Washington had now the nucleus of an army and could not be dislodged by the enemy, whose force was only about double his own. Howe was apparently satisfied with driving the American forces out of New Jersey, and, retaining his hold at certain points, sent the bulk of his army back to New York.
The aim of Washington was now to expel the British troops from New Jersey. It was almost a forlorn hope, but he never despaired. His condition was not more hopeless than that of William the Silent when he encountered the overwhelming armies of Spain. Always beaten, the heroic Prince of Orange still held out when Holland was completely overrun. But the United States were not overrun. New England was practically safe, although the British held Newport; and all the country south of the Delaware was free from them. The perplexities and discouragements of Washington were great indeed, while he stubbornly held the field with a beggarly makeshift for an army and sturdily continued his appeals to Congress and to the country for men, arms, and clothing; yet only New York City and New Jersey were really in the possession of the enemy. It was one thing for England to occupy a few cities, and quite another to conquer a continent; hence Congress and the leaders of the rebellion never lost hope. So long as there were men left in peaceable possession of their farms from Maine to Georgia, and these men accustomed to fire-arms and resolved on freedom, there was no real cause of despair. The perplexing and discouraging things were that the men preferred the safety and comfort of their homes to the dangers and hardships of the camp, and that there was no money in the treasury to pay the troops, nor credit on which to raise it. Hence desertions, raggedness, discontent, suffering; but not despair,--even in the breast of Washington, who realized the difficulties as none else did. Men would not enlist unless they were paid and fed, clothed and properly armed. Had there been an overwhelming danger they probably would have rallied, as the Dutch did when they opened their dikes, or as the Greeks rallied in their late Revolution, when fortress after fortress fell into the hands of the Turks, and as the American militia did in successive localities threatened by the British,--notably in New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York, when they swarmed about Burgoyne and captured him at Saratoga. But this was by no means the same as enlisting for a long period in a general army.
I mention these things, not to discredit the bravery and patriotism of the Revolutionary soldiers. They made noble sacrifices and they fought gallantly, but they did not rise above local patriotism and sustain the Continental cause. Yet at no time, even when Washington with his small army was flying before Cornwallis across New Jersey, were there grounds of despair. There were discouragements, difficulties, and vexations; and these could be traced chiefly to the want of a strong central government. The government was divided against itself, without money or credit,--in short, a mere advisory board of civilians, half the time opposed to the plans of the commander-in-chief. But when Washington had been driven beyond the Delaware, when Philadelphia, where Congress was sitting, was in danger, then dictatorial powers were virtually conferred on Washington,--"the most unlimited authority" was the phrase used,--and he had scope to act as he saw fit.
Washington was, it is true, at times accused of incompetency, and traitors slandered him, but Congress stood by him and the country had confidence in him; as well it might, since, while he had not gained great victories, and even perhaps had made military mistakes, he had delivered Boston, had rescued the remnant of his army from the clutches of Howe and Cornwallis, and had devoted himself by day and night to labors which should never have been demanded of him, in keeping Congress up to the mark, as well as in his arduous duties in the field,--evincing great prudence, sagacity, watchfulness, and energy. He had proved himself at least to be a Fabius, if he was not a Hannibal. But a Hannibal is not possible without an army, and a steady-handed Fabius was the need of the times. The Caesars of the world are few, and most of them have been unfaithful to their trust, but no one doubted the integrity and patriotism of Washington. Rival generals may have disliked his austere dignity and proud self-consciousness, but the people and the soldiers adored him; and while his general policy was, and had to be, a defensive one, everybody knew that he would fight if he had any hope of success. No one in the army was braver than he, as proved not only by his early warfare against the French and Indians, but also by his whole career after he was selected for the chief command, whenever a fair fighting opportunity was presented, as seen in the following instance.
With his small army on the right bank of the Delaware, toilsomely increased to about four thousand men, he now meditated offensive operations against the unsuspecting British, who had but just chased him out of New Jersey. Accordingly, with unexpected audacity, on Christmas night he recrossed the Delaware, marched nine miles and attacked the British troops posted at Trenton. It was not a formal battle, but a raid, and proved successful. The enemy, amazed, retreated; then with fresh reinforcements they turned upon Washington; he evaded them, and on January 3, 1777, made a fierce attack on their lines at Princeton, attended with the same success, utterly routing the British. These were small victories, but they encouraged the troops, aroused the New Jersey men to enthusiasm, and alarmed Cornwallis, who retreated northward to New Brunswick, to save his military stores. In a few days the English retained only that town, Amboy, and Paulus Hook, in all New Jersey. Thus in three weeks, in the midst of winter, Washington had won two fights, taken two thousand prisoners, and was as strong as he was before he crossed the Hudson,--and the winter of 1777 opened with hope in the Revolutionary ranks.
Washington then intrenched himself at Morristown and watched the forces of the English generals; and for six months nothing of consequence was done by either side. It became evident that Washington could not be conquered except by large reinforcements to the army of Howe. Another campaign was a necessity, to the disgust and humiliation of the British government and the wrath of George III. The Declaration of Independence, thus far, had not proved mere rhetoric.
The expulsion of the British troops from New Jersey by inferior forces was regarded in Europe as a great achievement, and enabled Franklin at Paris to secure substantial but at first secret aid from the French Government. National independence now seemed to be a probability, and perhaps a certainty. It was undoubtedly a great encouragement to the struggling States. The more foresighted of British statesmen saw now the hopelessness of a conflict which had lasted nearly two years, and in which nothing more substantial had been gained by the English generals than the occupation of New York and a few towns on the coast, while the Americans had gained military experience and considerable prestige. The whole civilized world pronounced Washington to be both a hero and a patriot.
But the English government, with singular obstinacy, under the lash of George III., resolved to make renewed efforts, to send to America all the forces which could be raised, at a vast expense, and to plan a campaign which should bring the rebels to obedience. The plan was to send an army by way of Canada to take the fortresses on Lake Champlain, and then to descend the Hudson, and co-operate with Howe in cutting off New England from the rest of the country; in fact, dividing the land in twain,--a plan seemingly feasible. It would be possible to conquer each section, east and south of New York, in detail, with victorious and overwhelming forces. This was the great danger that menaced the States and caused the deepest solicitude.