Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive
George Washington

Article Index


As soon as Boston was evacuated General Howe sailed for Halifax, to meet his brother, Admiral Howe, with reinforcements for New York. Washington divined his purpose and made all haste. When he reached New York, on the 13th of April, he found even greater difficulties to contend with than had annoyed him in Boston: raw troops, undisciplined and undrilled, a hostile Tory population, conspiracies to take his life, sectional jealousies,--and always a divided Congress, and the want of experienced generals. There was nothing of that inspiring enthusiasm which animated the New England farmers after the battle of Bunker Hill.

Washington held New York, and the British fleet were masters of the Bay. He might have withdrawn his forces in safety, but so important a place could not be abandoned without a struggle. Therefore, although he had but eight thousand effective men, he fortified as well as he could the heights on Manhattan Island, to the north, and on Long Island, to the south and east, and held his place.

Meantime Washington was laboring to strengthen his army, to suppress the mischievous powers of the Tories, to procure the establishment by Congress of a War Office and some permanent army organization, to quiet jealousies among his troops, and to provide for their wants. In June, Sir William Howe arrived in New York harbor and landed forces on Staten Island, his brother the admiral being not far behind. News of disaster from a bold but futile expedition to Canada in the North, and of the coming from the South of Sir Henry Clinton, beaten off from Charleston, made the clouds thicken, when on July 2 the Congress resolved that "these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States," and on July 4 adopted the formal Declaration of Independence,--an immense relief to the heart and mind of Washington, and one which he joyfully proclaimed to his army.

Even then, however, and although his forces had been reinforced to fifteen thousand serviceable troops and five thousand of raw militia, there was reason to fear that the British, with their thirty-five thousand men and strong naval force, would surround and capture the whole American array. At last they did outflank the American forces on Long Island, and, pouring in upon them a vastly superior force, defeated them with great slaughter.

While the British waited at night for their ships to come up, Washington with admirable quickness seized the single chance of escape, and under cover of a fog withdrew his nine thousand men from Long Island and landed them in New York once more.

This retreat of Washington, when he was to all appearances in the power of the English generals, was masterly. In two short weeks thereafter the British had sent ships and troops up both the Hudson and East rivers, and New York was no longer tenable to Washington. He made his way up the Harlem River, where he was joined by Putnam, who also had contrived to escape with four thousand men, and strongly intrenched himself at King's Bridge.

Washington waited a few days at Harlem Plains planning a descent on Long Island, and resolved on making a desperate stand. Meanwhile Howe, in his ships, passed the forts on the Hudson and landed at Throg's Neck, on the Sound, with a view of attacking the American intrenchments in the rear and cutting them off from New England. A brief delay on Howe's part enabled Washington to withdraw to a still stronger position on the hills; whereupon Howe retired to Dobbs' Ferry, unable to entrap with his larger forces the wary Washington, but having now the complete command of the lower Hudson,

There were, however, two strong fortresses on the Hudson which Congress was anxious to retain at any cost, a few miles above New York,--Fort Washington, on Manhattan Island, and Fort Lee, on the New Jersey side of the river. These forts Howe resolved to capture. The commander-in-chief was in favor of evacuating them, but Greene, who commanded at Fort Washington, thought he was strong enough to defend it. He made a noble defence, but was overwhelmed by vastly superior forces and was compelled to surrender it, with more than two thousand men. And, as Lord Cornwallis with six thousand men then crossed the Hudson, Washington rapidly retreated into New Jersey with a dispirited army, that included the little garrison of Fort Lee which had escaped in safety; and even this small army was fast becoming smaller, from expiring enlistments and other causes. General Lee, with a considerable division at North Castle, N.J., was ordered to rejoin his commander, but, apparently from ambition for independent command, disobeyed the order. From that moment Washington distrusted Lee, who henceforth was his _bête noir_, who foiled his plans and was jealous of his ascendancy. Lee's obstinacy was punished by his being overtaken and captured by the enemy.

Then followed a most gloomy period. We see Washington, with only the shadow of an army, compelled to retreat southward in New Jersey, hotly pursued by the well-equipped British,--almost a fugitive, like David fleeing from the hand of Saul. He dared not risk an engagement against greatly superior forces in pursuit, triumphant and confident of success, while his followers were half-clad, without shoes, hungry, homesick, and forlorn. So confident was Howe of crushing the only army opposed to him, that he neglected opportunities and made mistakes. At last the remnant of Lee's troops, commanded by Sullivan and Gates, joined Washington; but even with this reinforcement, giving him barely three thousand men, he could not face the enemy, more than double the number of his inexperienced soldiers. The only thing to do was to put the Delaware between himself and Howe's army. But it was already winter, and the Delaware was full of ice. Cornwallis, a general of great ability, felt sure that the dispirited men who still adhered to Washington could not possibly escape him; so he lingered in his march,--a fatal confidence, for, when he arrived at the Delaware, Washington was already safely encamped on the opposite bank; nor could he pursue, since all the boats on the river for seventy miles were either destroyed or in the hands of Washington. This successful retreat from the Hudson over the Delaware was another exhibition of high military qualities,--caution, quick perception, and prompt action.