engaged in the miserable business of bribing Americans to be traitors. Where the full guilt lies, we shall never know, but the fact that so many of the trails lead back to General Clinton gives us a reason for a strong surmise. We have lists drawn up at British Headquarters of the Americans who were probably approachable, and the degree of ease with which it was supposed they could be corrupted. "Ten thousand guineas and a major-general's commission were the price for which West Point, with its garrison, stores, and outlying posts, was to be placed in the hands of the British."[Footnote: Channing, III, 305.] The person with whom the British made this bargain was Benedict Arnold, who had been one of the most efficient of Washington's generals, and of unquestioned loyalty. Major John André, one of Clinton's adjutants, served as messenger between Clinton and Arnold. On one of these errands André, somewhat disguised, was captured by the Americans and taken before Washington, who ordered a court-martial at once. Fourteen officers sat on it, including Generals Greene, Lafayette, and Steuben. In a few hours they brought in a verdict to the effect that "Major André ought to be considered a spy from the enemy, and that agreeable to the law and usage of nations, it is their opinion he ought to suffer death." [Footnote: Channing, III, 307.] Throughout the proceedings André behaved with great dignity. He was a young man of sympathetic nature. Old Steuben, familiar with the usage in the Prussian army, said: "It is not possible to save him. He put us to no proof, but a premeditated design to deceive."[Footnote: Ibid., 307.]

He was sentenced to death by hanging--the doom of traitors. He did not fear to die, but that doom repelled him and he begged to be shot instead. Washington, however, in view of his great crime and as a most necessary example in that crisis, firmly refused to commute the sentence. So, on the second of October, 1780, André was hanged.

This is an appropriate place to refer briefly to one of the most trying features of Washington's career as Commander-in-Chief. From very early in the war jealousy inspired some of his associates with a desire to have him displaced. He was too conspicuously the very head and front of the American cause. Some men, doubtless open to dishonest suggestions, wished to get rid of him in order that they might carry on their treasonable conspiracy with greater ease and with a better chance of success. Others bluntly coveted his position. Perhaps some of them really thought that he was pursuing wrong methods or policy. However it may be, few commanders-in-chief in history have had to suffer more than Washington did from malice and faction.

The most serious of the plots against him was the so-called Conway Cabal, whose head was Thomas Conway, an Irishman who had served in the French army and had come over early in the war to the Colonies to make his way as a soldier of fortune. He seems to have been one of the typical Irishmen who had no sense of truth, who was talkative and boastful, and a mirthful companion. It happened that Washington received a letter from one of his friends which drew from him the following note to Brigadier-General Conway:
A letter, which I received last night, contained the following paragraph:

"In a letter from General Conway to General Gates he says, 'Heaven has been determined to save your country, or a weak General and bad counsellors would have ruined it.'"[Footnote: Ford, vi, 180.]
It was characteristic of Washington that he should tell Conway at once that he knew of the latter's machinations. Nevertheless Washington took no open step against him. The situation of the army at Valley Forge was then so desperately bad that he did not wish to make it worse, perhaps, by interjecting into it what might be considered a matter personal to himself. In the Congress also there were members who belonged to the Conway Cabal, and although it was generally known that Washington did not trust him, Congress raised his rank to that of Major-General and appointed him Inspector-General to the Army. On this Conway wrote to Washington: "If my appointment is productive of any inconvenience, or otherwise disagreeable to your Excellency, as I neither applied nor solicited for this place, I am very ready to return to France." The spice of this letter consists in the fact that Conway's disavowal was a plain lie; for he had been soliciting for the appointment "with forwardness," says Mr. Ford, "almost amounting to impudence." Conway did not enjoy his new position long. Being wounded in a duel with an American officer, and thinking that he was going to die, he wrote to Washington: "My career will soon be over, therefore justice and truth prompt me to declare my last sentiments. You are in my eyes the great and good man. May you long enjoy the love, veneration, and esteem of these states, whose liberties you have asserted by your virtues."[Footnote: Sparks, 254.] But he did not die of his wound, and in a few months he left for France. After his departure the cabal, of which he seemed to be the centre, died.

The story of this cabal is still shrouded in mystery. Whoever had the original papers either destroyed them or left them with some one who deposited them in a secret place where they have been forgotten. Persons of importance, perhaps of even greater importance than some of those who are known, would naturally do their utmost to prevent being found out.

Two other enemies of Washington had unsavory reputations in their dealings with him. One of these was General Horatio Gates, who was known as ambitious to be made head of the American army in place of Washington. Gates won the Battle of Saratoga at which Burgoyne surrendered his British army. Washington at that time was struggling to keep his army in the Highlands, where he could watch the other British forces. It was easy for any one to make the remark that Washington had not won a battle for many months, whereas Gates was the hero of the chief victory thus far achieved by the Americans. The shallow might think as they chose, however: the backbone of the country stood by Washington, and the trouble between him and Gates came to no further outbreak.

The third intriguer was General Charles Lee, who, like Gates, was an Englishman, and had served under General Braddock, being in the disaster of Fort Duquesne. When the Revolution broke out, he took sides with the Americans, and being a glib and forth-putting person he talked himself into the repute of being a great general. The Americans proudly gave him a very high commission, in which he stood second to Washington, the Commander-in-Chief. But being taken prisoner by the British, he had no opportunity of displaying his military talents for more than two years. Then, when Washington was pursuing the enemy across Jersey, Lee demanded as his right to lead the foremost division. At Monmouth he was given the post of honor and he attacked with such good effect that he had already begun to beat the British division opposed to him when he suddenly gave strange orders which threw his men into confusion.

Lafayette, who was not far away, noticed the disorder, rode up to Lee and remarked that the time seemed to be favorable for cutting off a squadron of the British troops. To this Lee replied: "Sir, you do not know the British soldiers; we cannot stand against them; we shall certainly be driven back at first, and we must be cautious."[Footnote: Sparks, 275, note 1.] Washington himself had by this time perceived that something was wrong and galloped up to Lee in a towering passion. He addressed him words which, so far as I know, no historian has reported, not because there was any ambiguity in them, and Lee's line was sufficiently re-formed to save the day. Lee, however, smarted under the torrent of reproof, as well he might. The next day he wrote Washington a very insulting letter. Washington replied still more hotly. Lee demanded a court-martial and was placed under arrest on three charges: "First, disobedience of orders in not attacking the enemy agreeably to repeated instructions; secondly, misbehavior before the enemy, in making an unnecessary, disorderly and shameful retreat; thirdly, disrespect to the Commander-in-Chief in two letters written after the action."[Footnote: Sparks, 278. Sparks tells the story that when Washington administered the oath of allegiance to his troops at Valley Forge, soon after Lee had rejoined the army, the generals, standing together, held a Bible. But Lee deliberately withdrew his hand twice. Washington asked why he hesitated. He replied, "As to King George, I am ready enough to absolve myself from all allegiance to him, but I have some scruples about the Prince of Wales." (Ibid., 278.)] By the ruling of the court all the charges against General Lee were sustained with the exception that the word "shameful" was omitted. Lee left the army, retired to Philadelphia, and died before the end of the Revolution. General Mifflin, another conspicuous member of the cabal, resigned at the end of the year, December, 1777. So the traducers of Washington were punished by the reactions of their own crimes.

That the malicious hostility of his enemies really troubled Washington, such a letter as the following from him to President Laurens of the Congress well indicates. He says:
I cannot sufficiently express the obligation I feel to you, for your friendship and politeness upon an occasion in which I am so deeply interested. I was not unapprized that a malignant faction had been for some time forming to my prejudice; which, conscious as I am of having ever done all in my power to answer the important purposes of the trust reposed in me, could not but give me some pain on a personal account. But my chief concern arises from an apprehension of the dangerous consequences, which intestine dissensions may produce to the common cause.

As I have no other view than to promote the public good, and am unambitious of honors not founded in the approbation of my country, I would not desire in the least degree to suppress a free spirit of inquiry into any part of my conduct, that even faction itself may deem reprehensible. The anonymous paper handed to you exhibits many serious charges, and it is my wish that it should be submitted to Congress. This I am the more inclined to the suppression or concealment may possibly involve you in embarrassments hereafter, since it is uncertain how many or who may be privy to the contents.

My enemies take an ungenerous advantage of me. They know the delicacy of my situation, and that motives of policy deprive me of the defence, I might otherwise make against their insidious attacks. They know I cannot combat their insinuations, however injurious, without disclosing secrets, which it is of the utmost moment to conceal. But why should I expect to be exempt from censure, the unfailing lot of an elevated station? Merit and talents, with which I can have no pretensions of rivalship, have ever been subject to it. My heart tells me, that it has been my unremitted aim to do the best that circumstances would permit; yet I may have been very often mistaken in my judgment of the means, and may in many instances deserve the imputation of error. (Valley Forge, 31 January, 1778.)[Footnote: Ford, vi, 353.]
Such was the sort of explanation which was wrung from the Silent Man when he explained to an intimate the secrets of his heart.

To estimate the harassing burden of these plots we must bear in mind that, while Washington had to suffer them in silence, he had also to deal every day with the Congress and with an army which, at Valley Forge, was dying slowly of cold and starvation. There was literally no direction from which he could expect help; he must hold out as long as he could and keep from the dwindling, disabled army the fact that some day they would wake up to learn that the last crumb had been eaten and that death only remained for them. On one occasion, after he had visited Philadelphia and had seen the Congress in action, he unbosomed himself about it in a letter which contained these terrible words:
If I was to be called upon to draw a picture of the times and of men, from what I have seen, and heard, and in part know, I should in one word say that idleness, dissipation and extravagance seems to have laid fast hold of most of them. That speculation--peculation--and an insatiable thirst for riches seems to have got the better of every other consideration and almost of every order of men. That party disputes and personal quarrels are the great business of the day whilst the momentous concerns of an empire--a great and accumulated debt--ruined finances--depreciated money--and want of credit (which in their consequences is the want of everything) are but secondary considerations, and postponed from day to day--from week to week as if our affairs wear the most-promising aspect.
The events of 1778 made a lasting impression on King George III. The alliance of France with the Americans created a sort of reflex patriotism which the Government did what it could to foster. British Imperialism flamed forth as an ideal, one whose purposes must be to crush the French. The most remarkable episode was the return of the Earl of Chatham, much broken and in precarious health, to the King's fold. To the venerable statesman the thought that any one with British blood in his veins should stand by rebels of British blood, or by their French allies, was a cause of rage. On April 7, 1778, the great Chatham appeared in the House of Lords and spoke for Imperialism and against the Americans and French. There was a sudden stop in his speaking, and a moment later, confusion, as he fell in a fit. He never spoke there again, and though he was hurried home and cared for by the doctors as best they could, he died on the eleventh of May. At the end he reverted to the dominant ideal of his life--the supremacy of England. So his chief rival in Parliament, Edmund Burke, who shocked more than half of England by seeming to approve the nascent French Revolution, died execrating it.

The failure of the Commission on Reconciliation to get even an official hearing in America further depressed George III, and there seemed to have flitted through his unsound mind more and more frequent premonitions that England might not win after all. Having made friendly overtures, which were rejected, he now planned to be more savage than ever. In 1779 the American privateers won many victories which gave them a reputation out of proportion to the importance of the battles they fought, or the prizes they took. Chief among the commanders of these vessels was a Scotchman, John Paul Jones, who sailed the Bonhomme Richard and with two companion ships attacked the Serapis and the Scarborough, convoying a company of merchantmen off Flamborough Head. Night fell, darkness came, the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis kept up bombarding each other at short range. During a brief pause, Pearson, the British captain, called out, "Have you struck your colors?" at which Jones shouted back, "I have not yet begun to fight." Before morning the Serapis surrendered and in the forenoon the victorious Bonhomme Richard sank. Europe rang with the exploit; not merely those easily thrilled by a spectacular engagement, but those who looked deeper began to ask themselves whether the naval power that must be reckoned with was not rising in the West.

Meanwhile, Washington kept his uncertain army near New York. The city swarmed with Loyalists, who at one time boasted of having a volunteer organization larger than Washington's army. These later years seem to have been the hey-day of the Loyalists in most of the Colonies, although the Patriots passed severe laws against them, sequestrating their property and even banishing them. In places like New York, where General Clinton maintained a refuge, they stayed on, hoping, as they had done for several years, that the war would soon be over and the King's authority restored.

In the South there were several minor fights, in which now the British and now the Americans triumphed. At the end of December, 1779, Clinton and Cornwallis with nearly eight thousand men went down to South Carolina intending to reduce that State to submission. One of Washington's lieutenants, General Lincoln, ill-advisedly thought that he could defend Charleston. But as soon as the enemy were ready, they pressed upon him hard and he surrendered. The year ended in gloom. The British were virtually masters in the Carolinas and in Georgia. The people of those States felt that they had been abandoned by the Congress and that they were cut off from relations with the Northern States. The glamour of glory at sea which had brightened them all the year before had vanished. John Paul Jones might win a striking sea-fight, but there was no navy, nor ships enough to transport troops down to the Southern waters where they might have turned the tide of battle on shore. During the winter the British continued their marauding in the South. For lack of troops Washington was obliged to stay in his quarters near New York and feel the irksomeness of inactivity. General Nathanael Greene, a very energetic officer, next indeed to Washington himself in general estimation, commanded in the South. At the Cowpens (January 17, 1781) one of his lieutenants--Morgan, a guerilla leader--killed or captured nearly all of Tarleton's men, who formed a specially crack regiment. A little later Washington marched southward to Virginia, hoping to coöperate with the French fleet under Rochambeau and to capture Benedict Arnold, now a British Major-General, who was doing much damage in Virginia. Arnold was too wary to be caught. Cornwallis, the second in command of the British forces, pursued Lafayette up and down Virginia. Clinton, the British Commander-in-Chief, began to feel nervous for the safety of New York and wished to detach some of his forces thither. Cornwallis led his army into Yorktown and proceeded to fortify it, so that it might resist a siege. Now at last Washington felt that he had the enemy's army within his grasp. Sixteen thousand American and French troops were brought down from the North to furnish the fighting arm he required.

Yorktown lay on the south shore of the York River, an estuary of Chesapeake Bay. On the opposite side the little town of Gloucester projected into the river. In Yorktown itself the English had thrown up two redoubts and had drawn some lines of wall. The French kept up an unremitting cannonade, but it became evident that the redoubts must be taken in order to subdue the place. Washington, much excited, took his place in the central battery along with Generals Knox and Lincoln and their staff. Those about him recognized the peril he was in, and one of his adjutants called his attention to the fact that the place was much exposed. "If you think so," said he, "you are at liberty to step back." Shortly afterward a musket ball struck the cannon in the embrasure and rolled on till it fell at his feet. General Knox took him by the arm. "My dear General," he exclaimed, "we can't spare you yet." "It is a spent ball," Washington rejoined calmly; "no harm is done." When the redoubts were taken, he drew a long breath and said to Knox: "The work is done, and well done."[Footnote: Irving, iv, 378.] Lord Cornwallis saw that his position was desperate, if not hopeless. And on October 16th he made a plucky attempt to retard the final blow, but he did not succeed. That evening he thought of undertaking a last chance. He would cross the York River in flatboats, land at Gloucester, and march up the country through Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York. Any one who knew the actual state of that region understood that Cornwallis's plan was crazy; but it is to be judged as the last gallantry of a brave man. During the night he put forth on his flatboats, which were driven out of their course and much dispersed by untoward winds. They had to return to Yorktown by morning, and at ten o'clock Cornwallis ordered that a parley should be beaten. Then he despatched a flag of truce with a letter to Washington proposing cessation of hostilities for twenty-four hours. Washington knew that British ships were on their way from New York to bring relief and he did not wish to grant so much delay. He, therefore, proposed that the formal British terms should be sent to him in writing; upon which he would agree to a two hours' truce. It was the morning of the 10th of October that the final arrangement was made. Washington, on horseback, attended by his staff, headed the American line. His troops, in worn-out uniforms, but looking happy and victorious, were massed near him. Count Rochambeau, with his suite, held place on the left of the road, the French troops all well-uniformed and equipped; and they marched on the field with a military band playing--the first time, it was said, that this had been known in America. "About two o'clock the garrison sallied forth and passed through with shouldered arms, slow and solemn steps, colors cased, and drums beating a British march."[Footnote: Irving, iv, 383.] General O'Hara, who led them, rode up to Washington and apologized for the absence of Lord Cornwallis, who was indisposed. Washington pointed O'Hara to General Lincoln, who was to receive the submission of the garrison. They were marched off to a neighboring field where they showed a sullen and dispirited demeanor and grounded their arms so noisily and carelessly that General Lincoln had to reprove them.

With little delay Washington went back to the North with his army, expecting to see the first fruits of the capitulation. There were nearly seventeen thousand Allied troops at Yorktown of whom three thousand were militia of Virginia. The British force under Cornwallis numbered less than eight thousand men.

Months were required before the truce between the two belligerents resulted in peace. But the people of America hailed the news of Yorktown as the end of the war. They had hardly admitted to themselves the gravity of the task while the war lasted, and being now relieved of immediate danger, they gave themselves up to surprising insouciance. A few among them who thought deeply, Washington above all, feared that the British might indulge in some surprise which they would find it hard to repel.

But the American Revolution was indeed ended, and the American Colonies of 1775 were indeed independent and free. Even in the brief outline of the course of events which I have given, it must appear that the American Revolution was almost the most hare-brained enterprise in history. After the first days of Lexington and Concord, when the farmers and country-folk rushed to the centres to check the British invaders, the British had almost continuously a large advantage in position and in number of troops. And in those early days the Colonists fought, not for Independence, but for the traditional rights which the British Crown threatened to take from them. Now they had their freedom, but what a freedom! There were thirteen unrelated political communities bound together now only by the fact of having been united in their common struggle against England. Each had adopted a separate constitution, and the constitutions were not uniform nor was there any central unifying power to which they all looked up and obeyed. The vicissitudes of the war, which had been fought over the region of twelve hundred miles of coast, had proved the repellent differences of the various districts. The slave-breeder and the slave-owner of Virginia and the States of the South had little in common with the gnarled descendants of the later Puritans in New England. What principle could be found to knit them together? The war had at least the advantage of bringing home to all of them the evils of war which they all instinctively desired to escape. The numbers of the disaffected, particularly of the Loyalists who openly sided with the King and with the British Government, were much larger than we generally suppose, and they not only gave much direct help and comfort to the enemy, but also much indirect and insidious aid. In the great cities like New York and Philadelphia they numbered perhaps two fifths of the total population, and, as they were usually the rich and influential people, they counted for more than their showing in the census. How could they ever be unified in the American Republic? How many of them, like the traitorous General Charles Lee, would confess that, although they were willing to pass by George III as King, they still felt devotion and loyalty to the Prince of Wales?

Some of those who had leaned toward Loyalism, to be on what they supposed would prove the winning side, quickly forgot their lapse and were very enthusiastic in acclaiming the Patriotic victory. Those Irreconcilables who had not already fled did so at once, leaving their property behind them to be confiscated by the Government. On only one point did there seem to be unanimity and accord. That was that the dogged prosecution of the war and the ultimate victory must be credited to George Washington. Others had fought valiantly and endured hardships and fatigues and gnawing suspense, but without him, who never wavered, they could not have gone on. He had among them some able lieutenants, but not one who, had he himself fallen out of the command by wound or sickness for a month, could have taken his place. The people knew this and they now paid him in honor and gratitude for what he had done for them. If there were any members of the old cabal, any envious rivals, they either held their peace or spoke in whispers. The masses were not yet weary of hearing Aristides called the Just.


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