To all intents, the campaign of 1776 had now drawn its lengthened disasters to a close. It had indeed been protracted nearly to the point of ruin, with the one result, that Philadelphia was apparently safe for the present. But with Washington thrown back across the Delaware, Lee a prisoner, Congress fled to Baltimore, Canada lost, New York, lost, the Jerseys overrun, the royal army stretched out from the Hudson to the Delaware and practically intact, while the patriot army, dwindled to a few thousand, was expected to disappear in a few short weeks, the situation had grown desperate indeed.
So hopeless indeed was the outlook everywhere that the ominous cry of "Everyone for himself"--that last despairing cry of the vanquished--began to be echoed throughout the colonies. We have seen that even Washington himself seriously thought of retreating behind the Alleghanies, which was virtual surrender. Even he, if report be true, began to think of the halter, and Franklin's little witticism, on signing the Declaration, of, "Come, gentlemen, we must all hang together or we shall hang separately," was getting uncomfortably like inspired prophecy.
If we turn now to the people, we shall find the same apparent consenting to the inevitable, the same tendency of all intelligent discussion toward the one result. One instance only of this feeling may be cited here, as showing how the young men--always the least despondent portion of any community--received the news of the retreat through the Jerseys.
Elkanah Watson sets down the following at Plymouth, Mass.: "We looked upon the contest as near its close, and considered ourselves a vanquished people. The young men present determined to emigrate and seek some spot where liberty dwelt, and where the arm of British tyranny could not reach us. Major Thomas (who had brought them the dispiriting news from the army) animated our desponding spirits with the assurance that Washington was not dismayed, but evinced the same serenity and confidence as ever. Upon him rested all our hopes."
At the British headquarters the contest, with good reason, was felt to be practically over. Unless all signs failed one short campaign would, beyond all question, end it; for at no point were the Americans able to show a respectable force. In the North a fresh army, under General Burgoyne, was getting ready to break through Ticonderoga and come down the Hudson with a rush, carrying all before them, as Cornwallis had done in the Jerseys. This would cut the rebellion in two. On the same day that Washington crossed the Delaware, Clinton had seized Newport, without firing a shot. This would hold New England in check. In short, should Howe's plans for the coming season work, as there was every reason to expect, then there would be little enough left of the Revolution in its cradle and stronghold, with the troops at New York, Albany, and Newport acting in well-devised combination.
Brilliant only when roused by the presence of danger, Howe as easily fell into his habitual indolence when the danger had passed by. In effect, what had he to fear? Washington was beyond the Delaware, with the débris of the army he had lately commanded, which served him rather as an escort than a defense. If let alone, even this would shortly disappear.
Under these circumstances, Howe felt that he could well afford to give himself and his troops a breathing spell. This was now being put in train. Cornwallis was about to sail for England, on leave of absence. The garrison of New York disposed itself to pass the winter in idleness, and even those detachments doing outpost duty in the Jerseys, after having chased Washington until they were tired, turned their attention exclusively to the disaffected inhabitants. The field had already been reaped, and these troops were the gleaners.
To hold what had been gained a chain of posts was now stretched across the Jerseys from Perth Amboy to the Delaware, with Trenton, Bordentown, and Burlington as the outposts and New Brunswick as the dépôt, the first being well placed either for making an advance or for checking any attempts by the Americans to recross the river. Washington believed that the British would be in Philadelphia just as soon as the ice was strong enough to bear artillery. If the expected dissolution of his army had happened, no doubt the enemy's advanced troops would have taken possession of the city at once. And it is even quite probable that this contingency was considered a foregone conclusion, since British agents were now actively at work in Washington's own camp, undermining the feeble authority which everybody believed was tottering to its fall. Be that as it may, the fact remains that active operations were for the present wholly suspended. At the officers' messes or in the barracks all the talk was of going home. Besides, if Howe had really wanted to take Philadelphia there was nothing to prevent his doing so. There were no defenses. If saved at all, the city must be defended in the field, not in the streets.
Bordentown being rather the most exposed, Count Donop was left there with some 2,000 Hessians and Colonel Rall at Trenton with 1,200 to 1,300 more. Both were veterans. As these Hessians were about equally hated and feared, it was well reasoned that they would be all the more watchful against a surprise.
As soon as he had time to look about him, Donop at once extended his outposts down to Burlington, on the river, and to Black Horse, on the back-road leading south to Mt. Holly, thus establishing himself at the base point of a triangle from which his outposts could be speedily reënforced, either from Bordentown or each other. The post at Burlington was only eighteen miles from Philadelphia.
In order to understand the efforts subsequently made to break through it this line should be carefully traced out on the map. In spots it was weak, yet the long gaps, like that between Princeton and Trenton, and between Princeton and Brunswick, were thought sufficiently secured by occasional patrols.
To meet these dispositions of the enemy Washington stretched out the remnant of his force along the opposite bank of the Delaware, from above Trenton to below Bordentown, looking chiefly to the usual crossing places, which were being vigilantly watched.
Under the date of December 16, a British officer writes home as follows: "Winter quarters are now fixed. Our army forms a chain of about ninety miles in length from Fort Lee, where our baggage crossed, to Trenton on the Delaware, which river, I believe, we shall not cross till next campaign, as General Howe is returning to New York. I understand we are to winter at a small village near the Raritan River and are to form a sort of advanced picket. There is mountainous ground very near this post where the rebels are still in arms and are expected to be troublesome during the winter."
He then goes on to speak of the deplorable condition in which the inhabitants had been left by the rival armies, dividing the blame with an impartial hand, and moralizing a little, as follows: "A civil war is a dreadful thing; what with the devastation of the rebels, and that of the English and Hessian troops, every part of the country where the scene of the action has been looks deplorable. Furniture is broken to pieces, good houses deserted and almost destroyed, others burnt; cattle, horses, and poultry carried off; and the old plundered of their all. The rebels everywhere left their sick behind, and most of them have died for want of care."
This telling piece of testimony is introduced here not only because it comes from an eyewitness but from an enemy. Beneath the uniform, the man speaks out. But his omissions are still more eloquent. It was not so much the loss of property, bad as that was, as the nameless atrocities everywhere perpetrated by the royal troops upon the young, the helpless, and the innocent, that makes the tale too revolting to be told. In truth, all that part of the Jerseys held by the enemy had been given up to indiscriminate rapine and plunder. It was in vain that the victims pleaded the king's protection. As vainly did they appeal to the humanity of the invaders. The brutal soldiery defied the one and laughed at the other. Finding that the promised pardon and mercy were synonymous with murder, arson, and rapine, such a revulsion of feeling had taken place that the authors of these cruelties were literally sleeping on a volcano; and where patriotism had so lately been invoked in vain, hope of revenge was now turning every man, woman, and child into either an open or a secret foe to the despoilers of their homes. One little breath only was wanting to fan the revolt to a flame; one little spark to fire the train. All eyes, therefore, were instinctively turned to the banks of the Delaware.