Celebrating 17 years

The Life of George Washington

Chapter Two

Soon after the peace of Paris, 1763, a new system for governing the British colonies, was adopted. One abridgment of their accustomed liberties followed another in such rapid succession, that in the short space of twelve years they had nothing left they could call their own. The British parliament, in which they were unrepresented, and over which they had no control, not only claimed, but exercised the power of taxing them at pleasure, and of binding them in all cases whatsoever.

Claims so repugnant to the spirit of the British constitution, and which made such invidious distinctions between the subjects of the same king, residing on different sides of the Atlantic, excited a serious alarm among the colonists. Detached as they were from each other by local residence, and unconnected in their several legislatures, a sense of common danger pointed out to them the wisdom and propriety of forming a new representative body, composed of delegates from each colony, to take care of their common interests.

With very little previous concert, such a body was formed and met in Philadelphia, in September, 1774, and entered into the serious consideration of the grievances under which their constituents laboured. To this congress Virginia deputed seven of her most respectable citizens : Peyton Randolph, Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, Patrick Henry, Richard Bland, Benjamin Harrison, Edmund Pendleton ; men who would have done honour to any age or country. The same were appointed in like manner to attend a second congress on the 10th of May, in the following year.

The historians of the American revolution will detail with pleasure and pride, the proceedings of this illustrious assembly : the firmness and precision with which they stated their grievances, and petitioned their sovereign to redress them ; the eloquence with which they addressed the people of Great-Britain, the inhabitants of Canada, and their own constituents ; the judicious measures they adopted for cementing union at home, and procuring friends abroad.

They will also inform the world of the unsuccessful termination of all plans proposed for preserving the union of the empire, and that Great-Britain, proceeding from one oppression to the another, threw the colonies out of her protection, made war upon them, and carried it on with a view to their subjugation. All these matters, together with the commencement of hostilities at Lexington, and the formation of an American army by the colony of Massachusetts, for defending themselves against a royal army in Boston, must be here passed over.

Our business is only with George Washington. The fame he had acquired as commander of the Virginia forces, together with his well known military talents, procured for him the distinguishing appellation of the Soldier of America. Those who, before the commencement of hostilities, looked forward to war as the probable consequence of the disputes between Great-Britain and her colonies, anticipated his appointment to the supreme command of the forces of his native country.

As long as he continued a member of Congress, he was chairman of every committee appointed by that body to make arrangements for defence. These duties in the Senate were soon superseded by more active employment in the field.

As soon as the Congress of the United Colonies had determined on making a common cause with Massachusetts, against which a British army had commenced hostilities, they appointed, by an unanimous vote, George Washington, commander in chief of all the forces raised or to be raised for the defence of the colonies.

His election was accompanied with no competition, and followed by no envy. The same general impulse on the public mind, which led the colonies to agree in many other particulars, pointed to him as the most proper person for presiding over the armies.

To the president of Congress announcing this appointment, General Washington replied in the following words:

"Mr. President,

"Though I am truly sensible of the high honour done me in this appointment, yet I feel great distress from a consciousness that my abilities and military experience may not be equal to the extensive and important trust. However, as the Congress desire it, I will enter upon the momentous duty, and exert every power I possess in their service, and for support of the glorious cause. I beg they will accept my most cordial thanks, for the distinguished testimony of their approbation.

"But lest some unlucky event should happen unfavorable to my reputation, I beg it may be remembered by every gentleman in the room, that I this day declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honoured with.

"As to pay, Sir, I beg leave to assure the Congress that as no pecuniary consideration could have tempted me to accept this arduous employment, at the expense of my domestic ease and happiness, I do not wish to make any profit from it. I will keep an exact account of my expenses; those I doubt not they will discharge, and that is all I desire."

A special commission was made out for him, and at the same time an unanimous resolution was adopted by Congress, "that they would maintain and assist him, and adhere to him with their lives and fortunes, for the maintenance and preservation of American Liberty."

He immediately entered on the duties of his high station. After passing a few days in New-York, and making some arrangements with Gen. Schuyler, who commanded there, he proceeded to Cambridge, which was the head-quarters of the American army. On his way thither, he received from private persons and public bodies, the most flattering attention, and the strongest expressions of determination to support him.

He received an address from the Provincial Congress of New-York, in which, after expressing their approbation of his elevation to command, they say — "We have the fullest assurances, that whenever this important contest shall be decided by that fondest wish of each American soul, an accommodation with our mother country, you will cheerfully resign the important deposit committed into your hands, and re-assume the character of our worthiest citizen."

The General, after declaring his gratitude for the respect shown him, added — "Be assured that every exertion of my worthy colleagues and myself, will be extended to the re-establishment of peace and harmony between the mother country and these colonies. As to the fatal, but necessary operations of war, when we assumed the soldier we did not lay aside the citizen, and we shall most sincerely rejoice with you in that happy hour, when the re-establishment of American liberty, on the most firm and solid foundations, shall enable us to return to our private stations, in the bosom of a free, peaceful, and happy country."

A committee from the Massachusetts Congress received him at Springfield, about one hundred miles from Boston, and conducted him to the army. He was soon after addressed by the Congress of that colony in the most affectionate manner.

In his answer, he said — "Gentlemen, your kind congratulations on my appointment and arrival, demand my warmest acknowledgments, and will ever be retained in grateful remembrance. In exchanging the enjoyments of domestic life for the duties of my present honorable, but arduous station, I only emulate the virtue and public spirit of the whole province of Massachusetts, which, with a firmness and patriotism without example, has sacrificed all the comforts of social and political life in support of the rights of mankind, and the welfare of our common country. My highest ambition is to be the happy instrument of vindicating these rights, and to see this devoted province again restored to peace, liberty, and safety."

When General Washington arrived at Cambridge, he was received with the joyful acclamations of the American army. At the head of his troops, he published a declaration previously drawn up by Congress, in the nature of a manifesto, setting forth the reasons for taking up arms. In this, after enumerating various grievances of the colonies, and vindicating them from a premeditated design of establishing independent states, it was added--

"In our own native land, in defence of the freedom which is our birthright, and which we ever enjoyed till the late violation of it; for the protection of our property, acquired solely by the industry of our forefathers and ourselves, against violence actually offered; we have taken up arms: We shall lay them down when hostilities shall cease on the part of the aggressors, and all danger of their being renewed shall be removed, and not before."

When Gen. Washington joined the American army, he found the British entrenched on Bunker's Hill, having also three floating batteries in Mystic River, and a twenty gun ship below the ferry between Boston and Charlestown. They had also a battery on Copse's Hill, and were strongly fortified on the Neck. The Americans were intrenched at Winter Hill, Prospect Hill, and Roxbury, communicating with one another by small posts over a distance of ten miles, nor could they be contracted without exposing the country to the incursions of the enemy.

The army put under the command of Washington amounted to 14,500 men. Several circumstances concurred to render this force very inadequate to active operations. Military stores were deficient in camp, and the whole in the country was inconsiderable. On the 4th of August, all the stock of powder in the American camp, and in the public magazines of the four New-England provinces, would have made very little more than nine rounds a man. In this destitute condition the army remained for a fortnight.

To the want of powder was added a very general want of bayonets, of clothes, of working tools, and a total want of engineers. Under all these embarrassments, the General observed, that "he had the materials of a good army; that the men were able-bodied, active, zealous in the cause, and of unquestionable courage."

He immediately instituted such arrangements as were calculated to increase their capacity for service. The army was distributed into brigades and divisions, and on his recommendation, general staff officers were appointed. Economy, union, and system, were introduced into every department.

As the troops came into service under the authority of distinct colonial governments, no uniformity existed among the regiments. In Massachusetts the men had chosen their officers, and (rank excepted) were in other respects, frequently their equals. To form one uniform mass of these discordant materials, and to subject freemen animated with the spirit of liberty, and collected for its defence, to the control of military discipline, required patience, forbearance, and a spirit of accommodation.

This delicate and arduous duty was undertaken by Gen. Washington, and discharged with great address. When he had made considerable progress in disciplining his army, the term for which enlistments had taken place was on the point of expiring. The troops from Connecticut and Rhode Island were only engaged to the first of December, 1775; and no part of the army longer than to the first of January, 1776.

The commander in chief made early and forcible representations to Congress on this subject, and urged them to adopt efficient measures for the formation of a new army. They deputed three of their members, Mr. Lynch, Dr. Franklin, and Mr. Harrison, to repair to camp, and, in conjunction with him and the chief magistrates of the New-England colonies, to confer on the most effectual mode of continuing, supporting, and regulating, a continental army. By them it was resolved to list 23,722 men, as far as practicable, from the troops before Boston, to serve till the last day of December, 1776, unless sooner discharged by Congress.

In the execution of this resolve, Washington called upon all officers and soldiers to make their election for retiring or continuing. Several of the inferior officers retired. Many of the men would not continue on any terms. Several refused, unless they were indulged with furloughs. Others, unless they were allowed to choose their officers. So many impediments obstructed the recruiting service, that it required great address to obviate them.

Washington made forcible appeals in general orders, to the pride and patriotism of both officers and men. He promised every indulgence compatible with safety, and every comfort that the state of the country authorized. In general orders of the 20th of October, he observed--

"The times, and the importance of the great cause we are engaging in, allow no room for hesitation and delay. When life, liberty, and property, are at stake; when our country is in danger of being a melancholy scene of bloodshed and desolation; when our towns are laid in ashes, innocent women and children driven from their peaceful habitations, exposed to the rigours of an inclement season, to depend perhaps on the hand of charity for support; when calamities like these are staring us in the face, and a brutal savage enemy threatens us and every thing we hold dear with destruction from foreign troops, it little becomes the character of a soldier to shrink from danger, and condition for new terms. It is the General's intention to indulge both officers and soldiers who compose the new army with furloughs for a reasonable time; but this must be done in such a manner as not to injure the service, or weaken the army too much at once."

In the instructions given to the recruiting officers, the General enjoined upon them "not to enlist any person suspected of being unfriendly to the liberties of America, or any abandoned vagabond, to whom all causes and countries are equal and alike indifferent."

Though great exertions had been made to procure recruits, yet the regiments were not filled. Several causes operated in producing this disinclination to the service. The sufferings of the army had been great. Fuel was very scarce. Clothes, and even provisions, had not been furnished them in sufficient quantities. The smallpox deterred many from entering; but the principal reason was a dislike to a military life. Much also of that enthusiasm which brought numbers to the field, on the commencement of hostilities, had abated.

The army of 1775 was wasting away by the expiration of the terms of service, and recruits for the new, entered slowly. The regiments which were entitled to their discharge on the 1st of December, were with great difficulty persuaded to stay ten days, when reinforcements of militia were expected to supply their place. From the eagerness of the old troops to go home, and the slowness of the new to enter service, it was difficult to keep up the blockade.

On the last day of the year, when the first were entirely disbanded, the last only amounted to 9650 men, and many of these were absent on furlough. At this time the royal army in Boston was about 8000. To assist the recruiting service, the General recommended to Congress to try the effects of a bounty, but this was not agreed to till late in January, 1776. In that and the following month the army was considerably increased.

The blockade of Boston was all this time kept up, and the enemy confined to the city, but this was far short of what the American people expected. Common fame represented the troops under the command of Washington to be nearly treble the royal army. This ample force was supposed to be furnished with every thing necessary for the most active operations. Their real numbers and deficient equipments were, for obvious reasons, carefully concealed.

The ardour and impatience of the public had long since counted on the expulsion of the British from Boston. Washington was equally ardent, but better informed and more prudent. He well knew the advantages that would result to the cause in which he was engaged from some brilliant stroke, nor was he insensible to insinuations by some that he was devoid of energy, and by others that he wished to prolong his own importance by continuing the war. He bore these murmurs with patience; but nevertheless, had his eyes directed to Boston, and wished for an opening to commence offensive operations.

The propriety of this measure was submitted to the consideration of repeated councils of war, who uniformly declared against it. A hope was nevertheless indulged that ice in the course of the winter, would be favourable to an assault. That this opportunity might not be lost, measures were adopted for procuring large reinforcements of militia to serve till the first of March, 1776. From 4 to 5000 men were accordingly procured.

Contrary to what is usual, the waters about Boston continued open till the middle of February. Councils of war were hitherto nearly unanimous against an assault. General Washington was less opposed to it than some others, but the want of ammunition for the artillery, together with the great probability of failure, induced him to decline the attempt. In lieu of it he formed a bold resolution to take a new position that would either compel the British General to come to an action, or to evacuate Boston.

The American army was now stronger than ever. Recruiting for the last two months had been unusually successful. The regular army exceeded 14,000 men, and the militia were about 6000. Washington, thus reinforced, determined to fortify the heights of Dorchester, from which he could annoy the ships in the harbour, and the army in the town.

To favour the execution of this plan, the town and lines of the enemy were bombarded on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th of March. On the night of the 4th, Gen. Thomas, with a considerable detachment, took possession of the heights of Dorchester. By great exertions this party in the course of the night, nearly covered themselves from the shot of the enemy. The appearance of their works caused no little surprise in the British camp. These were every hour advancing so as to afford additional security to the Americans posted behind them.

The Admiral informed Gen. Howe, that if the Americans kept possession of these heights, he would not be able to keep one of the British ships in the harbour. The enemy were now brought to the alternative which Washington wished for. They must either risk an action without their lines, or abandon the place.

Gen. Howe preferred the former, and ordered 3000 men on this service. These were embarked, and fell down to the Castle with the intention of proceeding up the river to the attack, but were dispersed by a tremendous storm. Before they could be in readiness to proceed, the American works were advanced to such a state of security as to discourage any attempt against them.

Washington expecting an immediate assault on the new raised works at Dorchester, and judging that the best troops of the enemy would be ordered on that service, had prepared to attack the town of Boston at the same time- — 4000 men were ready for embarkation at the mouth of Cambridge river to proceed on this business, as soon as it was known that the British were gone out in force to their intended attack.

It was now resolved by the British to evacuate Boston as soon as possible. In a few days after, a flag came out of Boston with a paper signed by four select men, informing, "that they had applied to Gen. Robertson, who, on an application to Gen. Howe, was authorized to assure them, that he had no intention of burning the town, unless the troops under his command were molested during their embarkation, or at their departure, by the armed force without."

When this paper was presented to Gen. Washington, he replied, "that as it was an unauthenticated paper, and without an address, and not obligatory on Gen. Howe, he could take no notice of it; "but at the same time "intimated his good wishes for the security of the town."

Washington made arrangements for the security of his army, but did not advance his works nor embarrass the British army in their proposed evacuation. He wished to save Boston, and to gain time for the fortification of New-York, to which place he supposed the evacuating army was destined.

Under this impression, he detached a considerable part of his army to that place, and with the remainder took possession of Boston, as soon as the British troops had completed their embarkation. On entering the town, Washington was received with marks of approbation more flattering than the pomps of a triumph.

The inhabitants, released from the severities of a garrison life, and from the various indignities to which they were subjected, hailed him as their deliverer. Reciprocal congratulations between those who had been confined within the British lines, and those who were excluded from entering them, were exchanged with an ardour which cannot be described.

Gen. Washington was honoured by Congress with a vote of thanks. They also ordered a medal to be struck, with suitable devices to perpetuate the remembrance of the great event.

The Massachusetts Council, and House of Representatives complimented him in a joint address, in which they expressed their good wishes in the following words — "May you still go on approved by heaven, revered by all good men, and dreaded by those tyrants who claim their fellow men as their property." His answer was modest and proper.

 

End of Chapter Two. Continue to
Chapter Three of The Life of Washington