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George Washington

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In January, 1778, France acknowledged the independence of the United States of America and entered into treaty with them. In the spring Sir William Howe resigned, and Sir Henry Clinton succeeded him in command. After wintering in Philadelphia, the British commander discovered that he could do nothing with his troops shut up in a luxurious city, while Washington was watching him in a strongly intrenched position a few miles distant, and with constantly increasing forces now trained to war; and moreover, a French fleet with reinforcements was now looked for. So he evacuated the Quaker City on the 18th of June, 1778, and began his march to New York, followed by Washington with an army now equal to his own. On the 28th of June Cornwallis was encamped near Monmouth, N.J., where was fought the most brilliant battle of the war, which Washington nearly lost, nevertheless, by the disobedience of Lee, his second in command, at a critical moment. Boiling with rage, the commander-in-chief rode up to Lee and demanded why he had disobeyed orders. Then, it is said, with a tremendous oath he sent the marplot to the rear, and Lee's military career ignominiously ended. Four years after, this military adventurer, who had given so much trouble, died in a mean tavern in Philadelphia, disgraced, unpitied, and forlorn.

The battle of Monmouth did not prevent the orderly retreat of the British to New York, when Washington resumed his old post at White Plains, east of the Hudson in Westchester County, whence he had some hopes of moving on New York, with the aid of the French fleet under the Count d'Estaing. But the big French ships could not cross the bar, so the fleet sailed for Newport with a view of recapturing that town and repossessing Rhode Island. Washington sent Greene and La Fayette thither with reinforcements for Sullivan, who was in command. The enterprise failed from an unexpected storm in November, which compelled the French admiral to sail to Boston to refit, after which he proceeded to the West Indies. It would appear that the French, thus far, sought to embarrass the English rather than to assist the Americans. The only good that resulted from the appearance of D'Estaing at Newport was the withdrawal of the British troops to New York.

It is singular that the positions of the opposing armies were very much as they had been two years before. The headquarters of Washington were at White Plains, on the Hudson, and those of Clinton at New York, commanding the harbor and the neighboring heights. Neither army was strong enough for offensive operations with any reasonable hope of success, and the commanding generals seem to have acted on the maxim that "discretion is the better part of valor." Both armies had been strongly reinforced, and the opposing generals did little else than fortify their positions and watch each other. A year passed in virtual inaction on both sides, except that the British carried on a series of devastating predatory raids in New England along the coast of Long Island Sound, in New York State (with the savage aid of the Indians), in New Jersey, and in the South,--there making a more formal movement and seizing the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. No battles of any account were fought. There was some skirmishing, but no important military movements were made on either side. Washington, in December, 1778, removed his headquarters to Middlebrook, N.J., his forces being distributed in a series of camps from the Delaware north and east to Rhode Island. The winter he passed in patient vigilance; he wrote expostulating letters to Congress, and even went personally to Philadelphia to labor with its members. Meanwhile Clinton was taking his ease, to the disgust of the British government.

There was a cavilling, criticising spirit among the different parties in America; for there were many who did not comprehend the situation, and who were disappointed that nothing decisive was done. Washington was infinitely annoyed at the stream of detraction which flowed from discontented officers, and civilians in power, but held his soul in patience, rarely taking any notice of the innumerable slanders and hostile insinuations. He held together his army, now chiefly composed of veterans, and nearly as numerous as the troops of the enemy. One thing he saw clearly,--that the maintenance of an army in the field, held together by discipline, was of more importance, from a military point of view, than the occupation of a large city or annoying raids of destruction. While he was well intrenched in a strong position, and therefore safe, the British had the command of the Hudson, and ships-of-war could ascend the river unmolested as far as West Point, which was still held by the Americans and was impregnable. Outside of New York the British did not possess a strong fortress in the country, at least in the interior, except on Lake Champlain,--not one in New England. West Point, therefore, was a great eyesore to the English generals and admirals. Its possession would be of incalculable advantage in case any expedition was sent to the North.

And the enemy came very near getting possession of this important fortress, not by force, but by treachery. Benedict Arnold, disappointed in his military prospects, alienated from his cause, overwhelmed with debts, and utterly discontented and demoralized, had asked to be ordered from Philadelphia and put in command of West Point. He was sent there in August, 1780. He was a capable and brave man; he had the confidence of Washington, in spite of his defects of character, and moreover he had rendered important services. In an evil hour he lost his head and listened to the voice of the tempter, and having succeeded in getting himself put in charge of the stronghold of the Hudson, he secretly negotiated with Clinton for its surrender.

Everybody is familiar with the details of that infamy, which is inexplicable on any other ground than partial insanity. No matter what may be said in extenuation, Arnold committed the greatest crime known to civilized nations. He contrived to escape the just doom which awaited him, and, from having become traitor, even proceeded to enter the active service of the enemy and to raise his hand against the country which, but for these crimes, would have held him in honorable remembrance. The heart of English-speaking nations has ever been moved to compassion for the unfortunate fate of the messenger who conducted the treasonable correspondence between Arnold and Clinton,--one of the most accomplished officers in the British army, Major André. No influence--not even his deeply moved sympathy--could induce Washington to interfere with the decision of the court-martial that André should be hanged as a spy, so dangerous did the commander deem the attempted treachery. The English have erected to the unfortunate officer a monument in Westminster Abbey.

The contemplated surrender of West Point to the enemy suggests the demoralization which the war had already produced, and which was deplored by no one more bitterly than by Washington himself. "If I were called upon," he writes, "to draw a picture of the times and of men, from what I have seen, heard, and in part know, I should in one word say that idleness, dissipation, and extravagance seem to have laid fast hold of most of them; that speculation, peculation, and an insatiable thirst for riches seem to have got the better of every other consideration...; that party disputes and personal quarrels are the great business of the day; whilst the momentous concerns of an empire, an accumulating debt, ruined finances, depreciated money, and want of credit ... are but secondary considerations."

All war produces naturally and logically this demoralization, especially in countries under a republican government. Profanity, drunkenness, and general recklessness as to money matters were everywhere prevailing vices; and this demoralization was, in the eyes of Washington, more to be dreaded than any external dangers that had thus far caused alarm and distress. "I have," wrote he, "seen without despondency even for a moment, the hours which America has styled her gloomy ones; but I have beheld no day since the commencement of hostilities that I have thought her liberties were in such imminent danger as at present."

"He had faced," says Henry Cabot Lodge, in his interesting life of Washington, "the enemy, the bleak winters, raw soldiers, and all the difficulties of impecunious government, with a cheerful courage that never failed. But the spectacle of wide-spread popular demoralization, of selfish scramble for plunder, and of feeble administration at the centre of government, weighed upon him heavily." And all this at the period of the French alliance, which it was thought would soon end the war. Indeed, hostilities were practically over at the North, and hence the public lassitude. Nearly two years had passed without an important battle.

When Clinton saw that no hope remained of subduing the Americans, the British government should have made peace and recognized the independence of the States. But the obstinacy of the king of England was phenomenal, and his ministers were infatuated. They could not reconcile themselves to the greatness of their loss. Their hatred of the rebels was too bitter for reason to conquer. Hitherto the contest had not been bloody nor cruel. Few atrocities had been committed, except by the rancorous Tories, who slaughtered and burned without pity, and by the Indians who were paid by the British government. Prisoners, on the whole, had been humanely treated by both the contending armies, although the British prison-ships of New York and their "thousand martyrs" have left a dark shadow on the annals of the time. Neither in Boston nor New York nor Philadelphia had the inhabitants uttered loud complaints against the soldiers who had successively occupied their houses, and who had lived as comfortably and peaceably as soldiers in English garrison towns. Some villages had been burned, but few people had been massacred. More inhumanity was exhibited by both Greeks and Turks in the Greek Revolution in one month than by the forces engaged during the whole American war. The prime minister of England, Lord North, was the most amiable and gentle of men. The brothers Howe would fain have carried the olive-branch in one hand while they bore arms in the other. It seemed to be the policy of England to do nothing which would inflame animosities, and prevent the speedy restoration of peace. Spies of course were hanged, and traitors were shot, in accordance with the uniform rules of war. I do not read of a bloodthirsty English general in the whole course of the war, like those Russian generals who overwhelmed the Poles; nor did the English generals seem to be really in earnest, or they would have been bolder in their operations, and would not have been contented to be shut up for two years in New York when they were not besieged.

At length Clinton saw he must do something to satisfy the government at home, and the government felt that a severer policy should be introduced into warlike operations. Clinton perceived that he could not penetrate into New England, even if he could occupy the maritime cities. He could not ascend the Hudson. He could not retain New Jersey. But the South was open to his armies, and had not been seriously invaded.

As Washington personally was not engaged in the military operations at the South, I can make only a passing allusion to them. It is not my object to write a history of the war, but merely to sketch it so far as Washington was directly concerned. The South was left, in the main, to defend itself against the raids which the British generals made in its defenceless territories, and these were destructive and cruel. But Gates was sent to cope with Cornwallis and Tarleton. Washington himself could not leave his position near New York, as he had to watch Clinton, defend the Hudson, and make journeys to Philadelphia to urge Congress to more vigorous measures. Congress, however, was helpless and the State governments were inactive.