Washington was not a professional soldier, though he had seen the realities of war and had moved in military society. Perhaps it was an advantage that he had not received the rigid training of a regular, for he faced conditions which required an elastic mind.
The force besieging Boston consisted at first chiefly of New England militia, with companies of minute-men, so called because of their supposed readiness to fight at a minute's notice. Washington had been told that he should find 20,000 men under his command; he found, in fact, a nominal army of 17,000, with probably not more than 14,000 effective, and the number tended to decline as the men went away to their homes after the first vivid interest gave way to the humdrum of military life.
The extensive camp before Boston, as Washington now saw it, expressed the varied character of his strange command. Cambridge, the seat of Harvard College, was still only a village with a few large houses and park-like grounds set among fields of grain, now trodden down by the soldiers. Here was placed in haphazard style the motley housing of a military camp. The occupants had followed their own taste in building. One could see structures covered with turf, looking like lumps of mother earth, tents made of sail cloth, huts of bare boards, huts of brick and stone, some having doors and windows of wattled basketwork. There were not enough huts to house the army nor camp-kettles for cooking. Blankets were so few that many of the men were without covering at night. In the warm summer weather this did not much matter but bleak autumn and harsh winter would bring bitter privation. The sick in particular suffered severely, for the hospitals were badly equipped.
A deep conviction inspired many of the volunteers. They regarded as brutal tyranny the tax on tea, considered in England as a mild expedient for raising needed revenue for defense in the colonies. The men of Suffolk County, Massachusetts, meeting in September, 1774, had declared in high-flown terms that the proposed tax came from a parricide who held a dagger at their bosoms and that those who resisted him would earn praises to eternity. From nearly every colony came similar utterances, and flaming resentment at injustice filled the volunteer army. Many a soldier would not touch a cup of tea because tea had been the ruin of his country. Some wore pinned to their hats or coats the words "Liberty or Death" and talked of resisting tyranny until "time shall be no more." It was a dark day for the motherland when so many of her sons believed that she was the enemy of liberty. The iron of this conviction entered into the soul of the American nation; at Gettysburg, nearly a century later, Abraham Lincoln, in a noble utterance which touched the heart of humanity, could appeal to the days of the Revolution, when "our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty." The colonists believed that they were fighting for something of import to all mankind, and the nation which they created believes it still.
An age of war furnishes, however, occasion for the exercise of baser impulses. The New Englander was a trader by instinct. An army had come suddenly together and there was golden promise of contracts for supplies at fat profits. The leader from Virginia, untutored in such things, was astounded at the greedy scramble. Before the year 1775 ended Washington wrote to his friend Lee that he prayed God he might never again have to witness such lack of public spirit, such jobbing and self-seeking, such "fertility in all the low arts," as now he found at Cambridge. He declared that if he could have foreseen all this nothing would have induced him to take the command. Later, the young La Fayette, who had left behind him in France wealth and luxury in order to fight a hard fight in America, was shocked at the slackness and indifference among the supposed patriots for whose cause he was making sacrifices so heavy. In the backward parts of the colonies the population was densely ignorant and had little grasp of the deeper meaning of the patriot cause.
The army was, as Washington himself said, "a mixed multitude." There was every variety of dress. Old uniforms, treasured from the days of the last French wars, had been dug out. A military coat or a cocked hat was the only semblance of uniform possessed by some of the officers. Rank was often indicated by ribbons of different colors tied on the arm. Lads from the farms had come in their usual dress; a good many of these were hunters from the frontier wearing the buckskin of the deer they had slain. Sometimes there was clothing of grimmer material. Later in the war in American officer recorded that his men had skinned two dead Indians "from their hips down, for bootlegs, one pair for the Major, the other for myself." The volunteers varied greatly in age. There were bearded veterans of sixty and a sprinkling of lads of sixteen. An observer laughed at the boys and the "great great grandfathers" who marched side by side in the army before Boston. Occasionally a black face was seen in the ranks. One of Washington's tasks was to reduce the disparity of years and especially to secure men who could shoot. In the first enthusiasm of 1775 so many men volunteered in Virginia that a selection was made on the basis of accuracy in shooting. The men fired at a range of one hundred and fifty yards at an outline of a man's nose in chalk on a board. Each man had a single shot and the first men shot the nose entirely away.
Undoubtedly there was the finest material among the men lounging about their quarters at Cambridge in fashion so unmilitary. In physique they were larger than the British soldier, a result due to abundant food and free life in the open air from childhood. Most of the men supplied their own uniform and rifles and much barter went on in the hours after drill. The men made and sold shoes, clothes, and even arms. They were accustomed to farm life and good at digging and throwing up entrenchments. The colonial mode of waging war was, however, not that of Europe. To the regular soldier of the time even earth entrenchments seemed a sign of cowardice. The brave man would come out on the open to face his foe. Earl Percy, who rescued the harassed British on the day of Lexington, had the poorest possible opinion of those on what he called the rebel side. To him they were intriguing rascals, hypocrites, cowards, with sinister designs to ruin the Empire. But he was forced to admit that they fought well and faced death willingly.
In time Washington gathered about him a fine body of officers, brave, steady, and efficient. On the great issue they, like himself, had unchanging conviction, and they and he saved the revolution. But a good many of his difficulties were due to bad officers. He had himself the reverence for gentility, the belief in an ordered grading of society, characteristic of his class in that age. In Virginia the relation of master and servant was well understood and the tone of authority was readily accepted. In New England conceptions of equality were more advanced. The extent to which the people would brook the despotism of military command was uncertain. From the first some of the volunteers had elected their officers. The result was that intriguing demagogues were sometimes chosen. The Massachusetts troops, wrote a Connecticut captain, not free, perhaps, from local jealousy, were "commanded by a most despicable set of officers." At Bunker Hill officers of this type shirked the fight and their men, left without leaders, joined in the panicky retreat of that day. Other officers sent away soldiers to work on their farms while at the same time they drew for them public pay. At a later time Washington wrote to a friend wise counsel about the choice of officers. "Take none but gentlemen; let no local attachment influence you; do not suffer your good nature to say Yes when you ought to say No. Remember that it is a public, not a private cause." What he desired was the gentleman's chivalry of refinement, sense of honor, dignity of character, and freedom from mere self-seeking. The prime qualities of a good officer, as he often said, were authority and decision. It is probably true of democracies that they prefer and will follow the man who will take with them a strong tone. Little men, however, cannot see this and think to gain support by shifty changes of opinion to please the multitude. What authority and decision could be expected from an officer of the peasant type, elected by his own men? How could he dominate men whose short term of service was expiring and who had to be coaxed to renew it? Some elected officers had to promise to pool their pay with that of their men. In one company an officer fulfilled the double position of captain and barber. In time, however, the authority of military rank came to be respected throughout the whole army. An amusing contrast with earlier conditions is found in 1779 when a captain was tried by a brigade court-martial and dismissed from the service for intimate association with the wagon-maker of the brigade.
The first thing to do at Cambridge was to get rid of the inefficient and the corrupt. Washington had never any belief in a militia army. From his earliest days as a soldier he had favored conscription, even in free Virginia. He had then found quite ineffective the "whooping, holloing gentlemen soldiers" of the volunteer force of the colony among whom "every individual has his own crude notion of things and must undertake to direct. If his advice is neglected he thinks himself slighted, abused, and injured and, to redress his wrongs, will depart for his home." Washington found at Cambridge too many officers. Then as later in the American army there were swarms of colonels. The officers from Massachusetts, conscious that they had seen the first fighting in the great cause, expected special consideration from a stranger serving on their own soil. Soon they had a rude awakening. Washington broke a Massachusetts colonel and two captains because they had proved cowards at Bunker Hill, two more captains for fraud in drawing pay and provisions for men who did not exist, and still another for absence from his post when he was needed. He put in jail a colonel, a major, and three or four other officers. "New lords, new laws," wrote in his diary Mr. Emerson, the chaplain: "the Generals Washington and Lee are upon the lines every day... great distinction is made between officers and soldiers."
The term of all the volunteers in Washington's any expired by the end of 1775, so that he had to create a new army during the siege of Boston. He spoke scornfully of an enemy so little enterprising as to remain supine during the process. But probably the British were wise to avoid a venture inland and to remain in touch with their fleet. Washington made them uneasy when he drove away the cattle from the neighborhood. Soon beef was selling in Boston for as much as eighteen pence a pound. Food might reach Boston in ships but supplies even by sea were insecure, for the Americans soon had privateers manned by seamen familiar with New England waters and happy in expected gains from prize money. The British were anxious about the elementary problem of food. They might have made Washington more uncomfortable by forays and alarms. Only reluctantly, however, did Howe, who took over the command on October 10, 1775, admit to himself that this was a real war. He still hoped for settlement without further bloodshed. Washington was glad to learn that the British were laying in supplies of coal for the winter. It meant that they intended to stay in Boston, where, more than in any other place, he could make trouble for them.
Washington had more on his mind than the creation of an army and the siege of Boston. He had also to decide the strategy of the war. On the long American sea front Boston alone remained in British hands. New York, Philadelphia, Charleston and other ports farther south were all, for the time, on the side of the Revolution. Boston was not a good naval base for the British, since it commanded no great waterway leading inland. The sprawling colonies, from the rock-bound coast of New England to the swamps and forests of Georgia, were strong in their incoherent vastness. There were a thousand miles of seacoast. Only rarely were considerable settlements to be found more than a hundred miles distant from salt water. An army marching to the interior would have increasing difficulties from transport and supplies. Wherever water routes could be used the naval power of the British gave them an advantage. One such route was the Hudson, less a river than a navigable arm of the sea, leading to the heart of the colony of New York, its upper waters almost touching Lake George and Lake Champlain, which in turn led to the St. Lawrence in Canada and thence to the sea. Canada was held by the British; and it was clear that, if they should take the city of New York, they might command the whole line from the mouth of the Hudson to the St. Lawrence, and so cut off New England from the other colonies and overcome a divided enemy. To foil this policy Washington planned to hold New York and to capture Canada. With Canada in line the union of the colonies would be indeed continental, and, if the British were driven from Boston, they would have no secure foothold in North America.
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