Celebrating 17 years

The Life of George Washington

Chapter Five: The Campaign of 1778

Washington devoted the short respite from field duty which followed the encampment of the army at Valley Forge, to prepare for an early and active campaign in the year 1778. He laboured to impress on Congress the necessity of having in the field a regular army, at least equal to that of the enemy. He transmitted to the individual states a return of the troops they had severally furnished for the continental army. While this exhibited to each its deficiency, it gave the General an opportunity to urge on them respectively the necessity of completing their quotas.

Congress deputed a committee of their body to reside in camp, and, in concert with Gen. Washington, to investigate the state of the army, and to report such reforms as might be deemed expedient. This committee, known by the name of "the committee of arrangement," repaired to Valley Forge, in January, 1778.

Washington laid before them a statement, in which a comprehensive view of the army was taken, and in which he minutely pointed out what he deemed necessary for the correction of existing abuses, and for the advancement of the service. He recommended "as essentially necessary, that in addition to present compensation, provision should be made by half pay, and a pensionary establishment for the future support of the officers, so as to render their commissions valuable."

He pointed out "the insufficiency of their pay (especially in its present state of depreciation) for their decent subsistence; the sacrifices they had already made, and the unreasonableness of expecting that they would continue patiently to bear such an over proportion of the common calamities growing out of the necessary war, in which all were equally interested; the many resignations that had already taken place, and the probability that more would follow, to the great injury of the service; the impossibility of keeping up a strict discipline among officers whose commissions, in a pecuniary view, were so far from being worth holding, that they were the means of impoverishing them."

These, and other weighty considerations, were accompanied with a declaration by Gen. Washington, "that he neither could nor would receive the smallest benefit from the proposed establishment, and that he had no other inducement in urging it, but a full conviction of its utility and propriety."

In the same statement the commander in chief explained to the committee of Congress the defects in the quarter-masters, and other departments connected with the support and comfort of the army; and also urged the necessity of each state completing its quota by draughts from the militia. The statement concludes with these impressive words — "Upon the whole, gentlemen, I doubt not you are fully impressed with the defects of our present military system, and with the necessity of speedy and decisive measures to place it on a satisfactory footing. The disagreeable picture I have given you of the wants and sufferings of the army, and the discontents reigning among the officers, is a just representation of evils equally melancholy and important; and unless effectual remedies be applied without loss of time, the most alarming and ruinous consequences are to be apprehended."

The committee were fully impressed with the correctness of the observations made by the commander in chief, and grounded their report upon them. A general concurrence of sentiment took place. Congress passed resolutions, but with sundry limitations, in favour of half pay to their officers for seven years after the war; and gave their sanction to the other measures suggested by Washington, and recommended by their committee. But, from the delays incidental to large bodies, either deliberating upon or executing public business, much time necessarily elapsed before the army received the benefits of the proposed reforms; and in the mean time their distresses approached to such a height as threatened their immediate dissolution.

Respect for their commander attached both officers and soldiers so strongly to his person, as enabled him to keep them together under privations almost too much for human nature to bear. Their effective force throughout the winter was little more than 5000 men, though their numbers on paper exceeded 17,000. It was well for them that the British made no attempt to disturb them while in this destitute condition. In that case the Americans could not have kept their camp for want of provisions; nor could they have retreated from it without the certain loss of some thousands who were barefooted and otherwise almost naked. Neither could they have risked an action with any probable hope of success, or without hazarding the most serious consequences.

The historians of the American revolution will detail the particulars of a treaty entered into about this time between France and the United States, and also that thereupon the government of Great Britain offered terms to the Americans equal to all they had asked anterior to their declaration of Independence. The first certain intelligence of these offers was received by Gen. Washington in a letter from Major General Tryon, the British Governor of New-York, enclosing the conciliatory proposals, and recommending "that they should be circulated by Gen. Washington among the officers and privates of his army."

Instead of complying with this extraordinary request, he forwarded the whole to Congress. The offers of Great-Britain, which, if made in due time, would have prevented the dismemberment of the empire, were promptly rejected. The day after their rejection a resolution formerly recommended by Washington was adopted by Congress, in which they urged upon the different states "to pardon, under certain limitations, such of their misguided citizens as had levied war against the United States."

Copies of this were struck off in English and German, and Gen. Washington was directed to take measures for circulating them among the American levies in the British army. He immediately enclosed them in a letter to Tryon, in which he acknowledged the receipt of his late letter covering the British conciliatory bills, and requesting their circulation in the American army; and in the way of retort requested the instrumentality of Tryon in making the resolves of Congress known to the Americans in the British army, on whom they were intended to operate.

About this time Sir William Howe resigned the command of the British army, and returned to Great-Britain. His successor, Sir Henry Clinton, had scarcely entered on the duties of his office, when he received orders to evacuate Philadelphia. This was deemed expedient from an apprehension that it would be a dangerous position in case a French fleet, as was expected, should arrive in the Delaware to co-operate with the Americans.

The design of evacuating Philadelphia was soon discovered by Washington; but the object or course of the enemy could not be precisely ascertained. Their preparations equally denoted an expedition to the south; an embarkation of their whole army for New-York; or a march to that city through New-Jersey.

In the two first cases Washington had not the means of annoyance; but as the probability of the last daily increased, he directed his chief attention to that point. Gen. Maxwell, with the Jersey brigade, was ordered over the Delaware to take post about Mount Holly, and to co-operate with Gen. Dickinson at the head of the Jersey militia, in obstructing the progress of the royal army till time should be gained for Washington to overtake them.

The British crossed the Delaware to Gloucester Point, on the 18th of June, 1778: the Americans in four days after, at Corryel's ferry. The General officers of the latter, on being asked what line of conduct they deemed most advisable, had previously, and with one consent, agreed to attempt nothing till the evacuation of Philadelphia was completed; but after the Delaware was crossed, there was a diversity of sentiment respecting the measures proper to be pursued.

Gen. Lee, who, having been exchanged, joined the army, was of opinion that the United States, in consequence of their late foreign connexions, were secure of their independence, unless their army was defeated; and that under such circumstances it would be criminal to hazard an action, unless they had some decided action. Though the numbers in both armies were nearly equal, and about 10,000 effective men in each, he attributed so much to the superiority of British discipline, as made him apprehensive of the issue of an engagement on equal ground. The sentiments were sanctioned by the voice of a great majority of the general officers.

Washington was nevertheless strongly inclined to risk an action. Though cautious, he was enterprising, and could not readily believe that the chances of war were so much against him as to threaten consequences of the alarming magnitude which had been announced. There was a general concurrence in a proposal for strengthening the corps on the left flank of the enemy with 1500 men, to improve any partial advantages that might offer, and that the main body should preserve a relative position for acting as circumstances might require.

When Sir Henry Clinton had advanced to Allen-town, he determined, instead of keeping the direct course towards Staten-Island, to draw towards the sea coast, and to push on towards Sandy Hook. Washington, on receiving intelligence that Sir Henry was proceeding in that direction towards Monmouth court-house, dispatched 1000 men under Gen. Wayne, and sent the Marquis de la Fayette to take command of the whole, with orders to seize the first fair opportunity of attacking the enemy's rear. The command of this advanced corps was offered to Gen. Lee, but he declined it.

The whole army followed at a proper distance for supporting the advanced corps, and reached Cranberry the next morning. Sir Henry Clinton, sensible of the approach of the Americans, placed his grenadiers, light-infantry, and chasseurs, in his rear, and his baggage in his front. Washington increased his advanced corps with two brigades, and sent Gen. Lee, who now wished for the command, to take charge of the whole, and followed with the main army to give it support.

On the next morning orders were sent to Lee to move on and attack, unless there should be powerful reasons to the contrary. When Washington had marched about five miles to support the advanced corps, he found the whole of it retreating by Lee's orders, and without having made any opposition of consequence.

Washington rode up to Lee and proposed certain questions. Lee answered with warmth, and unsuitable language. The commander in chief ordered Col. Stewart's, and Lieut. Col. Ramsay's battalions, to form on a piece of ground which he judged suitable for giving a check to the advancing enemy. Lee was then asked if he would command on that ground, to which he consented, and was ordered to take proper measures for checking the enemy; to which he replied, "your orders shall be obeyed, and I will not be the first to leave the field."

Washington then rode to the main army, which was formed with the utmost expedition. A warm cannonade immediately commenced between the British and American artillery, and a heavy firing between the advanced troops of the British army and the two battalions which Washington had halted. These stood their ground till they were intermixed with a part of the British army. Gen. Lee continued till the last on the field of battle, and brought off the rear of the retreating troops.

The check the British received gave time to make a disposition of the left wing and second line of the American army, in the wood and on the eminence to which Lee was retreating. On this some cannon were placed by lord Stirling, who commanded the left wing, which, with the co-operation of some parties of infantry, effectually stopped the advance of the British in that quarter. Gen. Greene took a very advantageous position on the right of lord Stirling. The British attempted to turn the left flank of the Americans, but were repulsed. They also made a movement to the right, with as little success; for Greene, with artillery, disappointed their design. Wayne advanced with a body of troops, and kept up so severe and well directed a fire, that the British were soon compelled to give way. They retired, and took the position which Lee had before occupied.

Washington resolved to attack them, and ordered Gen. Poor to move round upon their right, and Gen. Woodford to their left; but they could not get within reach before it was dark. These remained on the ground which they had been directed to occupy, during the night, with an intention of attacking early next morning; and the main body lay on their arms in the field to be ready for supporting them.

Gen. Washington, after a day of great activity and much personal danger, reposed among his troops on his cloak under a tree, in hopes of renewing the action the next day. But theses hopes were frustrated.

The British marched away in the night in such silence, that Gen. Poor, though he lay very near them, knew nothing of their departure. They left behind them four officers and about forty privates, all so badly wounded that they could not be removed. Their other wounded were carried off. The British pursued their march without farther interruption, and soon reached the neighbourhood of Sandy Hook, without the loss of either their covering party or baggage.

The American General declined all farther pursuit of the royal army, and soon after drew off his troops to the borders of the North river. The loss of the Americans in killed and wounded was about 250. The loss of the royal army, inclusive of prisoners, was about 350.

On the ninth day after this action, Congress unanimously resolved, "that their thanks be given to Gen. Washington for the activity with which he marched from the camp at Valley Forge in pursuit of the enemy; for his distinguished exertions in forming the line of battle; and for his great good conduct in leading on the attack, and gaining the important victory of Monmouth, over the British grand army, under the command of Gen. Sir Henry Clinton, in their march from Philadelphia to New-York."

It is probable that Washington intended to take no further notice of Lee's conduct in the day of action, but the latter could not brook the expressions used by the former at their first meeting, and wrote him two passionate letters. This occasioned his being arrested, and brought to trial. The charges exhibited against him were,

1st. For disobedience of orders in not attacking the enemy on the 28th of June, agreeable to repeated instructions.

2dly. For misbehaviour before the enemy on the same day, by making an unnecessary, disorderly, and shameful retreat.

3dly. For disrespect to the commander in chief in two letters.

After a tedious hearing before a court martial, of which lord Stirling was president, Lee was found guilty, and sentenced to be suspended from any command in the armies of the United States for the term of one year; but the second charge was softened by the court, which only found him guilty of misbehaviour before the enemy, and, in some few instances, a disorderly retreat.

Soon after the battle of Monmouth the American army took post at the White Plains, and remained there, and in the vicinity, till autumn was far advanced, and then retired to Middlebrook in New-Jersey. During this period, nothing of more importance occurred than skirmishes, in which Gen. Washington was not particularly engaged. He was nevertheless fully employed. His mild conciliatory manners, and the most perfect subjection of his passions to reason, together with the soundness of his judgment, enabled him to serve his country with equal effect, though with less splendor than is usually attached to military exploits.

The French fleet, the expectation of which had induced the evacuation of Philadelphia, arrived too late for attacking the British in the Delaware. It was also deemed unadvisable to attempt New-York; but the British posts on Rhode-Island were judged proper objects of a conjunct expedition with the sea and land forces of France and America. This being resolved upon, Gen. Sullivan was appointed to conduct the operations of the Americans.

When the preparations for commencing the attack were nearly completed, a British fleet appeared in sight. D'Estaing, who commanded the French fleet, put out to sea to engage them; but a storm came on which crippled both fleets to such an extent, as induced the one to go to New-York, and the other to Boston, for the purpose of being repaired. While the fleets were out of sight, Sullivan had commenced the siege, and flattered himself that a few days co-operation of the returned French ships could not fail of crowning him with success.

The determination of D'Estaing to retire to Boston instead of co-operating in the siege, excited the greatest alarm in Sullivan's army. By this dereliction of the original plan, the harbours of Rhode-Island were left free and open for reinforcements to the British, which might be easily poured in from their head-quarters in New-York. Instead of anticipated conquests, Sullivan had reason to fear for the safety of his army.

Irritated at the departure of D'Estaing, he expressed in general orders to his army, "his hope that the event would prove America able to procure that, by her own arms, which her allies refused to assist in obtaining." These expressions were considered as imputing to D'Estaing and the French nation a disinclination to promote the interests of the United States.

When entreaties failed of persuading D'Estaing to return to the siege, a paper was drawn up and signed by the principal officers of the Americans, and sent to him, in which they protested against his taking the fleet to Boston, "as derogatory to the honour of France; contrary to the intentions of his most Christian Majesty, and the interest of his nation; destructive to the welfare of the United States, and highly injurious to the alliance between the two nations." So much discontent prevailed, that serious apprehensions were entertained that the means of repairing the French fleet would not be readily obtained.

Washington foresaw the evils likely to result from the general and mutual irritation which prevailed, and exerted all his influence to calm the minds of both parties. He had a powerful co-adjutor in the Marquis de la Fayette, who was deservedly dear to the Americans as to the French. His first duties were due to his king and country; but he loved America, and was so devoted to the commander in chief of its armies, as to enter into his views, and second his softening conciliatory measures, with truly filial affection.

Washington also wrote to Gen. Heath, who commanded at Boston, and to Sullivan and Greene, who commanded at Rhode-Island. In his letter to Gen. Heath, he stated his fears "that the departure of the French fleet from Rhode-Island, at so critical a moment, would not only weaken the confidence of the people in their new allies, but produce such prejudice and resentment as might prevent their giving the fleet, in its present distress, such zealous and effectual assistance as was demanded by the exigence of affairs, and the true interests of America;" and added, "that it would be sound policy to combat these effects, and to give the best construction of what had happened; and at the same time to make strenuous exertions for putting the French fleet as soon as possible, in a condition to defend itself, and be useful."

He also observed as follows — "The departure of the fleet from Rhode-Island, is not yet publicly announced here; but when it is, I intend to ascribe it to necessity produced by the damage received in the late storm. This it appears to me is the idea which ought to be generally propagated. As I doubt not the force of these reasons will strike you equally with myself, I would recommend to you to use your utmost influence to palliate and soften matters, and to induce those whose business it is to provide succours of every kind for the fleet, to employ their utmost zeal and activity in doing it. It is our duty to make the best of our misfortunes, and not suffer passion to interfere with our interest and the public good."

In a letter to Gen. Sullivan, he observed — "The disagreement between the army under your command and the fleet, has given me very singular uneasiness. The continent at large is concerned in our cordiality, and it should be kept up by all possible means consistent with our honour and policy. First impressions are generally longest retained, and will serve to fix in a great degree our national character with the French. In our conduct towards them, we should remember, that they are a people old in war, very strict in military etiquette, and apt to take fire when others seem scarcely warmed. Permit me to recommend in the most particular manner, the cultivation of harmony and good agreement, and your endeavors to destroy that ill-humour which may have found its way among the officers. It is of the utmost importance too that the soldiers and the people should know nothing of this misunderstanding; or if it has reached them, that means may be used to stop its progress, and prevent its effects."

In a letter to Gen. Greene, he observed — "I have not now time to take notice of the several arguments which were made use of, for and against the Count's quitting the harbour of Newport, and sailing for Boston. Right or wrong, it will probably disappoint our sanguine expectations of success, and, which I deem a still worse consequence, I fear it will sow the seeds of dissention and distrust between us and our new allies, unless the most prudent measures be taken to suppress the feuds and jealousies that have already arisen. I depend much on your temper and influence to conciliate that animosity which subsists between the American and French officers in our service. I be g you will take every measure to keep the protest entered into by the General Officers from being made public.

"Congress, sensible of the ill consequences that will flow from our differences being known to the world, have passed a resolve to that purpose. Upon the whole, my dear sir, you can conceive my meaning better than I can express it; and I therefore fully depend on your exerting yourself to heal all private animosities between our principal officers and the French, and to prevent all illiberal expressions and reflections that may fall from the army at large."

Washington also improved the first opportunity of recommencing his correspondence with count D'Estaing, in a letter to him, which, without noticing the disagreements that had taken place, was well calculated to soothe every angry sensation which might have rankled in his mind. In the course of a short correspondence, the irritation which threatened serious mischiefs entirely gave way to returning good humour and cordiality.

In another case about the same time the correct judgment of Washington proved serviceable to his country. In the last months of the year 1778, when the most active part of the campaign was over, Congress decided on a magnificent plan for the conquest of Canada. This was to attempted in 1779 by land and water, on the side of the United States, and by a fleet and army from France. The plan was proposed, considered, and agreed to, before Washington was informed of it. He was then desired to write to Dr. Franklin, the American minister at Paris, to interest him in securing the propose co-operation of France.

In reply to the communications of Congress, he observed — "The earnest desire I have strictly to comply in every instance with the views and instructions of Congress, cannot but make me feel the greatest uneasiness which I find myself in circumstances of hesitation or doubt, with respect to their directions; but the perfect confidence I have in the justice and candour of that honourable body, emboldens me to communicate without reserve the difficulties which occur in the execution of their present order; and the indulgence I have experienced on every former occasion induces me to imagine that the liberty I now take will not meet with disapprobation.

I have attentively taken up the report of the committee respecting the proposed expedition into Canada. I have considered it in several lights, and sincerely regret that I should feel myself under any embarrassment in carrying it into execution. Still I remain of opinion, from a general review of things, and the state of our resources, that no extensive system of co-operation with the French for the complete emancipation of Canada, can be positively decided on for the ensuing year. To propose a plan of perfect co-operation with a foreign power, without a moral certainty in our supplies; and to have that plan actually ratified with the court of Versailles, might be attended, in case of failure in the conditions on our part, with very fatal effects.

"If I should seem unwilling to transmit the plan as prepared by Congress, with my observations, it is because I find myself under a necessity (in order to give our minister sufficient ground to found an application on,) to propose something more than a vague and indecisive plan, which, even in the event of a total evacuation of the states by the enemy, may be rendered impracticable in the execution by a variety of insurmountable obstacles; or if I retain my present sentiments, and act consistently, I must point out the difficulties, as they appear to me, which must embarrass his negociations, and may disappoint the views of Congress.

"But proceeding on the idea of the enemy's leaving these states before the active part of the ensuing campaign, I should fear to hazard a mistake as to the precise aim and extent of the views of Congress. The conduct I am to observe in writing to our minister at the court of France, does not appear sufficiently delineated. Were I to undertake it, I should be much afraid of erring through misconception. In this dilemma, I would esteem it a particular favour to be excused from writing at all on the subject, especially as it is the part of candour in me to acknowledge that I do not see my way clear enough to point out such a plan for co-operation, as I conceive to be consistent with the ideas of Congress, and as will be sufficiently explanatory with respect to time and circumstances to give efficacy to the measure.

"But if Congress still think it necessary for me to proceed in the business, I must request their more definitive and explicit instructions, and that they will permit me previous to transmitting the intended dispatches, to submit them to their determination.

"I could wish to lay before Congress more minutely the state of the army, the condition of our supplies, and the requisites necessary for carrying into execution an undertaking that may involve the most serious events. If Congress think this can be done more satisfactorily in a personal conference, I hope to have the army in such a situation before I can receive their answer as to afford me an opportunity of giving my attendance."

The personal interview requested in this letter was agreed to by Congress, and a committee appointed by them to confer with him. The result was that the proposed expedition against Canada was given up by those who, after repeated deliberation, had resolved upon it.

 

End of Chapter Five. Continue to
Chapter Six of The Life of Washington