Celebrating 17 years

The Life of George Washington

Chapter Six: The Campaign of 1779

The years 1779 and 1780 passed away in the northern states without any of those great military exploits which enliven the pages of history; but they were years of anxiety and distress, which called for all the passive valour, the sound practical judgment, and the conciliatory address, for which Gen. Washington was so eminently distinguished. The states, yielding to the pleasing delusion that their alliance with France placed their independence beyond the reach of accident, and that Great-Britain, despairing of success, would speedily abandon the contest, relaxed in their preparations for a vigorous prosecution of the war.

To these ungrounded hopes Washington opposed the whole weight of his influence. In his correspondence with Congress, the Governors of particular states, and other influential individuals, he pointed out the fallacy of the prevailing opinion that peace was near at hand; and the necessity for raising, equipping, and supporting, a force sufficient for active operations.

He particularly urged that the annual arrangements for the army should be made so early that the recruits for the year should assemble at head-quarters on the first of January; but such was the torpor of the public mind that. notwithstanding these representations, it was as late as the 23rd of January, 1779, when Congress passed resolutions authorizing the commander in chief to re-enlist the army; and as late as the 9th of the following March, that the requisitions were made on the several states for their quotas. The military establishment for 1780 was later; for it was not agreed upon till the 9th of February; nor were the men required before the first of April. Thus, when armies ought to have been in the field, nothing more was done than a grant of the requisite authority for raising them.

The depreciation of the current paper money had advanced so rapidly as to render the daily pay of an officer unequal to his support. This produced serious discontents in the army. An order was given in May, 1779, for the Jersey brigade to march by regiments to join the western army. In answer to this order a letter was received from Gen. Maxwell, stating that the officers of the first regiment had delivered to their Colonel a remonstrance, addressed to the legislature of New-Jersey, in which they declared, that unless their former complaints on the deficiency of pay obtained immediate attention, they were to be considered at the end of three days as having resigned their commission; and on that contingency they requested the legislature to appoint other officers in their stead.

General Washington, who was strongly attached to the army, and knew their virtue, their sufferings, and also the justice of their complaints, immediately comprehended the ruinous consequences likely to result from the measures they had adopted. After serious deliberation, he wrote a letter to Gen. Maxwell, to be laid before the officers. In the double capacity of their friend and their commander, he made a forcible address both to their pride and their patriotism.

"There is nothing," he observed, "which has happened in the course of the war, which has given me so much pain as the remonstrance you mention from the officers of the first Jersey regiment. I cannot but consider it a hasty and imprudent step, which, on more cool consideration, they will themselves condemn. I am very sensible of the inconveniences under which the officers of the army labour, and I hope they do me the justice to believe, that my endeavors to procure them relief are incessant.

"There is more difficulty, however, in satisfying their wishes, than perhaps they are aware of. Our resources have been hitherto very limited. The situation of our money is no small embarrassment, for which, though there are remedies, they cannot be the work of a moment. Government is not insensible of the merits and sacrifices of the officers, nor unwilling to make a compensation; but it is a truth of which a very little observation must convince us, that it is very much straitened in the means.

"Great allowances ought to be made on this account, for any delay and seeming backwardness which may appear. Some of the states, indeed, have done as generously as was in their power; and if others have been less expeditious, it ought to be ascribed to some peculiar cause, which a little time, aided by example, will remove. The patience and perseverance of the army have been, under every disadvantage, such as do them the highest honour at home and abroad, and have inspired me with an unlimited confidence in their virtue, which has consoled me amidst every perplexity and reverse of fortune, to which our affairs, in a struggle of this nature, were necessarily exposed.

"Now that we have made so great a progress to the attainment of the end we have in view, so that we cannot fail, without a most shameful desertion of our own interests, any thing like a change of conduct would imply a very unhappy change of principles, and a forgetfulness as well of what we owe to ourselves as to our country.

"Did I suppose it possible this should be the case, even in a single regiment of the army. But this I believe to be impossible. Any corps that was about to set an example of the kind, would weigh well the consequences; and no officer of common discernment and sensibility would hazard them. If they should stand alone in it, independent of other consequences, what would be their feelings on reflecting that they had held themselves out to the world in a point of light inferior to the rest of the army? Or, if their example should be followed, and become general, how could they console themselves for having been the foremost in bringing ruin and disgrace upon their country? They would remember that the army would share a double portion of the general infamy and distress; and that the character of an American officer would become as despicable as it is now glorious.

"I confess that the appearances in the present instance are disagreeable; but I am convinced they seem to mean more than they really do. The Jersey officers have not been outdone by any others, in the qualities either of citizens or soldiers; and I am confident no part of them would seriously intend any thing that would be a stain on their former reputation. The gentlemen cannot be in earnest; they have only reasoned wrong about the means of attaining a good end, and, on consideration, I hope and flatter myself they will renounce what must appear improper.

"At the opening of a campaign, when under marching orders for an important service, their own honour, duty to the public, and to themselves, and a regard to military propriety, will not suffer them to persist in a measure which would be a violation of them all. It will even wound their delicacy coolly to reflect, that they have hazarded a step which has an air of dictating terms to their country, by taking advantage of the necessity of the moment.

"The declaration they have made to the state, at so critical a time, that 'unless they obtain relief in the short period of three days, they must be considered out of the service,' has very much that aspect; and the seeming relaxation of continuing until the state can have a reasonable time to provide other officers, will be thought only a superficial veil. I am now to request that you will convey my sentiments to the gentlemen concerned, and endeavor to make them sensible of their error. The service for which the regiment was intended, will not admit of delay. It must at all events march on Monday morning, in the first place to this camp, and further directions will be given when it arrives. I am sure I shall not be mistaken in expecting a prompt and cheerful obedience."

The officers did not explicitly recede from their claims, but were brought round so far as to continue in service. In an address to Gen. Washington, they declared, "their unhappiness that any step of theirs should give him pain; but alleged in justification of themselves, "that repeated memorials had been presented to their legislature, which had been neglected;" and added-- "We have lost all confidence in that body. Reason and experience forbid that we should have any. Few of us have private fortunes; many have families who already are suffering every thing that can be received from an ungrateful country.

"Are we then to suffer all the inconveniences, fatigues and dangers, of a military life, while our wives and our children are perishing for want of common necessaries at home; and that without the most distant prospect of reward, for our pay is now only nominal? We are sensible that your excellency cannot wish or desire this from us.

"We are sorry that you should imagine we meant to disobey orders. It was, and still is, our determination to march with our regiment, and to do the duty of officers, until the legislature should have a reasonable time to appoint others; but no longer.

"We beg leave to assure your Excellency, that we have the highest sense of your ability and virtues; that executing your orders has ever given us pleasure; that we love the service, and we love our country; but when that country is so lost to virtue and to justice as to forget to support its servants, it then becomes their duty to retire from its service."

The ground adopted by the officers for their justification, was such as interdicted a resort to stern measures; at the same time a compliance with their demands was impossible. In this embarrassing situation, Washington took no other notice of their letter than to declare to the officers, through Gen. Maxwell, "that while they continued to do their duty, he should only regret the part they had taken." The legislature of New-Jersey, roused by these events, made some partial provision for their troops. The officers withdrew their remonstrance, and continued to do their duty.

The consequences likely to result from the measures adopted by the Jersey officers being parried by the good sense and prudence of Gen. Washington, he improved the event when communicated to Congress, by urging on them the absolute necessity of some general and adequate provision for the officers of their army; and observed, "that the distresses in some corps are so great, that officers have solicited even to be supplied with the clothing destined for the common soldiery, coarse and unsuitable as it was. I had not power to comply with the request.

"The patience of men animated by a sense of duty and honour, will support them to a certain point, beyond which it will not go. I doubt not Congress will be sensible of the danger of an extreme in this respect, and will pardon my anxiety to obviate it."

The members of Congress were of different opinions respecting their military arrangements. While some were in unison with the General for a permanent national army, well equipped and well supported, others were apprehensive of danger to their future liberties from such establishments, and gave preference to enlistments for short periods, not exceeding a year. These also were partial to state systems, and occasional calls to the militia, instead of a numerous regular force, at the disposal of Congress or the commander in chief. From the various aspect of public affairs, and the frequent change of members composing the national legislature, sometimes one party predominated, and sometimes another. On the whole, the support received by Washington was far short of what economy, as well as sound policy, required.

The American army in these years was not only deficient in clothing, but in food. The seasons both in 1779 and 1780, were unfavourable to the crops. The labours of the farmers had often been interrupted by calls for militia duty. The current paper money was so depreciated as to be deemed no equivalent for the productions of the soil. So great were the necessities of the American army, that Gen. Washington was obliged to call on the magistrates of the adjacent counties for specified quantities of provisions, to be supplied in a given number of days.

At other times he was compelled to send out detachments of his troops to take provisions at the point of the bayonet from the citizens. This expedient at length failed, for the country in the vicinity of the army afforded no further supplies. These impressments were not only injurious to the morals and discipline of the army, but tended to alienate the affections of the people.

Much of the support which the American General had previously experienced from the inhabitants, proceeded from the difference of treatment they received from their own army, compared with what they suffered from the British. The General, whom the inhabitants hitherto regarded as their protector, had now no alternative but to disband his troops, or to support them by force. The army looked to him for provisions; the inhabitants for protection of their property. To supply the one and not offend the other, seemed little less than an impossibility.

To preserve order and subordination in an army of free republicans, even when well fed, paid, and clothed, would have been a work of difficulty; but to retain them in service and restrain them with discipline, when destitute not only of the comforts, but often of the necessaries of life, required address and abilities of such magnitude as are rarely found in human nature. In this choice of difficulties, Gen. Washington not only kept his army together, but conducted with so much discretion as to command the approbation both of the army and of the citizens.

Nothing of decisive importance could be attempted with an army so badly provided, and so deficient in numbers. It did not exceed 13,000 men, while the British, strongly fortified in New-York and Rhode-Island, amounted to 16 or 17,000. These were supported by a powerful fleet, which, by commanding the coasts and the rivers, furnished easy means for concentrating their force in any given point before the Americans could march to the same.

This disparity was particularly striking in the movements of the two armies in the vicinity of the Hudson. Divisions of both were frequently posted on each side of that noble river. While the British could cross directly over and unite their forces in any enterprise, the Americans could not safely effect a correspondent junction, unless they took a considerable circuit to avoid the British shipping.

To preserve West-Point and its dependencies, was a primary object with Washington. To secure these he was obliged to refuse the pressing applications from the neighbouring states for large detachments from the continental army for their local defence. Early in the year, Sir Henry Clinton made some movements up the North river, which indicated an intention of attacking the posts in the Highlands; but in proportion as these were threatened, Washington concentrated his force for their defence. This was done so effectually, that no serious direct attempt was made upon them.

Clinton, hoping to allure the Americans from these fortresses, sent detachments to burn and lay waste the towns on the coast of Connecticut. This was done extensively. Norwalk, Fairfield, and New-London, were destroyed. Washington, adhering to the principle of sacrificing small objects to secure great ones, gave no more aid to the suffering inhabitants than was compatible with the security of West-Point.

Though the force under his immediate command throughout the campaign of 1779, was unequal to any great undertaking, yet his active mind sought for and embraced such opportunities for offensive operations, as might be attempted without hazarding too much.

The principal expedition of this kind, was directed against the Six Nations of Indians, who inhabited the fertile country between the western settlements of New-York and Pennsylvania, and the lakes of Canada. These, from their vicinity and intercourse with the white people, had attained a degree of civilization exceeding what was usual among savages. To them, many refugee tories had fled, and directed them to the settlements, which they laid waster, and at the same time massacred the inhabitants.

In the early period of Washington's life, while the commander of the Virginia troops, he had ample experience of the futility of forts for defence against Indians, and of the superior advantage of carrying offensive operations into their towns and settlements. An invasion of the country of the Six Nations being resolved upon, the commander in chief bestowed much thought on the best mode of conducting it.

The instructions he gave to Gen. Sullivan, who was appointed to this service, were very particular, and much more severe than was usual, but not more so than retaliation justified, or policy recommended. Sullivan, with a considerable force, penetrated into the country of the Indians in three directions, laid wasted their crops, and burnt their towns. His success was decisive, and in a great measure secured the future peace of the frontier settlements. The late residence of the savages was rendered so far uninhabitable, that they were reduced to the necessity of seeking an asylum in the more remote western country.

While the British were laying waste Connecticut, Washington, after reconnoitring the ground in person, planned an expedition against Stony Point, a commanding hill projecting far into the Hudson, on the top of which a fort had been erected, which was garrisoned with about 600 men. One of the motives for assaulting this work, was the hope that, if successful, it might induce the detachment which had invaded Connecticut, to desist from their devastations, and to return to the defence of their own outposts. The enterprise was assigned to Gen. Wayne, who completely succeeded in reducing the fort and capturing its garrison.

Sir Henry Clinton, on receiving intelligence of Wayne's success, relinquished his views on Connecticut, and made a forced march to Dobb's ferry, twenty-six miles above New-York.

The reduction of Stony Point was speedily followed by the surprise of the British garrison at Paules Hook. This was first conceived and planned by Major Henry Lee. On being submitted to Gen. Washington, he favoured the enterprise, but withheld his full assent, till he was satisfied of the practicability of a retreat, of which serious doubts were entertained. Lee, with 300 men, entered the fort about three o'clock in the morning, and with very inconsiderable loss, took 159 prisoners, and brought them off in safety from the vicinity of large bodies of the enemy.

The reasons already mentioned, for avoiding all hazardous offensive operations, were strongly enforced by a well founded expectation that a French fleet would appear on the coast, in the course of the year 1779. Policy required that the American army should be reserved for a co-operation with their allies. The fleet, as expected, did arrive, but in the vicinity of Georgia.

The French troops, in conjunction with the southern army commanded by Gen. Lincoln, made an unsuccessful attempt on the British post in Savannah. This town had been reduced in December 1778, by Col. Campbell, who had proceeded so far as to re-establish British authority in the state of Georgia. Soon after the defeat of the combined forces before Savannah, and the departure of the French fleet from the coast, Sir Henry Clinton proceeded with the principal part of his army to Charleston, and confined his views in New-York to defensive operations.

The campaign of 1779 terminated in the northern states as has been related, without any great events on either side. Washington defeated all the projects of the British for getting possession of the Highlands. The indians were scourged, and a few brilliant strokes kept the public mind from despondence. The Americans went into winter quarters when the month of December was far advanced. These were chosen for the convenience of wood, water, and provisions, and with an eye to the protection of the country.

To this end, the army was thrown into two grand divisions. The northern was put under the command of Gen. Heath, and stationed with a view to the security of West-Point, its dependencies, and the adjacent country. The other retired to Morris-town in New-Jersey. In this situation, which was well calculated to secure the country to the southward of New-York, Washington, with the principal division of his army, took their station for the winter.

The season following their retirement, was uncommonly severe. The British in New-York and Staten-Island no longer enjoyed the security which their insular situation usually afforded. The former suffered from the want of fuel, and other supplies from the country. To add to their difficulties, Washington so disposed his troops as to give the greatest possible obstruction to the communication between the British garrison, and such of the inhabitants without their lines as were disposed to supply their wants. This brought on a partisan war, in which individuals were killed, but without any national effect.

Had Washington been supported as he desired, the weakness of the British army, in consequence of their large detachments to the southward, in conjunction with the severity of the winter, would have given him an opportunity for indulging his native spirit of enterprise.

But he durst not attempt anything on a grand scale, for his army was not only inferior in number to that opposed to him, but so destitute of cloathing as to be unequal to a winter campaign.

 

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