Celebrating 17 years

The Life of George Washington

Chapter Seven: The Campaign of 1780

The military establishment for the year 1780 was nominally 35,000; but these were not voted till the 9th of February, and were not required to be in camp before the first of April following. Notwithstanding these embarrassments, the active mind of Washington looked round for an opportunity of deriving some advantage from the present exposed situation of his adversary. From recent intelligence, he supposed that an attack on about 1,200 British, posted on Staten Island, might be advantageously made, especially in its present state of union with the continent, by an unbroken body of frozen ice.

The prospect of success depended on the chance of a surprise; and if this failed, of reducing the enemy, though retired within their fortifications, before reinforcements could arrive from New-York. The vigilance of the commanding officer prevented the first; the latter could not be depended on; for, contrary to the first received intelligence, the communication between the island and the city, though difficult, was practicable. The works were too strong for an assault, and relief too near to admit the delays of a siege.

Lord Stirling, with 2,500 men, entered the island on the night of the 14th of January. An alarm was instantly and generally communicated to the posts, and a boat dispatched to New-York to communicate intelligence, and to solicit aid. The Americans, after some slight skirmishes, seeing no prospect of success, and apprehensive that a reinforcement from New-York might endanger their safety, very soon commenced their retreat. This was effected without any considerable loss; but from the intenseness of the cold, and deficiency of warm cloathing, several were frost bitten.

Soon after this event, the siege of Charleston commenced, and was so vigorously carried on by Sir Henry Clinton, as to effect the surrender of that place on the 12th of May, 1780. Gen. Washington, at the distance of more than eight hundred miles, could have no personal agency in defending that most important southern part. What was in his power was done, for he weakened himself by detaching from the army under his own immediate command, the troops of North-Carolina, the new levies of Virginia, and the remnants of the southern cavalry.

Though he had never been in Charleston, and was without any personal knowledge of its harbour, yet he gave an opinion respecting it, which evinced the soundness of his practical judgment. In every other case, the defence of towns had been abandoned, so far as to risk no armies for that purpose; but in South-Carolina, Gen. Lincoln, for reasons that were satisfactory to his superiors, adopted a different line of conduct.

Four continental frigates were ordered to the defence of Charleston, and stationed within its bar; and a considerable state marine force co-operated with them. This new mode of defence was the more readily adopted, on the generally received idea, that this marine force could be so disposed of within the bar, as to make effectual opposition to the British ships attempting to cross it. In the course of the siege this was found to be impracticable, and all ideas of disputing the passage of the bar were given up.

This state of things being communicated by Lieut. Col. John Laurens to Gen. Washington, the General replied--- "The impracticability of defending the bar, I fear, amounts to the loss of the town and the garrison. At this distance, it is impossible to judge for you. I have the greatest confidence in Gen. Lincoln's prudence; but it really appears to me, that the propriety of attempting to defend the town, depended on the probability of defending the bar, and that when this ceased, the attempt ought to have been relinquished. In this, however, I suspend a definitive judgment; and wish you to consider what I say as confidential."

The event corresponded with the General's predictions. The British vessels, after crossing the bar without opposition, passed the forts and took such a station in Cooper river, as, in conjunction with the land forces, made the evacuation of the town by the Americans impossible, and finally produced the surrender of their whole southern army.

When intelligence of this catastrophe reached the northern states, the American army was in the greatest distress. This had often been represented to Congress, and was particularly stated to Gen. Schuyler in a letter from Gen. Washington, in the following words: "Since the date of my last, we have had the virtue and patience of the army put to the severest trial. Sometimes it has been five or six days together without bread; at other times as many days without meat; and once or twice two or three days without either.

"I hardly thought it possible, at one period, that we should be able to keep it together, nor could it have been done, but for the exertions of the magistrates in the several counties of this state, on whom I was obliged to call; expose our situation to them; and, in plain terms, declare that we were reduced to the alternative of disbanding or catering for ourselves, unless the inhabitants would afford us their aid.

"I allotted to each county a certain proportion of flour or grain, and a certain number of cattle, to be delivered on certain days; and, for the honour of the magistrates, and the good disposition of the people, I must add, that my requisitions were punctually complied with, and in many counties exceeded. Nothing but this great exertion could have saved the army from dissolution or starving, as we were bereft of every hope from the commissaries.

"At one time the soldiers ate every kind of horse food but hay. Buckwheat, common wheat, rye and Indian corn, composed the meal which made their bread. As an army, they bore it with most heroic patience; but sufferings like these, accompanied by the want of clothes, blankets, &c. will produce frequent desertion in all armies; and so it happened with us, though it did not excite a single mutiny."

The paper money with which the troops were paid, was in a state of depreciation daily increasing. The distresses from this source, though felt in 1778, and still more so in 1779, did not arrive to the highest pitch till the year 1780. Under the pressure of sufferings from this cause, the officers of the Jersey line addressed a memorial to their state legislature, setting forth "that four months pay of a private, would not procure for his family a single bushel of wheat; that the pay of a colonel would not purchase oats for his horse; that a common labourer or express rider, received four times as much as an American officer."

They urged that "unless a speedy and ample remedy was provided, the total dissolution of their line was inevitable." In addition to the insufficiency of their pay and support, other causes of discontent prevailed. The original idea of a continental army to be raised, paid, subsisted, and regulated, upon an equal and uniform principle, had been in a great measure exchanged for state establishments. This mischievous measure partly originated from necessity; for state credit was not quite so much depreciated as continental.

Congress not possessing the means of supporting their army, devolved the business on the component parts of the confederacy. Some states, from their internal ability and local advantages, furnished their troops not only with cloathing, but with many conveniences. Others supplied them with some necessaries, but on a more contracted scale. A few, from their particular situation, could do little, or nothing at all.

The officers and men in the routine of duty mixed daily, and compared circumstances. Those who fared worse than others, were dissatisfied with a service which made such injurious distinctions. From causes of this kind, superadded to a complication of wants and sufferings, a disposition to mutiny began to show itself in the American army.

Very few of the officers were rich. To make an appearance suitable to their station, required an expenditure of the little all which most of them possessed. The supplies from the public were so inadequate as to compel frequent resignations. The officers of whole lines announced their determination to quit the service. The personal influence of Gen. Washington was exerted with the officers in preventing their adoption of such ruinous measures, and with the states to remove the causes which led to them.

Soon after the surrender of the whole southern army, and at the moment the northern was in the greatest distress for the necessaries of life, Gen. Kniphausen passed from New-York into New-Jersey with 5,000 men. These were soon reinforced with a detachment of the victorious troops returned with Sir Henry Clinton from South-Carolina. It is difficult to tell what was the precise object of this expedition. Perhaps the royal commanders hoped to get possession of Morristown, and destroy the American stores. Perhaps they flattered themselves that the inhabitants, dispirited by the recent fall of Charleston, would submit without resistance; and that the soldiers would desert to the royal standard.

Sundry movements took place on both sides, and also smart skirmishes, but without any decisive effects. At one time Washington conjectured that the destruction of his stores was the object of the enemy; at another, that the whole was a feint to draw off his attention, while they pushed up the North river from New-York, to attack West Point.

The American army was stationed with a view to both objects. The security of the stores was attended to, and such a position taken, as would compel the British to fight under great disadvantages, if they risked a general action to get at them. The American General Howe, who commanded at the Highlands, was ordered to concentrate his force for the security of West Point; and Washington, with the principal division of his army, took such a middle position, as enabled him either to fall back to defend his stores, or to advance for the defence of West Point, as circumstance might require.

The first months of the year were spent in these desultory operations. The disasters to the south produced no disposition in the north to give up the contest; but the tardiness of the Congress and of the states; the weakness of government, and the depreciation of the money, deprived Washington of all means of attempting any thing beyond defensive operations.

In this state of languor Marquis de la Fayette arrived from France, with assurances that a French fleet and army might soon be expected on the coast. This roused the Americans from that lethargy into which they seemed to be sinking. Requisitions on the states for men and money, were urged with uncommon earnestness. Washington, in his extensive correspondence throughout the United States, endeavored to stimulate the public mind to such exertions as the approaching crisis required.

In addition to arguments formerly used, he endeavoured on this occasion, by a temperate view of European politics, to convince his countrymen of the real danger of their independence, if they neglected to improve the advantages they might obtain by a great and manly effort, in conjunction with the succours expected from France.

The resolutions of Congress for this purpose were slowly executed. The quotas assigned to the several states were by their respective legislatures apportioned on the several counties and towns. These divisions were again subdivided into classes, and each class was called upon to furnish a man. This predominance of state systems over those which were national, was foreseen and lamented by the commander in chief.

In a letter to a member of the national legislature he observed, "that unless Congress speaks in a more decisive tone; unless they are vested with powers by the several states competent to the great purposes of the war, or assume them as a matter of right, and they and the states respectively act with more energy than hitherto they have done; our cause is lost.

"We can no longer drudge on in the old way. By illtiming the adoption of measures; by delays in the execution of them, or by unwarrantable jealousies, we incur enormous expenses, and derive no benefit. One state will comply with a requisition from Congress; another neglects to do it; a third executes it by halves; and all differ in the manner, the matter, or so much in point of time, that we are always working up hill; and while such a system as the present one, or rather want of one, prevails, we ever shall be unable to apply our strength or resources to any advantage.

"This, my dear sir, is plain language to a member of Congress; but it is the language of truth and friendship. It is the result of long thinking, close application, and strict observation. I see one head gradually changing into thirteen; and, instead of looking up to Congress as the supreme controlling power of the United States, considering themselves as dependent on their respective states. In a word, I see the power of Congress declining too fast for the consequence and respect which are due to them as the great representative body of America, and am fearful of the consequences."

From the embarrassments which cramped the operations of Washington, a partial temporary relief was obtained from private sources. When Congress could neither command money nor credit for the subsistence of their army, the citizens of Philadelphia formed an association to procure a supply of necessary articles for their suffering soldiers. The sum of 300,000 dollars was subscribed in a few days, and converted into a bank, the principal design of which was to purchase provisions for the troops in the most prompt and efficacious manner. The advantages of this institution were great, and particularly enhanced by the critical time in which it was instituted.

The Ladies of Philadelphia, about the same time, subscribed large donations for the immediate relief of the suffering soldiers. These supplies, though liberal, were far short of a sufficiency for the army. So late as the 20th of June, Gen. Washington informed Congress that he still laboured under the painful and humiliating embarrassment of having no shirts to deliver to the troops, many of whom were absolutely destitute of that necessary article; nor were they much better supplied with summer overalls.

"For the troops to be without cloathing at any time," he added, "is highly injurious to the service, and distressing to our feelings; but the want will be more peculiarly mortifying when they come to act with those of our allies. If it be possible, I have no doubt immediate measures will be taken to relieve their distress.

"It is also most sincerely to be wished that there could be some supplies of cloathing furnished to the officers. There are a great many whose condition is miserable. This is, in some instances, the case with whole lines. It would be well for their own sakes, and for the public good, if they could be furnished. They will not be able, when our friends come to co-operate with us, to go on a common routine of duty; and if they should, they must from their appearance be held in low estimation."

The complicated arrangements for raising and supporting the American army, which was voted for the campaign, were so tardily executed that when the summer was far advanced, Washington was uninformed of the force on which he might rely; and of course could not fix on any certain plan of operations for the combined armies. In a letter to Congress he expressed his embarrassment in the following words--

"The season is come when we have every reason to expect the arrival of the fleet; and yet for want of this point of primary consequence, it is impossible for me to form a system of co-operation. I have no basis to act upon , and of course were this generous succour of our ally to arrive, I should find my self in the most awkward, embarrassing, and painful situation. The General and the Admiral, as soon as they approach our coast, will require of me a plan of the measures to be pursued, and there ought of right to be one prepared; but circumstanced as I am, I cannot even give them conjectures.

"From these considerations I yesterday suggested to the committee the indispensable necessity of their writing again to the states, urging them to give immediate and precise information of the measures they have taken, and of the result. The interest of the states-- the honour and reputation of our councils-- the justice and gratitude due to our allies-- all require that I should without delay be enabled to ascertain and inform them what we can or cannot undertake.

"There is a point which ought now to be determined, on the success of which all our future operations may depend; on which, for want of knowing our prospects, I can make no decision. For fear of involving the fleet and army of our allies in circumstances which would expose them, if not seconded by us, to material inconvenience and hazard, I shall be compelled to suspend it, and the delay may be fatal to our hopes."

In this state of uncertainty, Washington meditated by night and day on the various contingencies which were probable. He revolved the possible situations in which the contending armies might be placed, and endeavoured to prepare for every plan of combined operations which future contingent events might render adviseable.

On the 10th of July the expected French fleet and army appeared on the coast of Rhode-Island. The former consisted of seven sail of the line, five frigates, and five smaller vessels. The latter of 6,000 men. The Chevalier Terney and Count Rochambeau, who commanded the fleet and army, immediately transmitted to Gen. Washington an account of their arrival, of their strength, their expectations, and orders.

At that time not more than one thousand men had joined the American army. A commander of no more than common firmness, would have resigned his commission in disgust, for not being supported by his country. Very different was the line of conduct adopted by Washington. Trusting that the promised support would be forwarded with all possible dispatch, he sent on to the French commanders by the Marquis de la Fayette, definite proposals for commencing the siege of New-York.

Of this he gave information to Congress in a letter, in the following words: "Pressed on all sides by a choice of difficulties, in a moment which required decision, I have adopted that line of conduct which comported with the dignity and faith of Congress, the reputation of these states, and the honour of our arms. I have sent on definitive proposals of co-operation to the French General and Admiral. Neither the period of the season, nor a regard to decency, would permit delay.

"The die is cast; and it remains with the states either to fulfill their engagements, preserve their credit, and support their independence, or to involve us in disgrace and defeat. Notwithstanding the failures pointed out by the committee, I shall proceed on the supposition that they will ultimately consult own interest and honour, and not suffer us to fail for the want of means, which it is evidently in their power to afford.

"What has been done, and is doing by some of the states, confirms the opinion I have entertained, of sufficient resources in the country. Of the disposition of the people to submit to any arrangement for bringing them forth, I see no reasonable ground to doubt. If we fail for want of proper exertions in any of the governments, I trust the responsibility will fall where it ought, and that I shall stand justified to Congress, my country, and the world."

The fifth of the next month, August, was named as the day when the French troops should embark, and the American army assemble in Morrisania, for the purpose of commencing their combined operations.

Very soon after the arrival of the French fleet, Admiral Greaves reinforced the British naval force in the harbour of New-York, with six ships of the line. Hitherto the French had a naval superiority. Without it, all prospect of success in the proposed attack on New-York was visionary; but this being suddenly and unexpectedly reversed, the plan for combined operations became eventual.

The British Admiral having now the superiority, proceeded to Rhode-Island to attack the French in that quarter. He soon discovered that the French were perfectly secure from any attack by sea. Sir Henry Clinton, who had returned in the preceding month with his victorious troops from Charleston, embarked about 8,000 of his best men, and proceeded as far as Huntingdon Bay, on Long-Island, with the apparent design of concurring with the British fleet in attacking the French force at Rhode-Island.

When this movement took place, Washington set his army in motion, and proceeded to Peekskill. Had Sir Henry Clinton prosecuted what appeared to be his design, Washington intended to have attacked New-York in his absence. Preparations were made for this purpose, but Sir Henry Clinton instantly turned about from Huntingdon Bay towards New-York.

In the mean time, the French fleet and army being blocked up at Rhode-Island, were incapacitated from co-operating with the Americans. Hopes were nevertheless indulged, that by the arrival of another fleet of his Most Christian Majesty, then in the West-Indies, under the command of Count de Guichen, the superiority would be so much in favour of the allies, as to enable them to prosecute their original intention of attacking New-York. When the expectations of the Americans were raised to the highest pitch, and when they were in great forwardness of preparation to act in concert with their allies, intelligence arrived that Count de Guichen had sailed for France. This disappointment was extremely mortifying.

Washington still adhered to his purpose of attacking New-York at some future more favourable period. On this subject he corresponded with the French commanders, and had a personal interview with them on the twenty-first of September, at Hartford. The arrival of Admiral Rodney on the American coast, a short time after, with eleven ships of the line, disconcerted for that season, all the plans of the allies.

Washington felt with infinite regret, a succession of abortive projects throughout the campaign of 1780. In that year, and not before, he had indulged the hope of happily terminating the war. In a letter to a friend, he wrote as follows:

"We are now drawing to a close an inactive campaign, the beginning of which appeared pregnant with events of a very favourable complexion. I hoped, but I hoped in vain, that a prospect was opening which would enable me to fix a period to my military pursuits, and restore me to domestic life. The favourable disposition of Spain; the promised succour from France; the combined force in the West-Indies; the declaration of Russia, (acceded to by other powers of Europe, humiliating the naval pride and power of Great-Britain;) the superiority of France and Spain by sea, in Europe; the Irish claims, and English disturbances, formed in the aggregate an opinion in my breast, (which is not very susceptible of peaceful dreams,) that the hour of deliverance was not far distant: for that, however unwilling Great-Britain might be to yield the point, it would not be in her power to continue the contest.

"But alas! these prospects, flattering as they were, have proved delusory; and I see nothing before us but accumulating distress. We have been half of our time without provisions, and are likely to continue so. We have no magazines, nor money to form them. We have lived upon expedients until we can live no longer.

"In a word, the history of the war is a history of false hopes and temporary devices, instead of system and economy. It is in vain, however, to look back; nor is it our business to do so.

"Our case is not desperate, if virtue exists in the people, and there is wisdom among our rulers. But, to suppose that this great revolution can be accomplished by a temporary army; that this army will be subsisted by state supplies; and that taxation alone is adequate to our wants, is, in my opinion, absurd."

 

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