So soon as the designs of the British government were known, it became the aim and duty of the commander-in-chief to guard against them. The military preparations of Congress were utterly inadequate for the crisis, in spite of the constant and urgent expostulations of Washington. There was, as yet, 110 regular army, and the militia shamefully deserted. There was even a prejudice against a standing army, and the militia of every State were jealous of the militia of other States. Congress passed resolutions, and a large force was created on paper. Popular enthusiasm was passing away in the absence of immediate dangers; so that, despite the glorious success in New Jersey, the winter of 1777 was passed gloomily, and in the spring new perils arose. But for the negligence of General Howe, the well-planned British expedition from the North might have succeeded. It was under the command of an able and experienced veteran, General Burgoyne. There was apparently nothing to prevent the junction of the forces of Howe and Burgoyne but the fortress of West Point, which commanded the Hudson River. To oppose this movement Benedict Arnold--"the bravest of the brave," as he was called, like Marshal Ney--was selected, assisted by General Schuyler, a high-minded gentleman and patriot, but as a soldier more respectable than able, and Horatio Gates, a soldier of fortune, who was jealous of Washington, and who, like Lee, made great pretensions,--both Englishmen by birth. The spring and summer resulted in many reverses in the North, where Schuyler was unable to cope with Burgoyne; and had Howe promptly co-operated, that campaign would have been a great triumph for the British.
It was the object of Howe to deceive Washington, if possible, and hence he sent a large part of his army on board the fleet at New York, under the command of Cornwallis, as if Boston were his destination. He intended, however, to capture Philadelphia, the seat of the "rebel Congress," with his main force, while other troops were to co-operate with Burgoyne. Washington, divining the intentions of Howe, with his ragged army crossed the Delaware once more, at the end of July, this time to protect Philadelphia, leaving Arnold and Schuyler to watch Burgoyne, and Putnam to defend the Hudson. When, late in August, Howe landed his forces below Philadelphia, Washington made up his mind to risk a battle, and chose a good position on the heights near the Brandywine; but in the engagement of September 11 was defeated, through the negligence of Sullivan to guard the fords above against the overwhelming forces of Cornwallis, who was in immediate command. Still, he rallied his army with the view of fighting again. The battle of Germantown, October 4, resulted in American defeat and the occupation by the British of Philadelphia,--a place desirable only for comfortable winter quarters. When Franklin heard of it he coolly remarked that the British had not taken Philadelphia, but Philadelphia had taken them, since seventeen thousand veterans were here kept out of the field, when they were needed most on the banks of the Hudson, to join Burgoyne, now on his way to Lake Champlain.
This diversion of the main army of Howe to occupy Philadelphia was the great British blunder of the war. It enabled the Vermont and New Hampshire militia to throw obstacles in the march of Burgoyne, who became entangled in the forests of northern New York, with his flank and rear exposed to the sharpshooters of the enemy, fully alive to the dangers which menaced them. Sluggish as they were, and averse to enlistment, the New England troops always rallied when pressing necessity stared them in the face, and fought with tenacious courage. Although Burgoyne had taken Ticonderoga, on Lake Champlain, as was to be expected, he was, after a most trying campaign, at last surrounded at Saratoga, and on October 17 was compelled to surrender to the militia he despised. It was not the generalship of the American commander which led to this crushing disaster, but the obstacles of nature, utilized by the hardy American volunteers. Gates, who had superseded Schuyler in the command of the Northern department, claimed the chief merit of the capture of the British army, nearly ten thousand strong; but this claim is now generally disputed, and the success of the campaign is ascribed to Arnold, while that of the final fighting and success is given to Arnold together with Morgan and his Virginia riflemen, whom Washington had sent from his own small force.
The moral and political effect of the surrender of Burgoyne was greater than the military result. The independence of the United States was now assured, not only in the minds of American statesmen, but to European intelligence. The French Government then openly came out with its promised aid, and money was more easily raised.
The influence of Washington in securing the capture of Burgoyne was indirect, although the general plan of campaign and the arousing of the Northern militia had been outlined by him to General Schuyler. He had his hands full in watching Howe's forces at Philadelphia. His defeat at Germantown, the result of accident which he could not prevent, compelled him to retreat to Valley Forge, on the Schuylkill, about nine miles from Philadelphia. There he took up his quarters in the winter of 1777-78. The sufferings of the army in that distressing winter are among the best-known events of the whole war. At Valley Forge the trials of Washington culminated. His army was reduced to three thousand men, incapable of offensive operations, without suitable clothing, food, or shelter,
"As the poor soldiers," says Fiske, in his brilliant history, "marched on the 17th of December to their winter quarters, the route could be traced on the snow by the blood which oozed from bare, frost-bitten feet. For want of blankets many were fain to sit up all night by fires. Cold and hunger daily added to the sick list, and men died for want of straw to put between them and the frozen ground."
Gates, instead of marching to the relief of Washington before Philadelphia, as he was ordered, kept his victorious troops idle at Saratoga; and it was only by the extraordinary tact of Alexander Hamilton, the youthful aide, secretary, and counsellor of Washington, who had been sent North for the purpose, that the return of Morgan with his Virginia riflemen was secured. Congress was shaken by the intrigues of Gates, who sought to supplant the commander-in-chief, and who had won to his support both Morgan and Richard Henry Lee.
At this crisis, Baron Steuben, a Prussian officer who had served under Frederic the Great, arrived at the headquarters of Washington. Some say that he was a mere martinet, but he was exceedingly useful in drilling the American troops, working from morning till night, both patient and laborious. From that time Washington had regular troops, on which he could rely, few in number, but loyal and true. La Fayette also was present in his camp, chivalrous and magnanimous, rendering efficient aid; and there too was Nathaniel Greene of Rhode Island, who had made but one great mistake in his military career, the most able of Washington's generals. With the aid of these trusted lieutenants, Washington was able to keep his little army together, as the nucleus of a greater one, and wait for opportunities, for he loved to fight when he saw a chance of success.
And now it may be said that the desertions which had crippled Washington, the reluctance to enlist on the part of the farmers, and the tardy response to his calls for money, probably were owing to the general sense of security after the surrender of Burgoyne. It was felt that the cause of liberty was already won. With this feeling men were slow to enlist when they were not sure of their pay, and it was at this period that money was most difficult to be raised. Had there been a strong central government, and not a mere league of States, some Moses would have "smitten the rock of finance," as Hamilton subsequently did, and Chase in the war of the Southern Rebellion, and abundant streams would have gushed forth in the shape of national bonds, certain to be redeemed, sooner or later, in solid gold and silver, and which could have been readily negotiated by the leading bankers of the world. The real difficulty with which Congress and Washington had to contend was a financial one. There were men enough to enlist in the army if they had been promptly paid. Yet, on the other hand, England, with ample means and lavish promises, was able to induce only about three thousand Tories out of all the American population to enlist in her armies in America during the whole war.
By patience unparalleled and efforts unceasing, Washington slowly wrought upon Congress to sustain him in building up a "Continental" army, in place of the shifting bodies of militia. With Steuben as inspector-general and Greene as quartermaster, the new levies as they came in were disciplined and equipped; and in spite of the conspiracies and cabals formed against him by ambitious subordinates,--which enlisted the aid of many influential men even in Congress, but which came to nought before the solid character and steady front of the man who was really carrying the whole war upon his own shoulders,--Washington emerged from the frightful winter at Valley Forge and entered the spring of 1778 with greater resources at his command than he had ever had before.