Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive

Article Index


News came to Valley Forge of the alliance with France and there were great rejoicings. We are told that, to celebrate the occasion, Washington dined in public. We are not given the bill of fare in that scene of famine; but by the springtime tension in regard to supplies had been relieved and we may hope that Valley Forge really feasted in honor of the great event. The same news brought gloom to the British in Philadelphia, for it had the stern meaning that the effort and loss involved in the capture of that city were in vain. Washington held most of the surrounding country so that supplies must come chiefly by sea. With a French fleet and a French army on the way to America, the British realized that they must concentrate their defenses. Thus the cheers at Valley Forge were really the sign that the British must go.

Sir William Howe, having taken Philadelphia, was determined not to be the one who should give it up. Feeling was bitter in England over the ghastly failure of Burgoyne, and he had gone home on parole to defend himself from his seat in the House of Commons. There Howe had a seat and he, too, had need to be on hand. Lord George Germain had censured him for his course and, to shield himself; was clearly resolved to make scapegoats of others. So, on May 18, 1778, at Philadelphia there was a farewell to Howe, which took the form of a Mischianza, something approaching the medieval tournament. Knights broke lances in honor of fair ladies, there were arches and flowers and fancy costumes, and high-flown Latin and French, all in praise of the departing Howe. Obviously the garrison of Philadelphia had much time on its hands and could count upon, at least, some cheers from a friendly population. It is remembered still, with moralizings on the turns in human fortune, that Major Andre and Miss Margaret Shippen were the leaders in that gay scene, the one, in the days to come, to be hanged by Washington as a spy, because entrapped in the treason of Benedict Arnold, who became the husband of the other.

On May 24, 1778, Sir Henry Clinton took over from Howe the command of the British army in America and confronted a difficult problem. If d'Estaing, the French admiral, should sail straight for the Delaware he might destroy the fleet of little more than half his strength which lay there, and might quickly starve Philadelphia into surrender. The British must unite their forces to meet the peril from France, and New York, as an island, was the best point for a defense, chiefly naval. A move to New York was therefore urgent. It was by sea that the British had come to Philadelphia, but it was not easy to go away by sea. There was not room in the transports for the army and its encumbrances. Moreover, to embark the whole force, a march of forty miles to New Castle, on the lower Delaware, would be necessary and the retreating army was sure to be harassed on its way by Washington. It would besides hardly be safe to take the army by sea for the French fleet might be strong enough to capture the flotilla.

There was nothing for it but, at whatever risk, to abandon Philadelphia and march the army across New Jersey. It would be possible to take by sea the stores and the three thousand Loyalists from Philadelphia, some of whom would probably be hanged if they should be taken. Lord Howe, the naval commander, did his part in a masterly manner. On the 18th of June the British army marched out of Philadelphia and before the day was over it was across the Delaware on the New Jersey side. That same day Washington's army, free from its long exile at Valley Forge, occupied the capital. Clinton set out on his long march by land and Howe worked his laden ships down the difficult river to its mouth and, after delay by winds, put to sea on the 28th of June. By a stroke of good fortune he sailed the two hundred miles to New York in two days and missed the great fleet of d'Estaing, carrying an army of four thousand men. On the 8th of July d'Estaing anchored at the mouth of the Delaware. Had not his passage been unusually delayed and Howe's unusually quick, as Washington noted, the British fleet and the transports in the Delaware would probably have been taken and Clinton and his army would have shared the fate of Burgoyne.

As it was, though Howe's fleet was clear away, Clinton's army had a bad time in the march across New Jersey. Its baggage train was no less than twelve miles long and, winding along roads leading sometimes through forests, was peculiarly vulnerable to flank attack. In this type of warfare Washington excelled. He had fought over this country and he knew it well. The tragedy of Valley Forge was past. His army was now well trained and well supplied. He had about the same number of men as the British--perhaps sixteen thousand--and he was not encumbered by a long baggage train. Thus it happened that Washington was across the Delaware almost as soon as the British. He marched parallel with them on a line some five miles to the north and was able to forge towards the head of their column. He could attack their flank almost when he liked. Clinton marched with great difficulty. He found bridges down. Not only was Washington behind him and on his flank but General Gates was in front marching from the north to attack him when he should try to cross the Raritan River. The long British column turned southeastward toward Sandy Hook, so as to lessen the menace from Gates. Between the half of the army in the van and the other half in the rear was the baggage train.

The crisis came on Sunday the 28th of June, a day of sweltering heat. By this time General Charles Lee, Washington's second in command, was in a good position to attack the British rear guard from the north, while Washington, marching three miles behind Lee, was to come up in the hope of overwhelming it from the rear. Clinton's position was difficult but he was saved by Lee's ineptitude. He had positive instructions to attack with his five thousand men and hold the British engaged until Washington should come up in overwhelming force. The young La Fayette was with Lee. He knew what Washington had ordered, but Lee said to him: "You don't know the British soldiers; we cannot stand against them." Lee's conduct looks like deliberate treachery. Instead of attacking the British he allowed them to attack him. La Fayette managed to send a message to Washington in the rear; Washington dashed to the front and, as he came up, met soldiers flying from before the British. He rode straight to Lee, called him in flaming anger a "damned poltroon," and himself at once took command. There was a sharp fight near Monmouth Court House. The British were driven back and only the coming of night ended the struggle. Washington was preparing to renew it in the morning, but Clinton had marched away in the darkness. He reached the coast on the 30th of June, having lost on the way fifty-nine men from sunstroke, over three hundred in battle, and a great many more by desertion. The deserters were chiefly Germans, enticed by skillful offers of land. Washington called for a reckoning from Lee. He was placed under arrest, tried by court-martial, found guilty, and suspended from rank for twelve months. Ultimately he was dismissed from the American army, less it appears for his conduct at Monmouth than for his impudent demeanor toward Congress afterwards.

These events on land were quickly followed by stirring events on the sea. The delays of the British Admiralty of this time seem almost incredible. Two hundred ships waited at Spithead for three months for convoy to the West Indies, while all the time the people of the West Indies, cut off from their usual sources of supply in America, were in distress for food. Seven weeks passed after d'Estaing had sailed for America, before the Admiralty knew that he was really gone and sent Admiral Byron, with fourteen ships, to the aid of Lord Howe. When d'Estaing was already before New York Byron was still battling with storms in mid-Atlantic, storms so severe that his fleet was entirely dispersed and his flagship was alone when it reached Long Island on the 18th of August.

Meanwhile the French had a great chance. On the 11th of July their fleet, much stronger than the British, arrived from the Delaware, and anchored off Sandy Hook. Admiral Howe knew his danger. He asked for volunteers from the merchant ships and the sailors offered themselves almost to a man. If d'Estaing could beat Howe's inferior fleet, the transports at New York would be at his mercy and the British army, with no other source of supply, must surrender. Washington was near, to give help on land. The end of the war seemed not far away. But it did not come. The French admirals were often taken from an army command, and d'Estaing was not a sailor but a soldier. He feared the skill of Howe, a really great sailor, whose seven available ships were drawn up in line at Sandy Hook so that their guns bore on ships coming in across the bar. D'Estaing hovered outside. Pilots from New York told him that at high tide there were only twenty-two feet of water on the bar and this was not enough for his great ships, one of which carried ninety-one guns. On the 22d of July there was the highest of tides with, in reality, thirty feet of water on the bar, and a wind from the northeast which would have brought d'Estaing's ships easily through the channel into the harbor. The British expected the hottest naval fight in their history. At three in the afternoon d'Estaing moved but it was to sail away out of sight.

Opportunity, though once spurned, seemed yet to knock again. The one other point held by the British was Newport, Rhode Island. Here General Pigot had five thousand men and only perilous communications by sea with New York. Washington, keenly desirous to capture this army, sent General Greene to aid General Sullivan in command at Providence, and d'Estaing arrived off Newport to give aid. Greene had fifteen hundred fine soldiers, Sullivan had nine thousand New England militia, and d'Estaing four thousand French regulars. A force of fourteen thousand five hundred men threatened five thousand British. But on the 9th of August Howe suddenly appeared near Newport with his smaller fleet. D'Estaing put to sea to fight him, and a great naval battle was imminent, when a terrific storm blew up and separated and almost shattered both fleets. D'Estaing then, in spite of American protests, insisted on taking the French ships to Boston to refit and with them the French soldiers. Sullivan publicly denounced the French admiral as having basely deserted him and his own disgusted yeomanry left in hundreds for their farms to gather in the harvest. In September, with d'Estaing safely away, Clinton sailed into Newport with five thousand men. Washington's campaign against Rhode Island had failed completely.

The summer of 1778 thus turned out badly for Washington. Help from France which had aroused such joyous hopes in America had achieved little and the allies were hurling reproaches at each other. French and American soldiers had riotous fights in Boston and a French officer was killed. The British, meanwhile, were landing at small ports on the coast, which had been the haunts of privateers, and were not only burning shipping and stores but were devastating the country with Loyalist regiments recruited in America. The French told the Americans that they were expecting too much from the alliance, and the cautious Washington expressed fear that help from outside would relax effort at home. Both were right. By the autumn the British had been reinforced and the French fleet had gone to the West Indies. Truly the mountain in labor of the French alliance seemed to have brought forth only a ridiculous mouse. None the less was it to prove, in the end, the decisive factor in the struggle.