By the spring of 1775 Massachusetts was practically in rebellion. Every village green was a drill-ground, every church a town arsenal. General Gage occupied Boston with 3,000 British regulars. The flames were smouldering; at the slightest puff they would flash out into open war.
On the night of April 18th people along the road from Boston to Concord were roused from sleep by the cry of flying couriers--"To arms! The redcoats are coming!" When the British advance reached Lexington at early dawn, it found sixty or seventy minute-men drawn up on the green. "Disperse, ye rebels!" shouted the British officer. A volley was fired, and seven Americans fell dead. The king's troops, with a shout, pushed on to Concord. Most of the military stores, however, which they had come to destroy had been removed. A British detachment advanced to Concord Bridge, and in the skirmish here the Americans returned the British fire.
[Illustration: Map from the Mississippi to the Atlantic, Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.] Map of the United Colonies at the Beginning of the Revolution.
"By the rude bridge that arched the flood, Their flag to April's breeze unfurled, Here once the embattled farmers stood, And fired the shot heard round the world."
[Footnote: From R. W. Emerson's Concord Hymn, sung at the completion of the Battle Monument near Concord North Bridge, April 19, 1836.]
[Illustration: Sketch of Bunker Hill and Breed's Hill.] A Profile View of the Heights of Charlestown.
The whole country was by this time swarming with minute-men. The crack of the rifle was heard from behind every wall and fence and tree along the line of march. The redcoats kept falling one by one at the hands of an invisible foe. The march became a retreat, the retreat almost a rout. At sunset the panting troops found shelter in Boston. Out of 1,800 nearly 300 were killed, wounded, or missing. The American loss was about ninety. The war of the rebellion had begun.
All that day and the next night the tramp of minute-men marching to Boston was heard throughout New England, and by April 20th Gage was cooped up in the city by an American army. May 25th, he received large re-enforcements from England.
On the night of June 16th a thousand men armed with pick and spade stole out of the American camp. At dawn the startled British found that a redoubt had sprung up in the night on Breed's Hill (henceforward Bunker Hill) in Charlestown. Boston was endangered, and the rebels must be dislodged. About half-past two 2,500 British regulars marched silently and in perfect order up the hill, expecting to drive out the "rustics" at the first charge. Colonel Prescott, the commanding American officer, waited till the regulars were within ten rods. "Fire!" A sheet of flame burst from the redoubt. The front ranks of the British melted away, and His Majesty's invincibles retreated in confusion to the foot of the hill. Again they advance. Again that terrible fire. Again they waver and fall back. Once more the plucky fellows form for the charge, this time with bayonets alone. When they are within twenty yards, the muskets behind the earthworks send forth one deadly discharge, and then are silent. The ammunition is exhausted. The British swarm into the redoubt. The Continentals reluctantly retire, Prescott among the last, his coat rent by bayonets. Joseph Warren, of Boston, the idol of Massachusetts, was shot while leaving the redoubt. The British killed and wounded amounted to 1,054--157 of them being officers; the American loss was nearly 500. The battle put an end to further offensive movements by Gage. It was a virtual victory for the untrained farmer troops, and all America took courage.
[Illustration: Map of Boston, the Mystic river on the North, the Charles river on the South.] Plan of Bunker Hill.
[Illustration: Drawing of Boston harbor.] A. Boston Battery. B. Charlestown. C. British troops attacking. D. Provincial lines. Bunker Hill Battle. From a Contemporary Print.
Two days before, Congress had chosen George Washington commander-in-chief, and on July 2d he arrived at Cambridge. Washington was forty-three years old. Over six feet in height, and well-proportioned, he combined great dignity with ease. His early life as surveyor in a wild country had developed in him marvellous powers of endurance. His experience in the French and Indian War had given him considerable military knowledge. But his best title to the high honor now thrust upon him lay in his wonderful self-control, sound judgment, lofty patriotism, and sublime courage, which were to carry him, calm and unflinching, through perplexities and discouragements that would have overwhelmed a smaller or a meaner man.
Washington fought England with his hands tied. The Continental government was the worst possible for carrying on war. There was no executive. The action of legislative committees was slow and vacillating, and at best Congress could not enforce obedience on the part of a colony. Congress, too, afraid of a standing army, would authorize only short enlistments, so that Washington had frequently to discharge one army and form another in the face of the enemy. His troops were ill-disciplined, and scantily supplied with clothing, tents, weapons, and ammunition. Skilled officers were few, and these rarely free from local and personal jealousies, impairing their efficiency.
Washington found that the army around Boston consisted of about 14,500 men fit for duty. He estimated the British forces at 11,000. All the fall and winter he was obliged to lie inactive for want of powder. Meantime he distressed the British as much as possible by a close siege. In the spring, having got more powder, he fortified Dorchester Heights. The city was now untenable, and on March 17, 1776, all the British troops, under command of Howe who had succeeded Gage, sailed out of Boston harbor, never again to set foot on Massachusetts soil.
[Illustration: Portrait.] Joseph Warren.
June 28th, a British fleet of ten vessels opened fire on Fort Moultrie, in Charleston harbor, S. C. The fort, commanded by Colonel Moultrie, returned the fire with remarkable accuracy, and after an engagement of twelve hours the fleet withdrew, badly crippled. This victory gave security to South Carolina and Georgia for three years.
The discomfited fleet sailed for New York, where the British forces were concentrating. The plan was to seize the Middle States, and thus keep North and South from helping one another. August 1st, 2,500 English troops and 8,000 Hessians arrived. The effective British force was now about 25,000. Washington was holding New York City with about 10,000 men fit for duty.
Driven from Long Island by the battle of August 27th, and forced to abandon New York September 15th, Washington retreated up the Hudson, and took up a strong position at White Plains. Here the British, attacking, were defeated in a well-fought engagement; but as they were strongly re-enforced on October 30th, Washington fell back to Newcastle. Early in November, guessing that they intended to invade New Jersey and advance on Philadelphia, he threw his main force across the Hudson.
[Illustration: Portrait.] General Howe.
The fortunes of the American army were now at the lowest ebb, so that had Howe been an efficient general it must have been either captured or entirely destroyed. Through the treason of Adjutant Demont, who had deserted to Lord Percy with complete information of their weakness, Forts Washington and Lee were captured, November 16th and 20th, with the loss of 150 killed and wounded, and 2,634 prisoners, besides valuable stores, small arms, and forty-three pieces of artillery. Manhattan Island was lost. General Charles Lee, with a considerable portion of the army, persistently refused to cross the Hudson. Washington, with the troops remaining, was forced to retreat slowly across New Jersey, the British army, under Cornwallis, at his very heels, often within cannon-shot. The New Jersey people were lukewarm, and many accepted Cornwallis's offers of amnesty. Congress, fearing that Philadelphia would be taken, adjourned to Baltimore. December 8th, Washington crossed the Delaware with less than 3,000 men. The British encamped on the opposite bank of the river. The American army was safe for the present, having secured all the boats and burned all the bridges within seventy miles.
[Illustration: Map.] Map of Manhattan Island in 1776, showing the American Defences, etc.
[Illustration: Caricature.] General Charles Lee. Although intended for a caricature, this is considered an excellent likeness.
Washington was soon re-enforced, and now had between five and six thousand troops. He determined to strike a bold blow that would electrify the drooping spirits of the army and the country. At Trenton lay a body of 1,200 Hessians. Christmas night Washington crossed the Delaware with 2,400 picked men. The current was swift, and the river full of floating ice; but the boats were handled by Massachusetts fishermen, and the passage was safely made. Then began the nine-mile march to Trenton, in a blinding storm of sleet and hail. The soldiers, many of whom were almost barefoot, stumbled on over the slippery road, shielding their muskets from the storm as best they could. Trenton was reached at eight o'clock on the morning of the 26th. An attack was made by two columns simultaneously. The surprise was complete, and after a half hour's struggle the Hessians surrendered. Nearly 1,000 prisoners were taken, besides 1,200 small arms and six guns. Washington safely retreated across the Delaware.
Cornwallis, with 7,000 men, hurried from Princeton to attack the American army. But Washington, on the night of January 2, 1777, leaving his camp-fires burning, slipped around the British army, routed the regiments left at Princeton, and pushing on northward went into winter quarters at Morristown.
The next campaign opened late. It was the last of August when Howe, with 17,000 men, sailed from New York into Chesapeake Bay, and advanced toward Philadelphia. Washington flung himself in his path at Brandywine, September 11th, but was beaten back with heavy loss. September 26th the British army marched into Philadelphia, whence Congress had fled. October 4th, Washington attacked the British camp at Germantown. Victory was almost his when two of the attacking parties, mistaking each other, in the fog, for British, threw the movement into confusion, and Washington had to fall back, with a loss of 1,000 men.
In December the American commander led his ragged army into winter quarters at Valley Forge, twenty-one miles from Philadelphia. It was a period of deep gloom. The war had been waged now for more than two years, and less than nothing seemed to have been accomplished. Distrust of Washington's ability sprang up in some minds. "Heaven grant us one great soul!" exclaimed John Adams after Brandywine. Certain officers, envious of Washington, began to intrigue for his place.
Meanwhile the army was shivering in its log huts at Valley Forge. Nearly three thousand were barefoot. Many had to sit by the fires all night to keep from freezing. One day there was a dinner of officers to which none were admitted who had whole trousers. For days together there was no bread in camp. The death-rate increased thirty-three per cent from week to week.
Just now, however, amid this terrible Winter at Valley Forge, Baron Steuben, a trained German soldier, who had been a pupil of Frederick the Great, joined our army. Washington made him inspector-general, and his rigorous daily drill vastly improved the discipline and the spirits of the American troops. When they left camp in the spring, spite of the hardships past, they formed a military force on which Washington could reckon with certainty for efficient work.
[Illustration: Portrait.] Baron von Steuben.
The British, after a gay winter in Philadelphia, startled by the news that a French fleet was on its way to America, marched for New York, June 18,1778. The American army overtook them at Monmouth on the 28th; General Charles Lee--a traitor as we now know, and as Washington then suspected, forced into high place by influence in Congress--General Lee led the party intended to attack, but he delayed so long that the British attacked him instead.
The Americans were retreating through a narrow defile when Washington came upon the field, and his Herculean efforts, brilliantly seconded by Wayne, stayed the rout. A stout stand was made, and the British were held at bay till evening, when they retired and continued their march to New York. Washington followed and took up his station at White Plains.