Washington had met defeat in every considerable battle at which he was personally present. His first appearance in military history, in the Ohio campaign against the French, twenty-two years before the Revolution, was marked by a defeat, the surrender of Fort Necessity. Again in the next year, when he fought to relieve the disaster to Braddock's army, defeat was his portion.
Defeat had pursued him in the battles of the Revolution --before New York, at the Brandywine, at Germantown. The campaign against Canada, which he himself planned, had failed. He had lost New York and Philadelphia. But, like William III of England, who in his long struggle with France hardly won a battle and yet forced Louis XIV to accept his terms of peace, Washington, by suddenness in reprisal, by skill in resource when his plans seemed to have been shattered, grew on the hard rock of defeat the flower of victory.
There was never a time when Washington was not trusted by men of real military insight or by the masses of the people. But a general who does not win victories in the field is open to attack. By the winter of 1777 when Washington, with his army reduced and needy, was at Valley Forge keeping watch on Howe in Philadelphia, John Adams and others were talking of the sin of idolatry in the worship of Washington, of its flavor of the accursed spirit of monarchy, and of the punishment which "the God of Heaven and Earth" must inflict for such perversity. Adams was all against a Fabian policy and wanted to settle issues forever by a short and strenuous war. The idol, it was being whispered, proved after all to have feet of clay. One general, and only one, had to his credit a really great victory--Gates, to whom Burgoyne had surrendered at Saratoga, and there was a movement to replace Washington by this laureled victor.
General Conway, an Irish soldier of fortune, was one of the most troublesome in this plot. He had served in the campaign about Philadelphia but had been blocked in his extravagant demands for promotion; so he turned for redress to Gates, the star in the north. A malignant campaign followed in detraction of Washington. He had, it was said, worn out his men by useless marches; with an army three times as numerous as that of Howe, he had gained no victory; there was high fighting quality in the American army if properly led, but Washington despised the militia; a Gates or a Lee or a Conway would save the cause as Washington could not; and so on. "Heaven has determined to save your country or a weak general and bad counsellors would have ruined it"; so wrote Conway to Gates and Gates allowed the letter to be seen. The words were reported to Washington, who at once, in high dudgeon, called Conway to account. An explosion followed. Gates both denied that he had received a letter with the passage in question, and, at the same time, charged that there had been tampering with his private correspondence. He could not have it both ways. Conway was merely impudent in reply to Washington, but Gates laid the whole matter before Congress. Washington wrote to Gates, in reply to his denials, ironical references to "rich treasures of knowledge and experience" "guarded with penurious reserve" by Conway from his leaders but revealed to Gates. There was no irony in Washington's reference to malignant detraction and mean intrigue. At the same time he said to Gates: "My temper leads me to peace and harmony with all men," and he deplored the internal strife which injured the great cause. Conway soon left America. Gates lived to command another American army and to end his career by a crowning disaster.
Washington had now been for more than two years in the chief command and knew his problems. It was a British tradition that standing armies were a menace to liberty, and the tradition had gained strength in crossing the sea. Washington would have wished a national army recruited by Congress alone and bound to serve for the duration of the war. There was much talk at the time of a "new model army" similar in type to the wonderful creation of Oliver Cromwell. The Thirteen Colonies became, however, thirteen nations. Each reserved the right to raise its own levies in its own way. To induce men to enlist Congress was twice handicapped. First, it had no power of taxation and could only ask the States to provide what it needed. The second handicap was even greater. When Congress offered bounties to those who enlisted in the Continental army, some of the States offered higher bounties for their own levies of militia, and one authority was bidding against the other. This encouraged short-term enlistments. If a man could re-enlist and again secure a bounty, he would gain more than if he enlisted at once for the duration of the war.
An army is an intricate mechanism needing the same variety of agencies that is required for the well-being of a community. The chief aim is, of course, to defeat the enemy, and to do this an army must be prepared to move rapidly. Means of transport, so necessary in peace, are even more urgently needed in war. Thus Washington always needed military engineers to construct roads and bridges. Before the Revolution the greater part of such services had been provided in America by the regular British army, now the enemy. British officers declared that the American army was without engineers who knew the science of war, and certainly the forts on which they spent their skill in the North, those on the lower Hudson, and at Ticonderoga, at the head of Lake George, fell easily before the assailant. Good maps were needed, and in this Washington was badly served, though the defect was often corrected by his intimate knowledge of the country. Another service ill-equipped was what we should now call the Red Cross. Epidemics, and especially smallpox, wrought havoc in the army. Then, as now, shattered nerves were sometimes the result of the strain of military life. "The wind of a ball," what we should now call shellshock, sometimes killed men whose bodies appeared to be uninjured. To our more advanced knowledge the medical science of the time seems crude. The physicians of New England, today perhaps the most expert body of medical men in the world, were even then highly skillful. But the surgeons and nurses were too few. This was true of both sides in the conflict. Prisoners in hospitals often suffered terribly and each side brought charges of ill-treatment against the other. The prison-ships in the harbor of New York, where American prisoners were confined, became a scandal, and much bitter invective against British brutality is found in the literature of the period. The British leaders, no less than Washington himself, were humane men, and ignorance and inadequate equipment will explain most of the hardships, though an occasional officer on either side was undoubtedly callous in respect to the sufferings of the enemy.
Food and clothing, the first vital necessities of an army, were often deplorably scarce. In a land of farmers there was food enough. Its lack in the army was chiefly due to bad transport. Clothing was another matter. One of the things insisted upon in a well-trained army is a decent regard for appearance, and in the eyes of the French and the British officers the American army usually seemed rather unkempt. The formalities of dress, the uniformity of pipe-clay and powdered hair, of polished steel and brass, can of course be overdone. The British army had too much of it, but to Washington's force the danger was of having too little. It was not easy to induce farmers and frontiersmen who at home began the day without the use of water, razor, or brush, to appear on parade clean, with hair powdered, faces shaved, and clothes neat. In the long summer days the men were told to shave before going to bed that they might prepare the more quickly for parade in the morning, and to fill their canteens over night if an early march was imminent. Some of the regiments had uniforms which gave them a sufficiently smart appearance. The cocked hat, the loose hunting shirt with its fringed border, the breeches of brown leather or duck, the brown gaiters or leggings, the powdered hair, were familiar marks of the soldier of the Revolution.
During a great part of the war, however, in spite of supplies brought from both lance and the West Indies, Washington found it difficult to secure for his men even decent clothing of any kind, whether of military cut or not. More than a year after he took command, in the fighting about New York, a great part of his army had no more semblance of uniform than hunting shirts on a common pattern. In the following December, he wrote of many men as either shivering in garments fit only for summer wear or as entirely naked. There was a time in the later campaign in the South when hundreds of American soldiers marched stark naked, except for breech cloths. One of the most pathetic hardships of the soldier's life was due to the lack of boots. More than one of Washington's armies could be tracked by the bloody footprints of his barefooted men. Near the end of the war Benedict Arnold, who knew whereof he spoke, described the American army as "illy clad, badly fed, and worse paid," pay being then two or three years overdue. On the other hand, there is evidence that life in the army was not without its compensations. Enforced dwelling in the open air saved men from diseases such as consumption and the movement from camp to camp gave a broader outlook to the farmer's sons. The army could usually make a brave parade. On ceremonial occasions the long hair of the men would be tied back and made white with powder, even though their uniforms were little more than rags.
The men carried weapons some of which, in, at any rate, the early days of the war, were made by hand at the village smithy. A man might take to the war a weapon forged by himself. The American soldier had this advantage over the British soldier, that he used, if not generally, at least in some cases, not the smooth-bore musket but the grooved rifle by which the ball was made to rotate in its flight. The fire from this rifle was extremely accurate. At first weapons were few and ammunition was scanty, but in time there were importations from France and also supplies from American gun factories. The standard length of the barrel was three and a half feet, a portentous size compared with that of the modern weapon. The loading was from the muzzle, a process so slow that one of the favorite tactics of the time was to await the fire of the enemy and then charge quickly and bayonet him before he could reload. The old method of firing off the musket by means of slow matches kept alight during action was now obsolete; the latest device was the flintlock. But there was always a measure of doubt whether the weapon would go off. Partly on this account Benjamin Franklin, the wisest man of his time, declared for the use of the pike of an earlier age rather than the bayonet and for bows and arrows instead of firearms. A soldier, he said, could shoot four arrows to one bullet. An arrow wound was more disabling than a bullet wound; and arrows did not becloud the vision with smoke. The bullet remained, however, the chief means of destruction, and the fire of Washington's soldiers usually excelled that of the British. These, in their turn, were superior in the use of the bayonet.
Powder and lead were hard to get. The inventive spirit of America was busy with plans to procure saltpeter and other ingredients for making powder, but it remained scarce. Since there was no standard firearm, each soldier required bullets specially suited to his weapon. The men melted lead and cast it in their own bullet-molds. It is an instance of the minor ironies of war that the great equestrian statue of George III, which had been erected in New York in days more peaceful, was melted into bullets for killing that monarch's soldiers. Another necessity was paper for cartridges and wads. The cartridge of that day was a paper envelope containing the charge of ball and powder. This served also as a wad, after being emptied of its contents, and was pushed home with a ramrod. A store of German Bibles in Pennsylvania fell into the hands of the soldiers at a moment when paper was a crying need, and the pages of these Bibles were used for wads.
The artillery of the time seems feeble compared with the monster weapons of death which we know in our own age. Yet it was an important factor in the war. It is probable that before the war not a single cannon had been made in the colonies. From the outset Washington was hampered for lack of artillery. Neutrals, especially the Dutch in the West Indies, sold guns to the Americans, and France was a chief source of supply during long periods when the British lost the command of the sea. There was always difficulty about equipping cavalry, especially in the North. The Virginian was at home on horseback, and in the farther South bands of cavalry did service during the later years of the war, but many of the fighting riders of today might tomorrow be guiding their horses peacefully behind the plough.
The pay of the soldiers remained to Washington a baffling problem. When the war ended their pay was still heavily in arrears. The States were timid about imposing taxation and few if any paid promptly the levies made upon them. Congress bridged the chasm in finance by issuing paper money which so declined in value that, as Washington said grimly, it required a wagon-load of money to pay for a wagon-load of supplies. The soldier received his pay in this money at its face value, and there is little wonder that the "continental dollar" is still in the United States a symbol of worthlessness. At times the lack of pay caused mutiny which would have been dangerous but for Washington's firm and tactful management in the time of crisis. There was in him both the kindly feeling of the humane man and the rigor of the army leader. He sent men to death without flinching, but he was at one with his men in their sufferings, and no problem gave him greater anxiety than that of pay, affecting, as it did, the health and spirits of men who, while unpaid, had no means of softening the daily tale of hardship.
Desertion was always hard to combat. With the homesickness which led sometimes to desertion Washington must have had a secret sympathy, for his letters show that he always longed for that pleasant home in Virginia which he did not allow himself to revisit until nearly the end of the war. The land of a farmer on service often remained untilled, and there are pathetic cases of families in bitter need because the breadwinner was in the army. In frontier settlements his absence sometimes meant the massacre of his family by the savages. There is little wonder that desertion was common, so common that after a reverse the men went away by hundreds. As they usually carried with them their rifles and other equipment, desertion involved a double loss. On one occasion some soldiers undertook for themselves the punishment of deserters. Men of the First Pennsylvania Regiment who had recaptured three deserters, beheaded one of them and returned to their camp with the head carried on a pole. More than once it happened that condemned men were paraded before the troops for execution with the graves dug and the coffins lying ready. The death sentence would be read, and then, as the firing party took aim, a reprieve would be announced. The reprieve in such circumstances was omitted often enough to make the condemned endure the real agony of death.
Religion offered its consolations in the army and Washington gave much thought to the service of the chaplains. He told his army that fine as it was to be a patriot it was finer still to be a Christian. It is an odd fact that, though he attended the Anglican Communion service before and after the war, he did not partake of the Communion during the war. What was in his mind we do not know. He was disposed, as he said himself, to let men find "that road to Heaven which to them shall seem the most direct," and he was without Puritan fervor, but he had deep religious feeling. During the troubled days at Valley Forge a neighbor came upon him alone in the bush on his knees praying aloud, and stole away unobserved. He would not allow in the army a favorite Puritan custom of burning the Pope in effigy, and the prohibition was not easily enforced among men, thousands of whom bore scriptural names from ancestors who thought the Pope anti-Christ.
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