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By Howard Fast
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1999 Howard Fast
All rights reserved.
AT THE VERY BEGINNING, they did not think of themselves as soldiers. Most of them were deeply religious, with more of a feeling for life than for death. But in the twenty-four hours after the first meeting with the British regulars on Lexington Common, they got over their fear and they learned how to kill. Between the town of Concord in Massachusetts and Boston in Massachusetts, they tore a whole British army into shreds, sent it running back to Boston screaming in its pain; and it was then that their attitudes changed and they became cocky and contemptuous of every kind of British or European soldier.
From all over New England, from Vermont and New Hampshire and Maine and Massachusetts and Connecticut and Rhode Island, and from the midlands, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and even from Virginia and other places in the South, the people converged on Boston, where a British army was cornered with only a way out by sea. There were Minutemen and Committeemen and Militiamen and musketeers and riflemen and pikemen off the fishing boats, youngsters, and grown men, all of them pouring into the Boston area, and at Bunker Hill they defeated the British again.
At Bunker Hill, they entrenched themselves and built earthworks, and the British marched full and flat against them, expecting them to panic and run away. But instead of fleeing, the Americans opened a deadly fire. The Americans gave way finally before the British, but they took a toll of almost a thousand of the enemy in dead and wounded.
And all this filled them with confidence and with contempt for their enemies, for men who "fight for hire."
A year later, having marched down from Boston to New York City, with a tall, skinny, long-nosed Virginian, George Washington, as their new commander in chief, they were more confident than ever. In all their lives and dreams they had never seen so many men together in one place as there were in New York on the ninth of July in 1776, when they were drawn up in their brigades to hear a public reading of the Declaration of Independence, written by a young man, Thomas Jefferson, and signed by the members of the Continental Congress. On that day, by actual count, there were 20,275 of them, tall, long-legged healthy lads, half of them under eighteen years old, and most of them cocky beyond belief.
The very number of them fed this feeling of security and superiority over the enemy, and every day additional groups of young volunteers, hot for freedom and full of pride, entered their camp. It was true that against them, Sir William Howe, the commander of the British army, could muster thirty thousand men—but his home base was over three thousand miles away, while theirs was just around the corner or across the river or over yonder a bit.
Anyway, if General Howe was foolish enough to attack them, they'd give him back his own coin in full measure. Most of the young men in the American army were farmers. Their fathers had let them go off after the planting but told them they were to get back for the harvest or get their necks wrung.
They could just look around at the army that was assembled here to know that it would all be over and done with long before harvest time.
THERE WERE FEW SECRETS in that curious war. There appears to have been a whole army of spies who would sell any bit of information to any buyer, and when Sir William Howe decided that he would land half of his army—fifteen thousand men—on the Brooklyn shore to take Long Island and perhaps cut off the Americans on Manhattan Island, the news soon got to Washington. He sat down to consult with his staff, among whom there was one officer, General Charles Lee, who was trained in the British army and of whom we will hear a good deal. Charles Lee was of the opinion that the British were stupid and rigid, and that they would go on repeating all the tactics that had led them to previous disaster. If the Americans made a show of force, the British would confront the rebels and attempt to brush them away.
Unfortunately, the great majority of General Washington's staff agreed with Lee. They were most of them bright, exuberant young men who felt that the one important problem was to get the British to fight, so that they might whip the daylights out of them.
The commander in chief was less young and exuberant than some of the others, but modest and unwilling to press his opinions or put himself forward as a military genius. He preferred to sit quietly in his beautiful buff-and-blue uniform, which had been tailored for his position as commander in the Virginia Militia and which was so admired that every officer who had the price had given orders to his own tailor to make him one of the same. After he had listened enough, it appeared to him that the counsel of these bright and articulate young officers made very good sense.
Thereupon, he worked out a scheme that might end the affair of the Revolution properly and quickly. He took eight thousand of his very best men, almost half of them riflemen and excellent marksmen, and had them ferried across the East River to Brooklyn. Their transportation across the river was contrived by a regiment of Massachusetts fishermen and sailors, who were under the command of Colonel John Glover; and once they were on the Brooklyn side, Washington had them take up positions on the high hill of Brooklyn Heights and there build earthwork barriers and trenches.
The reasoning behind this was very simple. The Americans would display indifference as to where the British landed on the Brooklyn shore. Actually, it did not matter where they landed, because wherever they came they would face the problem of the American position on Brooklyn Heights and the necessity to sweep it away before they could be secure in Brooklyn and ready to cut off the Americans in Manhattan. Thus, their landing would be unopposed. The British would step on shore, form their men in regiments and then march against the American position, and from behind their earthworks, the American riflemen would cut them down as they had at Bunker Hill.
However, Washington felt that there was a very real possibility that the landing in Brooklyn—so poorly kept secret—was no more than a diversion, and that the rest of the British forces would be directed against New York itself, perhaps in small boats from the great British ships of the line. Because it appeared so eminently sensible a course for his enemies to pursue, Washington kept the bulk of his artillery in New York, and his troops there on an even more intense alert than those in Brooklyn.
On August 22nd, fifteen thousand British and Hessian soldiers were landed at Gravesend Bay on the Brooklyn shore just south of the Narrows. Old Israel Putnam, a brave but rather simplistic soul, conceived of the astonishing notion of sending strong bodies of riflemen to take up positions in the woods facing the landing area. As the British advanced, the riflemen would shoot down the first ranks of the British and then retreat, leading the British army into the trap that awaited them on Brooklyn Heights.
And then the British refused to do any of the things that the Americans had planned for them. When the riflemen had taken up their positions in the woods, facing the main roads, the Hessians advanced on the double along little-used footpaths and cut off the riflemen, attacking them from the rear. Instead of wasting themselves in a frontal attack on the fortified positions on Brooklyn Heights, the British and Hessians concentrated on the slaughter and capture of the several thousand riflemen that had been sent out of the fortifications to intercept them.
Taken from behind, the riflemen—undisciplined at best—reacted in panic. They twisted around to fire at anything that moved and in many cases at their own comrades. Southerners and Pennsylvania woodsmen, their training was in the hunting of squirrel and deer, not men. Their long Pennsylvania rifles were difficult to load. The bullet had to be jammed down the long length of the barrel of the gun. And with those riflemen who preened themselves on an extra-long range and accurate weapon, the bullet actually had to be hammered into the barrel so that the inner screw literally threaded the soft lead.
Suddenly, their long, beautifully wrought rifles were worthless. In the fierce onslaught of the Hessian troops, there was not even time for the Americans to begin to load. If they turned to run away, the Hessians bayonetted them through the back. If they tried to club their long, unwieldly rifles and fight back, the Hessians drove in low and bayonetted them in the belly. In the thick woods, hand to hand, there was no more useless, more impossible weapon than the long Pennsylvania rifle.
The Americans threw down their guns and tried to surrender, but the Hessians would not let them. They and the British regiments had the smell of blood, and they killed until sheer exhaustion put an end to it. The screams of pain and terror from the dying Americans were so loud and awful that finally the blood-crazed English and Hessian officers came to their senses and stopped the slaughter and began the taking of prisoners.
But in the woods where the riflemen were trapped lay over six hundred American corpses unburied, unclaimed; how many exactly no one knows, for many of the riflemen were not on any official regimental roster, and for years afterward the place was known as the "wood of horror." Travelers spoke of the dreadful stink that emanated from the woods, and a whole mythology of ghostly terror tales arose concerning that bloody battlefield.
As far as the entrenchments on Brooklyn Heights were concerned, there too the British refused to behave as the Americans had decided that they would. Instead of launching a frontal attack upon the Americans, they began to unload the big guns from the ships of the line, so that they might blow the American position to pieces.
General Washington did not wait for this to happen. Shattered by the defeat, hundreds of his men and officers dead, hundreds more wounded and a great part of his Brooklyn army in the hands of the British as prisoners of war, he immediately ordered Colonel Glover to bring the men back to Manhattan. A strong wind from the north kept the British warships out of the East River, and if the military exercise in Brooklyn was wanting, the retreat was masterly. It was the first retreat from a lost battlefield by a man who would soon be known sardonically as the great master of military retreat.
THE COCKINESS PASSED, and a new mood, fear, pervaded the Americans. There were eyewitness stories, some of them invented and some of them real, and they were of three types. In one, the Hessian skewered the Yankee to a tree, and there he hung like a bug pinned on a board, the bayonet through his chest, screaming while he died. In the second, the Hessian stuck the Yankee lad through the genitals and drove the bayonet up into his guts, and in the third story, the Hessian stabbed the fleeing Yankee in the back. All three were sufficiently terrifying. A German regiment of farmboys from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, had taken to calling the Hessians "Die Jäger der Hölle" (the foresters from hell), even though there was only one Jäger regiment among the many Hessian regiments that fought the Americans in Brooklyn. The Hessians were as good as any soldiers in Europe. But now they were magnified out of all proportion to reality and turned into objects of consuming terror.
A crack Rhode Island rifle regiment of two hundred men disappeared one night, and then during the following few days, over four thousand Massachusetts and Connecticut men deserted and disappeared from the camp. It was a panic so uncontrollable that for a few days, General Washington came to believe that his army was beyond hope or redemption. A whole regiment of riflemen from South Carolina, who had grumbled incessantly that the war would be over before they saw an Englishman in the sights of their rifles, picked up and marched out of camp, north to a ferry across the Hudson and then back home. Even the threat of cannon facing them did not stop them, and young Henry Knox, in command of the artillery, lacked the stomach to give an order for Americans to fire on Americans.
The plain truth was that the morale of the riflemen had been shattered. It was almost impossible to fix a bayonet onto the end of one of the long, slender Pennsylvania rifles—certainly beyond the skill of the metalworkers available in New York—and without a bayonet, these soldiers lacked the will to face the enemy. Washington had looked upon his thousands of riflemen as a sort of secret weapon, superb marksmen who would cut down the redcoats before the attacking British could ever approach to bayonet distance. But the reality had proved quite different. The tall, swaggering, buckskin-clad bullies, with their fringed shirts and their carved powderhorns, were beyond training. They drank too much, quarreled incessantly and looked upon any sort of discipline as a direct threat to their honor, as they put it. Loudmouthed, foul-tongued as many of them were, they posed a constant threat to the entire structure of the new army. After the slaughter on Brooklyn Heights, they boasted no longer. Within two weeks, half of the riflemen had deserted, fleeing the camp by night for the most part—nor were they ever again to be a decisive factor in the American Revolution, although some regiments, the Bennington Rifles of Vermont and a number of Pennsylvania and Virginia regiments, performed bravely throughout the war.
IN THE COLD, bitter reality of defeat and death, an army was born, and this is the story of their borning and of the agony that went with it—and how awful in those birth pangs was the realization of what war is and what happens to men who fight. Most of the army was very young, but in the weeks that followed the 22nd of August in 1776, their youth passed away. They became old with the aging that only the intimate knowledge of death brings. They learned that when a soldier retreats before an invader in his own land, he leaves a little bit of himself behind every step of the way. His retreat is thus limited and conditioned by death, and it has a point of no return.
In our story, this point was the Delaware River, the natural boundary between the two rich colonies of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and it is this river that is specific in the crossing; and ours is the story of how the skinny fox hunter from Virginia and his frightened men crossed it twice.
A WORD MUST BE SAID here about the table of organization of this Army of the Revolution led by Washington. Beginning at the bottom, there were the companies, and they were put together in a dozen different ways. Many of them were of Minutemen or Committeemen, who had been drilling on their village greens for months before the hostilities started. The drilling was fun and socially pleasant, but it did not make them into soldiers. Others were religious companies: Methodists or Presbyterians or Baptists. There were fewer of these. Then there were the lodges, Masonic companies, fellowship companies, trade companies such as fuller and cooper and ropewalker and bookbinder and many others, and then the class companies of rich men and their youngsters in beautiful tailored uniforms and, of course, there were the regular militia companies for defense against the red men and bandits and outlaws.
A number of companies, geographically connected, as in town or county or colony, were logged together as regiments. Most of the companies were commanded by captains, who were usually assisted by one or two or five lieutenants. The number of lieutenants depended upon the size of the company—from forty to a hundred men at the beginning—and also upon how many young officers could afford saddle horses and tailored uniforms. The regiment—and all of this applies only to the first months of the war—would consist of from two to ten companies. It was commanded by a colonel, a man whose command derived from prior military experience, or from his wealth, or from his position in the community or from his education, for these were a people dedicated to education and deeply impressed by it.
Two or five or ten regiments—again depending upon size—would be logged together as a brigade, and this would be under the command of a brigadier or brigadier general. These general officers who commanded the brigades of General Washington's army were as unusual a group of men as this continent ever saw associated in a single effort—doctors, lawyers, merchants, college professors, teachers, professional soldiers who had left the British army to fight with the Americans, planters, builders, saintly men, drunkards, scoundrels, cheats, liars—but in their great majority men of high purpose and integrity. In other words, they were precisely the kind of collection of men such a situation as the American Revolution would produce.
Over the brigadiers was the commander in chief, who was directly responsible to the Congress of the Colonies.
Excerpted from The Crossing by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1999 Howard Fast. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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