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Upon finding that what had at first seemed only a local rebellion was spreading like wildfire throughout the length and breadth of the colonies, that bloodshed had united the people as one man, and that these people were everywhere getting ready for a most determined resistance, the British ministry awoke to the necessity of dealing with the revolt, in this its newer and more dangerous aspect, as a fact to be faced accordingly, and its military measures were, therefore, no longer directed to New England exclusively, but to the suppression of the rebellion as a whole. For this purpose, New York was very judiciously chosen as the true base of operations.[1]

In the colonies, the news of great preparations then making in England to carry out this policy inevitably led up to the same conclusions, but as the siege of Boston had not yet drawn to a close, very little could be done by way of making ready to meet this new and dangerous emergency.

We must now first look at the ways and means.


A new army had been enlisted in the trenches before Boston to take the place of that first one, whose term of service expired with the new year, 1776. On paper, it consisted of twenty-eight battalions, with an aggregate of 20,372 officers and men. By the actual returns, made up shortly before the army marched for New York, there were 13,145 men of all arms then enrolled, of whom not more than 9,500 were reported as fit for duty. These were all Continentals,[2] as the regular troops were then called, to distinguish them from the militia.


Immediately upon the evacuation of Boston by the British (March 17, 1776), the army marched by divisions to New York, the last brigade, with the commander-in-chief, leaving Cambridge on April 4.[3] This move distinctly foreshadows the general opinion that the seat of war was about to be transferred to New York and its environs.

There is no need to discuss the general proposition, so quickly accepted by both belligerents, as regards the strategic value of New York for combined operations by land and sea. Hence the Americans were naturally unwilling to abandon it to the enemy. A successful defense was really beyond their abilities, however, against such a powerful fleet as was now coming to attack them, because this fleet could not be prevented from forcing its way into the upper bay without strong fortifications at the Narrows to stop it, and these the Americans did not have. Once in possession of the navigable waters, the enemy could cut off communication in every direction, as well as choose his own point of attack. Afraid, however, of the moral effect of giving up the city without a struggle, the Americans were led into the fatal error of squandering their resources upon a defense which could end only in one way, instead of holding the royal army besieged, as had been so successfully done at Boston.

Having arrived at New York, Washington's force was increased by the two or three thousand men who had been hastily summoned for its defense,[4] and who were then busily employed in throwing up works at various points, under the direction of the engineers.

Now, it is usual to call such a large body of raw recruits, badly armed, and without discipline, an army, in the same breath as a well-armed and thoroughly disciplined body. This one had done good service behind entrenchments, and in some minor operations at Boston had shown itself possessed of the best material, but the situation was now to be wholly reversed, the besiegers were to become the besieged, their mistakes were to be turned against them, the experiments of inexperience were to be tested at the risk of total failure, and the _morale_ severely tried by the grumbling and discontent arising for the most part from laxity of discipline, but somewhat so, too, from the wretched administration of the various civil departments of the army.[5] The officers did not know how to instruct their men, and the men could not be made to take proper care of themselves. In consequence of this state of things, inseparable perhaps from the existing conditions, General Heath tells us that by the first week of August the number of sick amounted to near 10,000 men, who were to be met with lying "in almost every barn, stable, shed, and even under the fences and bushes," about the camps. This primary element of disintegration is always one of the worst possible to deal with in an army of citizen-soldiers, and the present case proved no exception.

Except a troop of Connecticut light-horse, who had been curtly and imprudently dismissed because they showed sufficient _esprit de corps_ to demur against doing guard duty as infantry, and whose absence was only too soon to be dearly atoned for, there was no cavalry, not even for patrols, outposts, or vedettes. These being thus of necessity drawn from the infantry, it was usual to see them come back into camp with the enemy close at their heels, instead of giving the alarm in season to get the troops underarms.

As for the infantry, it was truly a motley assemblage. A few of the regiments, raised in the cities, were tolerably well armed and equipped, and some few were in uniform. But in general, they wore the same homespun in which they had left their homes, even to the field officers, who were only distinguished by their red cockades. In few regiments were the arms all of one kind, not a few had only a sprinkling of bayonets, while some companies, whom it had been found impracticable to furnish with firearms at the home rendezvous, carried the old-fashioned pikes of by-gone days. Among the good, bad, and indifferent, Washington had had two thousand militia poured in upon him, without any arms whatever. But these men could use pick and spade.

The single regiment of artillery this "rabble army," as Knox calls it, could boast was unquestionably its most reliable arm. Under Knox's able direction it was getting into fairly good shape, though the guns were of very light metal. In the early conflicts around New York it was rather too lavishly used and suffered accordingly, but its efficiency was so marked as to draw forth the admission from a British officer of rank that the rebel artillery officers were at least equal to their own.

These plain facts speak for themselves. If radical defects of organization lay behind them, it was not the fault of Washington or the army but is rather attributable to the want of any settled policy or firm grasp of the situation on the part of the Congress.

Washington had no illusions either with regard to himself or his soldiers. His letters of this date prove this. He was as well aware of his own shortcomings as a general, as of those of his men as soldiers. There could, perhaps, be no greater proof of the solidity of his judgment than this capacity to estimate himself correctly, free from all the prickings of personal vanity or popular praise. With reference to the army he probably thought that if raw militia would fight so well behind breastworks at Bunker Hill, they could be depended upon to do so elsewhere, under the same conditions. His idea, therefore, was to fight only in entrenched positions, and this was the general plan of campaign for 1776.[6]



[1] As will be seen further on, New England had no strategic value in this relation.

[2] Continentals. This term, for want of a better, arose from the practice of speaking of the colonies, as a whole, as the Continent, to distinguish them from this or that one, separately.

[3] The last brigade to march at this time is meant. As a matter of fact one brigade was left at Boston, as a guard against accidents. Later on, it joined Washington.

[4] General Lee had been sent to New York as early as January. He took military possession of the city, with militia furnished by Connecticut.

[5] In a private letter, General Knox indignantly styles it "this rabble army."

[6] "Being fully persuaded that it would be presumption to draw out our young troops into open ground against their superiors, both in numbers and discipline, I have never spared the spade and pickaxe."--_Letters._