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Parent Category: American Revolution Reference
Category: The Campaign of Trenton 1776-77
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It was now the 20th of November. In a few weeks more, at farthest, the season for active campaigning would be over. Thus far delay had been the only thing that the Americans had gained, but at what a cost! Yet Washington's last hopes were of necessity pinned to it because the respite it promised was the only means of bringing another army into the field in the season to renew the contest if indeed it should be renewed at all. 

Losses in battle, by sickness or desertion, or other causes, had brought his dismembered forces down to a total of 10,000 men, of whom 3,500 only were now under his immediate command, the rest being with Lee and Heath. And the work of disintegration was steadily going on. Always hopeful so long as there was even a straw to cling to, Washington seems to have expected that the people of New Jersey would have flown to arms, upon hearing that the invader had actually set foot upon the soil of their State. Vain hope! His appeal had fallen flat. The great and rich State of Pennsylvania was nearly, if not quite, as unresponsive. Disguise it as we may, the fire of '76 seemed all but extinct on its very earliest altars, and in its stead, only a few sickly embers glowed here and there among its ashes. The futility of further resistance was being openly discussed, and submission seemed only one step farther off.

In one of his desponding moments Washington turned to his old comrade, Mercer, with the question, "What think you, if we should retreat to the back parts of Pennsylvania, would the Pennsylvanians support us?"

Though himself a Pennsylvanian by adoption, Mercer's answer was given with true soldierly frankness. "If the lower counties give up, the back counties will do the same," was his discouraging reply.

"We must then retire to Augusta County in Virginia," said Washington, with grave decision, "and if overpowered there, we must cross the Alleghanies."

A volume would fail to give half as good an idea of the critical condition of affairs as that brief dialogue.

 

First and foremost among the many causes of the army's disruption was its losses in prisoners. No less than 5,000 men were at that moment dying by slow torture in the foul prisons or pestilential floating dungeons of New York. Turn from it as we may, there is no escaping the conviction that if not done with the actual sanction of Sir William Howe, these atrocities were at least committed with his guilty knowledge.[1] The calculated barbarities practiced upon these poor prisoners, with no other purpose than to make them desert their cause, or if that failed, totally to unfit them for serving it more, are almost too shocking for belief. It was such acts as these that wrung from the indignant Napier the terrible admission that "the annals of civilized warfare furnish nothing more inhuman towards captives of war than the prison ships of England."

This method of disposing of prisoners was none the less potent that it was in some sort murder. Washington had not the prisoners to exchange for them, Howe would not liberate them on parole, and when exchanges were finally effected, the men thus released were too much enfeebled by disease ever to carry a musket again.

In brief, more of Washington's men were languishing in captivity in New York than he now had with him in the Jerseys. And he was not losing nearly so many by bullets as by starvation.

We have emphasized this dark feature of the contest solely for the purpose of showing its material influence upon it at this particular time. The knowledge of how they would be treated, should they fall into the enemy's hands, undoubtedly deterred many from enlisting. In a broader sense, it added a new and more aggravated complication to the general question as to how the war was to be carried on by the two belligerents, whether under the restraints of civilized warfare or as a war to the knife.

Thrown back upon his own resources, Washington must now bitterly have repented leaving Lee in an independent command. If there was any secret foreboding on his part that Lee would play him false, we do not discover it either in his orders or his correspondence. If there was secret antipathy, Washington showed himself possessed of almost superhuman patience and self-restraint, for certainly if ever man's patience was tried Washington's was by the shuffling conduct of his lieutenant at this time; but if aversion there was on Washington's part he resolutely put it away from him in the interest of the common cause, feeling, no doubt, that Lee was a good soldier who might yet do good service and caring little himself as to whom the honor might fall, so the true end was reached. It was a great mind lowering itself to the level of a little one. But Lee could only see in it a struggle for personal favor and preferment.

 

After the evacuation of Fort Lee, Lee was urged, unfortunately not ordered, to cross his force into the Jerseys, and so bring it into coöperation with the troops already there. The demonstrations then making in his front decided Washington to fall back behind the Passaic, which he did on the 22d, and on the same day marched down that river to Newark. On the 24th Cornwallis,[2] who now had assumed control of all operations in the Jerseys, was reënforced with two British brigades and a regiment of Highlanders.

Before this force, Washington had no choice but to give way in proportion as Cornwallis advanced until Lee should join him when some chance of checking the enemy might be improved. At any rate, such a junction would undoubtedly have made Cornwallis more circumspect. As Lee still hung back, Washington saw this slender hope vanishing. He for a moment listened to the alternative of marching to Morristown, where the troops from the Northern army would sooner join him; but as this plan would leave the direct road to Philadelphia open, it neither suited Washington's temper nor his views, and he, therefore, adhered to his former one of fighting in retreat. And though he had failed to check Cornwallis at Newark he would endeavor to do so at New Brunswick.

For New Brunswick, therefore, the remains of the army marched, just as the enemy's rear-guard was entering Newark in hot pursuit. On finding himself so close to the Americans, Cornwallis pushed on after them with his light troops, but as Washington had broken down the bridge over the Raritan after passing it, the British were brought to a halt there.

Sustained by the vain hope of being reënforced here, either by Lee or by new levies of militia coming up as he fell back toward Philadelphia, Washington meditated making a stand at New Brunswick, which should at least show the exultant enemy that there was still some life left in his jaded battalions, and perhaps delay pursuit, which was all that could be hoped for with his small force. Instead, however, of the expected reënforcement, the departure of the New Jersey and Maryland brigades, still so-called by courtesy alone, since they were but the shadows of what they had been, put this purpose out of the question. Again Washington reluctantly turned his back to his enemy.

Lee's troops were now the chief resource. What few militia joined the army one day melted away on the next. In Washington's opinion, the crisis had come. He, therefore, wrote to his laggard lieutenant, "Hasten your march as much as possible or your arrival may be too late."

Fortunately, Cornwallis had orders not to advance beyond New Brunswick. He, therefore, halted there until he could receive new instructions, which caused a delay of six days before the pursuit was renewed.[3] On the 7th Cornwallis moved on to Princeton, arriving there on the same day that Washington left it. This was getting dangerously near, with a wide river to cross, at only one short march beyond.

In view of the actual state of things, this retreat must stand in history as a masterpiece of calculated temerity. Keeping only one day's march ahead of his enemy, Washington's rear-guard only moved off when the enemy's van came in sight. There is nowhere any hint of a disorderly retreat, or any serious infraction of discipline, or any deviation from the strict letter of obedience to orders, such as usually follows in the wake of a beaten and retreating army. Washington simply let himself be pushed along when he found resistance altogether hopeless. In this firm hold on his soldiers, at such an hour, we recognize the leader.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Captain Graydon (_Memoirs_) and Ethan Allen (_Narrative_), both prisoners at this time, fix the responsibility where it belongs.

[2] Cornwallis (Lord Brome) was squint-eyed from the effects of a blow in the eye received while playing hockey at Eton. His playmate who caused the accident was Shute Barrington, afterward Bishop of Durham. He entered the army as an ensign in the Foot Guards. His first commission is dated Dec. 8, 1756.

[3] This delay is chargeable to Howe, who kept the troops halted until he could consult with Cornwallis in person as to future operations. The question was, Should or should not the British army cross the Delaware?

 

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