In this masterful book, David McCullough tells the intensely human story of those who marched with General George Washington in the year of the Declaration of Independence—when the whole American cause was riding on their success, without which all hope for independence would have been dashed and the noble ideals of the Declaration would have amounted to little more than words on paper.
Based on extensive research in both American and British archives, 1776 is a powerful drama written with extraordinary narrative vitality. It is the story of Americans in the ranks, men of every shape, size, and color, farmers, schoolteachers, shoemakers, no-accounts, and mere boys turned soldiers. And it is the story of the King’s men, the British commander, William Howe, and his highly disciplined redcoats who looked on their rebel foes with contempt and fought with a valor too little known.
Written as a companion work to his celebrated biography of John Adams, David McCullough’s 1776 is another landmark in the literature of American history.
About the Author
Hometown:West Tisbury, Massachusetts
Date of Birth:July 7, 1933
Place of Birth:Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Education:B.A., Yale University, 1955
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: Sovereign Duty
God save Great George our King,
Long live our noble King,
God save the King!
Send him victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign o'er us;
God save the King!
On the afternoon of Thursday, October 26, 1775, His Royal Majesty George III, King of England, rode in royal splendor from St. James's Palace to the Palace of Westminster, there to address the opening of Parliament on the increasingly distressing issue of war in America.
The day was cool, but clear skies and sunshine, a rarity in London, brightened everything, and the royal cavalcade, spruced and polished, shone to perfection. In an age that had given England such rousing patriotic songs as "God Save the King" and "Rule Britannia," in a nation that adored ritual and gorgeous pageantry, it was a scene hardly to be improved upon.
An estimated 60,000 people had turned out. They lined the whole route through St. James's Park. At Westminster people were packed solid, many having stood since morning, hoping for a glimpse of the King or some of the notables of Parliament. So great was the crush that latecomers had difficulty seeing much of anything.
One of the many Americans then in London, a Massachusetts Loyalist named Samuel Curwen, found the "mob" outside the door to the House of Lords too much to bear and returned to his lodgings. It was his second failed attempt to see the King. The time before, His Majesty had been passing by in a sedan chair near St. James's, but reading a newspaper so close to his face that only one hand was showing, "the whitest hand my eyes ever beheld with a very large rose diamond ring," Loyalist Curwen recorded.
The King's procession departed St. James's at two o'clock, proceeding at walking speed. By tradition, two Horse Grenadiers with swords drawn rode in the lead to clear the way, followed by gleaming coaches filled with nobility, then a clattering of Horse Guards, the Yeomen of the Guard in red and gold livery, and a rank of footmen, also in red and gold. Finally came the King in his colossal golden chariot pulled by eight magnificent cream-colored horses (Hanoverian Creams), a single postilion riding the left lead horse, and six footmen at the side.
No mortal on earth rode in such style as their King, the English knew. Twenty-four feet in length and thirteen feet high, the royal coach weighed nearly four tons, enough to make the ground tremble when under way. George III had had it built years before, insisting that it be "superb." Three gilded cherubs on top symbols of England, Scotland, and Ireland held high a gilded crown, while over the heavy spoked wheels, front and back, loomed four gilded sea gods, formidable reminders that Britannia ruled the waves. Allegorical scenes on the door panels celebrated the nation's heritage, and windows were of sufficient size to provide a full view of the crowned sovereign within.
It was as though the very grandeur, wealth, and weight of the British Empire were rolling past an empire that by now included Canada, that reached from the seaboard of Massachusetts and Virginia to the Mississippi and beyond, from the Caribbean to the shores of Bengal. London, its population at nearly a million souls, was the largest city in Europe and widely considered the capital of the world.
George III had been twenty-two when, in 1760, he succeeded to the throne, and to a remarkable degree he remained a man of simple tastes and few pretensions. He liked plain food and drank but little, and wine only. Defying fashion, he refused to wear a wig. That the palace at St. James's had become a bit dowdy bothered him not at all. He rather liked it that way. Socially awkward at Court occasions many found him disappointingly dull he preferred puttering about his farms at Windsor dressed in farmer's clothes. And in notable contrast to much of fashionable society and the Court, where mistresses and infidelities were not only an accepted part of life, but often flaunted, the King remained steadfastly faithful to his very plain Queen, the German princess Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, with whom by now he had produced ten children. (Ultimately there would be fifteen.) Gossips claimed Farmer George's chief pleasures were a leg of mutton and his plain little wife.
But this was hardly fair. Nor was he the unattractive, dim-witted man critics claimed then and afterward. Tall and rather handsome, with clear blue eyes and a generally cheerful expression, George III had a genuine love of music and played both the violin and piano. (His favorite composer was Handel, but he adored also the music of Bach and in 1764 had taken tremendous delight in hearing the boy Mozart perform on the organ.) He loved architecture and did quite beautiful architectural drawings of his own. With a good eye for art, he had begun early to assemble his own collection, which by now included works by the contemporary Italian painter Canaletto, as well as watercolors and drawings by such old masters as Poussin and Raphael. He avidly collected books, to the point where he had assembled one of the finest libraries in the world. He adored clocks, ship models, took great interest in things practical, took great interest in astronomy, and founded the Royal Academy of Arts.
He also had a gift for putting people at their ease. Samuel Johnson, the era's reigning arbiter of all things of the mind, and no easy judge of men, responded warmly to the "unaffected good nature" of George III. They had met and conversed for the first time when Johnson visited the King's library, after which Johnson remarked to the librarian, "Sir, they may talk of the King as they will, but he is the finest gentleman I have ever seen."
Stories that he had been slow to learn, that by age eleven he still could not read, were unfounded. The strange behavior the so-called "madness" of King George III for which he would be long remembered, did not come until much later, more than twenty years later, and rather than mental illness, it appears to have been porphyria, a hereditary disease not diagnosed until the twentieth century.
Still youthful at thirty-seven, and still hardworking after fifteen years on the throne, he could be notably willful and often shortsighted, but he was sincerely patriotic and everlastingly duty-bound. "George, be a King," his mother had told him. As the crisis in America grew worse, and the opposition in Parliament more strident, he saw clearly that he must play the part of the patriot-king.
He had never been a soldier. He had never been to America, any more than he had set foot in Scotland or Ireland. But with absolute certainty he knew what must be done. He would trust to Providence and his high sense of duty. America must be made to obey.
"I have no doubt but the nation at large sees the conduct in America in its true light," he had written to his Prime Minister, Lord North, "and I am certain any other conduct but compelling obedience would be ruinous and...therefore no consideration could bring me to swerve from the present path which I think myself in duty-bound to follow."
In the House of Lords in March of 1775, when challenged on the chances of Britain ever winning a war in America, Lord Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, had looked incredulous. "Suppose the colonies do abound in men, what does that signify?" he asked. "They are raw, undisciplined, cowardly men." And Lord Sandwich was by no means alone in that opinion. General James Grant, a member of the House of Commons, had boasted that with 5,000 British regulars he could march from one end of the American continent to the other, a claim that was widely quoted.
But in striking contrast, several of the most powerful speakers in Parliament, like the flamboyant Lord Mayor of London, John Wilkes, and the leading Whig intellectual, Edmund Burke, had voiced ardent support for and admiration of the Americans. On March 22, in the House of Commons, Burke had delivered in his heavy Irish brogue one of the longest, most brilliant speeches of his career, calling for conciliation with America.
Yet for all that, no one in either house, Tory or Whig, denied the supremacy of Parliament in determining what was best for America. Even Edmund Burke in his celebrated speech had referred repeatedly to "our" colonies.
Convinced that his army at Boston was insufficient, the King had dispatched reinforcements and three of his best major generals: William Howe, John Burgoyne, and Henry Clinton. Howe, a member of Parliament and a Whig, had earlier told his Nottingham constituents that if it came to war in America and he were offered a command, he would decline. But now duty called. "I was ordered, and could not refuse, without incurring the odious name of backwardness, to serve my country in distress," he explained. Howe, who had served in America during the Seven Years' War or the French and Indian War, as it was known in America was convinced the "insurgents" were few in number in comparison to those loyal to the Crown.
War had come on April 19, with the first blood shed at Lexington and Concord near Boston, then savagely on June 17 at Breed's Hill and Bunker Hill. (The June engagement was commonly known as the Battle of Bunker Hill on both sides of the Atlantic.) British troops remained under siege at Boston and were running short of food and supplies. On July 3, General George Washington of Virginia had taken command of the American "rabble."
With 3,000 miles of ocean separating Britain from her American colonies, accounts of such events took a month or more to reach London. By the time the first news of Lexington and Concord arrived, it was the end of May and Parliament had begun its long summer holiday, its members departing London for their country estates.
When the outcome at Bunker Hill became known in the last week of July, it only hardened the King's resolve. "We must persist," he told Lord North. "I know I am doing my duty and therefore can never wish to retract."
The ever-obliging North suggested that in view of the situation in America, it might no longer be regarded as a rebellion, but as a "foreign war," and thus "every expedient" might be employed.
At a hurried meeting at 10 Downing Street, on July 26, the Cabinet decided to send 2,000 reinforcements to Boston without delay and to have an army of no fewer than 20,000 regulars in America by the following spring.
Bunker Hill was proclaimed a British victory, which technically it was. But in plain truth His Majesty's forces, led by General Howe, had suffered more than 1,000 casualties in an appalling slaughter before gaining the high ground. As was observed acidly in both London and Boston, a few more such victories would surely spell ruin for the victors.
At summer's end a British ship out of Boston docked at Plymouth bearing 170 sick and wounded officers and soldiers, most of whom had fought at Bunker Hill and "all in great distress," as described in a vivid published account:
A few of the men came on shore, when never hardly were seen such objects: some without legs, and others without arms; and their clothes hanging on them like a loose morning gown, so much were they fallen away by sickness and want of nourishment. There were, moreover, near sixty women and children on board, the widows and children of men who were slain. Some of these too exhibited a most shocking spectacle; and even the vessel itself, though very large, was almost intolerable, from the stench arising from the sick and wounded.
The miseries of the troops still besieged at Boston, and of those Americans loyal to the King who, fearing for their lives, had abandoned everything to find refuge in the town, were also described in letters published in the London papers or in correspondence to friends and relatives in London. In the General Evening Post, one soldier portrayed the scene in Boston as nothing but "melancholy, disease, and death." Another, whose letter appeared in the Morning Chronicle and Advertiser, described being "almost lost for want of fresh provisions....We are entirely blocked up...like birds in a cage."
John Singleton Copley, the American portrait painter who had left Boston to live in London the year before, read in a letter from his half brother, Henry Pelham:
It is inconceivable the distress and ruin this unnatural dispute has caused to this town and its inhabitants. Almost every shop and store is shut. No business of any kind is going on....I am with the multitude rendered very unhappy, the little I collected entirely lost. The clothes upon my back and a few dollars in my pocket are now the only property which I have.
Despite the war, or more likely because of it, the King remained popular in the country at large and could count on a loyal following in Parliament. Political philosophy, patriotism, and a sense of duty comparable to the King's own figured strongly in both houses. So, too, did the immense patronage and public money that were his alone to dispense. And if that were not sufficient, there was the outright bribery that had become standard in a blatantly mercenary system not of his making, but that he readily employed to get his way.
Indeed, bribery, favoritism, and corruption in a great variety of forms were rampant not only in politics, but at all levels of society. The clergy and such celebrated observers of the era as Jonathan Swift and Tobias Smollett had long since made it a favorite subject. London, said Smollett, was "the devil's drawing-room." Samuel Curwen, the Salem Loyalist, saw dissipation and "vicious indulgence" everywhere he looked, "from the lowest haunts to the most elegant and expensive rendezvous of the noble and polished world." Feeling a touch of homesickness, Curwen thanked God this was still not so back in New England.
To much of the press and the opposition in Parliament, the American war and its handling could not have been more misguided. The Evening Post, the most partisan in its denunciations, called the war "unnatural, unconstitutional, unnecessary, unjust, dangerous, hazardous, and unprofitable." The St. James's Chronicle wrote contemptuously of "a foolish, obstinate, and unrelenting King." The Crisis, a vehement new paper, attacked "all the gaudy trappings of royalty" and the villainy of the King.
"What, in God's name, are ye all about in England? Have you forgot us?" asked a British officer in a letter from Boston published in London's Morning Chronicle. He wished that all the "violent people" who favored more vigorous measures in America could be sent over to see for themselves. Their vigor would be quickly cooled. "God send us peace and a good fireside in Old England."
The King, meanwhile, had recalled General Thomas Gage, his commander-in-chief at Boston, and in his place put the stouthearted William Howe. When, in September, an emissary from the Continental Congress at Philadelphia, Richard Penn, arrived in London with an "Olive Branch Petition" in hand, expressing loyalty to the Crown and requesting, in effect, that the King find a way to reconciliation, George III refused to have anything to do with it.
Behind the scenes, Lord North had quietly begun negotiations with several German princes of Hesse and Brunswick to hire mercenary troops. And in a confidential note dated October 15, the King reassured the Prime Minister that every means of "distressing America" would meet his approval.
By the crisp, sunny afternoon of October 26, as George III proceeded on his way to the opening of Parliament, his popularity had never seemed higher. Opposition to the war, as everyone knew, was stronger and more vociferous in London than anywhere in the country, yet here were crowds greater than any since his ascension to the throne. Further, they appeared in the best of spirits, as even the London Public Advertiser took note. Their "looks spoke peace and good humor"; there was "but little hissing"; the King could feel secure "in the affection of his people."
A boom of cannon saluted His Majesty's arrival at Westminster, and with the traditional welcoming formalities performed, the King assumed his place on the throne at the head of the House of Lords, flanked by the peers in their crimson robes. The members of the House of Commons, for whom no seats were provided, remained standing at the rear.
The magnitude of the moment was lost on no one. As expected, the King's address would be one of the most important ever delivered by an English monarch.
He had a good voice that carried well. "The present situation of America, and my constant desire to have your advice, concurrence, and assistance on every important occasion, have determined me to call you thus early together." America was in open revolt, he declared, and he denounced as traitors those who, by "gross misrepresentation," labored to inflame his people in America. Theirs was a "desperate conspiracy." All the time they had been professing loyalty to the parent state, "and the strongest protestations of loyalty to me," they were preparing for rebellion.
They have raised troops, and are collecting a naval force. They have seized the public revenue, and assumed to themselves legislative, executive, and judicial powers, which they already exercise in the most arbitrary manner....And although many of these unhappy people may still retain their loyalty...the torrent of violence has been strong enough to compel their acquiescence till a sufficient force shall appear to support them.
Like the Parliament, he had acted thus far in a spirit of moderation, he said, and he was "anxious to prevent, if it had been possible, the effusion of the blood of my subjects, and the calamities which are inseparable from a state of war." He hoped his people in America would see the light, and recognize "that to be a subject of Great Britain, with all its consequences, is to be the freest member of any civil society in the known world."
Then came a new charge, based on opinions received from his commander at Boston. There must be no more misconceptions about the true intent of those deceiving the unhappy people of America. "The rebellious war...is manifestly carried on for the purpose of establishing an independent empire."
I need not dwell upon the fatal effects of the success of such a plan. The object is too important, the spirit of the British nation too high, the resources with which God hath blessed her too numerous, to give up so many colonies which she has planted with great industry, nursed with great tenderness, encouraged with many commercial advantages, and protected and defended at much expense of blood and treasure.
Since, clearly, it was the better part of wisdom "to put a speedy end" to such disorders, he was increasing both his naval and land forces. Further, he was pleased to inform the Parliament, he had received "friendly offers of foreign assistance."
"When the unhappy and deluded multitude, against whom this force will be directed, shall become sensible of their error, I shall be ready to receive the misled with tenderness and mercy," he pledged, and as evidence of his good intentions, he would give authority to "certain persons" to grant pardons "upon the spot" in America, though beyond this he said no more.
In sum, he, George III, Sovereign of the Empire, had declared America in rebellion. He had confirmed that he was committing land and sea forces as well as unnamed foreign mercenaries sufficient to put an end to that rebellion, and he had denounced the leaders of the uprising for having American independence as their true objective, something those leaders themselves had not as yet openly declared.
"Among the many unavoidable ill consequences of this rebellion," he said at the last, "none affects me more sensibly than the extraordinary burden which it must create to my faithful subjects."
His Majesty's appearance before Parliament had lasted just twenty minutes, after which, as reported, he returned to St. James's Palace "as peaceably as he went."
The members of the House of Commons filed out directly to their own chamber, and debate on the King's address commenced "brisk and warm" in both houses, the opposition marshaling the case for conciliation with extraordinary force.
In the House of Lords, expressions of support were spirited though comparatively brief. The King was praised for his resolution to uphold the interests and honor of the kingdom, praised for his decisiveness. "We will support your majesty with our lives and fortunes," vowed Viscount Townsend.
Those in opposition had more to say, and spoke at times with pronounced emotion. The measures recommended from the throne, warned the Marquis of Rockingham, were "big with the most portentous and ruinous consequences." The hiring of foreign troops was an "alarming and dangerous expedient." Even more deplorable was the prospect of "shedding British blood by British hands." Any notion of conquering America was "wild and extravagant," said the Earl of Coventry. The administration was "no longer to be trusted," said Lord Lyttleton bitterly.
"How comes it that the colonies are charged with planning independency?" the Earl of Shelburne demanded to know. "Who is it that presumes to put an assertion (what shall I call it, my Lords?) contrary to fact, contrary to evidence?...Is it their intention, by thus perpetually sounding independence in the ears of the Americans, to lead them to it?"
As the afternoon light began to fade and the chamber grew dim, the candles of the chandeliers were lit.
The one surprise, as the debate continued, was a vehement speech by the Duke of Grafton, Augustus Henry Fitzroy, former Prime Minister, who had not previously opposed the administration. Until now, he said, he had concurred in the belief that the more forceful the government in dealing with the Americans, the more likely matters could be "amicably adjusted." But he had been misled, deceived. Admitting to his ignorance of the real state of things in America and inferring that this was no uncommon handicap in Parliament he boldly proposed the repeal of every act concerning America since the incendiary Stamp Act of 1765.
This, I will venture to assert, will answer every end; and nothing less will accomplish any effectual purpose, without scenes of ruin and destruction, which I cannot think on without the utmost grief and horror.
The Earl of Dartmouth, Secretary of State for the Colonies, was astonished. How could any noble lord possibly condemn the policies of the administration, or withdraw support, without at least giving them a fair trial?
It was in the Commons that the longer, more turbulent conflict ensued. Of the twenty or so who rose to speak, few held back. Attacks on the King, Lord North, the Foreign Ministry in general, and on one another at times brought the heat of debate to the boiling point. There were insults exchanged that would long fester, bombast and hyperbole in abundance, and moments when eloquence was brought to bear with a dramatic effect remarkable even in the Commons.
It was Parliament as theater, and gripping, even if the outcome, like much of theater, was understood all along. For importantly it was also well understood, and deeply felt, that the historic chamber was again the setting for history, that issues of the utmost consequence, truly the fate of nations, were at stake.
The passion of opposing opinion was evident at once, as the youthful John Dyke Acland of Devonshire declared emphatic support of the King's address. True it was that the task of "reducing America to a just obedience" should not be underestimated, he said, but where "the interests of a great people" were concerned, "difficulties must be overcome, not yielded to."
Acland, a headstrong young army officer, was ready to serve in America himself (and would), and thus what he said had unusual force, if not perfect historic validity. "Recollect the strength, the resources, and above all the spirit of the British nation, which when roused knows no opposition."
Let me remind you of those extensive and successful wars that this country has carried on before the continent of America was known. Let me turn your attention to that period when you defended this very people from the attacks of the most powerful and valiant nation in Europe [France], when your armies gave law, and your fleets rode triumphant on every coast. Shall we be told then that this people [the Americans], whose greatness is the work of our hands, and whose insolence arises from our divisions, who have mistaken the lenity of this country for its weakness, and the reluctance to punish, for a want of power to vindicate the violated rights of British subjects shall we be told that such a people can resist the powerful efforts of this nation?
At about the time the chandeliers were being lighted in the House, John Wilkes, Lord Mayor of London, champion of the people and the homeliest man in Parliament, stood to be heard, and to let there be no doubt that he was John Wilkes.
"I speak, Sir, as a firm friend to England and America, but still more to universal liberty and the rights of all mankind. I trust no part of the subjects of this vast empire will ever submit to be slaves." Never had England been engaged in a contest of such import to her own best interests and possessions, Wilkes said.
We are fighting for the subjection, the unconditional submission of a country infinitely more extended than our own, of which every day increases the wealth, the natural strength, the population. Should we not succeed...we shall be considered as their most implacable enemies, an eternal separation will follow, and the grandeur of the British empire pass away.
The war with "our brethren" in America was "unjust...fatal and ruinous to our country," he declared.
There was no longer any question whether the Americans would fight, conceded Tory Adam Ferguson, but could anyone doubt the strength of Great Britain to "reduce" them? And this, he said, must be done quickly and decisively, as an act of humanity. Half measures would not do. Half measures could lead only to the horrors of civil war.
In response, George Johnstone, a dashing figure who had once served as governor of West Florida, delivered one of the longest, most vehement declamations of the night, exclaiming, "Every Machiavellian policy is now to be vindicated towards the people of America."
Men are to be brought to this black business hood-winked. They are to be drawn in by degrees, until they cannot retreat....we are breaking through all those sacred maxims of our forefathers, and giving the alarm to every wise man on the continent of America, that all his rights depend on the will of men whose corruptions are notorious, who regard him as an enemy, and who have no interest in his prosperity.
Johnstone praised the people of New England for their courage and fortitude. There was a wide difference, he said, between the English officer or soldier who merely did his duty, and those of the New England army, where every man was thinking of what further service he could perform. No one who loved "the glorious spirit of freedom" could not be moved by the spectacle of Bunker Hill, where "an irregular peasantry" had so bravely faced "the gallant Howe" leading the finest troops in the world. "Who is there that can dismiss all doubts on the justice of a cause which can inspire such conscious rectitude?"
Alexander Wedderburn, the Solicitor General, belittled the very idea of standing in the way of the King and called for the full-scale conquest of America. "Why then do we hesitate?" he asked.
Because an inconsiderable party, inconsistent in their own policies, and always hostile to all government but their own, endeavor to obstruct our measures, and clog the wheels of government? Let us rather second the indignant voice of the nation, which presses in from all quarters upon the Sovereign, calling loudly for vigorous measures....Sir, we have been too long deaf. We have too long shown our forbearance and long-suffering....Our thunders must go forth. America must be conquered.
As the night wore on, Lord North, the stout, round-shouldered Prime Minister, remained conspicuously silent in his front-bench seat, his large, nearsighted eyes and full cheeks giving him the look, as the wit Horace Walpole said, of a blind trumpeter. North was much liked moderate, urbane, and intelligent. He had made his career in the Commons and, with his affable manner, had acquired few if any enemies among his political opponents. When attacked, he took no offense. He could be a markedly persuasive speaker but was equally capable, when need be, of remaining silent, even napping a bit.
From years of experience North had also learned to count votes in advance, and he knew now, as did nearly everyone present, that the decided majority of the Commons, like the people at large, stood behind the King.
Perhaps the most telling moment of the whole heated session came near midnight, when another army officer, but of an older generation than John Dyke Acland, rose to speak. Colonel Isaac Barré was a veteran of the French and Indian War who had come home from the Battle of Quebec badly disfigured. He had been hit in the head by a musket ball that blinded him in one eye and left his face twisted into a permanent sneer. Further, it had been Isaac Barré, in a past speech in defense of the Americans, who had first called them "Sons of Liberty," and the name had taken hold.
He had lost one eye, the colonel reminded his listeners, but the one good "military eye" he had left did not deceive him. The only way to avert "this American storm" was to reach an accommodation just as soon as possible.
Between them, Edmund Burke and young Charles James Fox filled the next several hours. Burke, in customary fashion, took his time. Nearly all that he said, he and others had said before, but he saw no harm in repetition, or any need for hurry. He held the floor for nearly two hours, a large part of his speech devoted to the disgrace of British forces cooped up in Boston by those said to be an undisciplined rabble.
There were no ringing lines from Burke this time, little at all for the newspapers to quote. Possibly he did not wish to outshine Fox, his protégé, who spoke next and who, at twenty-six, was already a dazzling political star.
Born to wealth and position, Fox was an unabashed fop, a dandified "macaroni," who at times appeared in high-heeled shoes, each of a different color, and happily spent most nights drinking or gambling away his father's fortune at London's best clubs. But his intellect and oratorical gifts were second to none. He always spoke spontaneously, never from notes or a prepared text. Fox, it would be observed, would as soon write down what he was going to say as pay a bill before it came due.
He attacked immediately and in searing fashion, calling Lord North the "blundering pilot" who had brought the nation to a terrible impasse. If Edmund Burke had failed to provide a memorable line for the night's efforts, Fox did at once:
Lord Chatham, the King of Prussia, nay, Alexander the Great, never gained more in one campaign than the noble lord has lost he has lost a whole continent.
It was time for a change in the administration, time for new policies. The present ministers were enemies of freedom.
I cannot consent to the bloody consequences of so silly a contest about so silly an object, conducted in the silliest manner that history or observation has ever furnished an instance of, and from which we are likely to derive nothing but poverty, disgrace, defeat, and ruin.
Once Fox finished, North stood at his place and calmly allowed he had no wish to remain a day in office were he to be judged inactive, inattentive, or inconsiderate.
North was not a man enamored with war. He had nothing of the look or temperament of a war leader. Privately he was not at all sure it would be possible to vanquish the Americans, and he worried about the cost. To General Burgoyne he had written, "I would abandon the contest were I not most intimately convinced in my own conscience that our cause is just and important." George III relied on him, calling him "my sheet anchor," and it was, and would remain, North's role to explain and defend the
King and administration policies and decisions before the Commons.
The intention now, he affirmed, was to send a powerful sea and land force across the Atlantic. But with these forces would also go "offers of mercy upon a proper submission." How "proper submission" was to be determined, or who was to bear such offers, he did not say. As time would show, however, the real purpose of such peace gestures was to speed up an American surrender.
"This will show we are in earnest, that we are prepared to punish, but are nevertheless ready to forgive. This is, in my opinion, the most likely means of producing an honorable reconciliation."
On that note the debate ended.
In the House of Lords, where work had wound up at midnight, the opposition to the King's address, and thus to all-out war in America, was defeated by a vote of more than two to one, 69 to 29.
In the House of Commons, their impassioned speeches notwithstanding, the opposition was defeated by an even greater margin, 278 to 108.
By the time the vote in the Commons had concluded, it was four in the morning.
One of those members of the House of Commons who had refrained from speaking, and who felt extremely pleased with the outcome, was the gentleman-scholar Edward Gibbon. A supporter of Lord North, Gibbon never spoke on any issue. But in private correspondence from his London home, he had been assuring friends that "some[thing] will be done" about America. The power of the empire would be "exerted to the utmost," he wrote. "Irish papists, Hanoverians, Canadians, Indians, etc. will all in various shapes be employed."
Gibbon, who was then putting the final touches to the first volume of his masterpiece, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, now felt even more confident about the course of history in his own time. "The conquest of America is a great work," he wrote.
Soon after, in early November, King George III appointed a new Secretary for the American colonies, Lord George Germain, a choice that left little doubt, if any remained, that the King, too, considered the conquest of America serious work to which he was seriously committed.
Germain was to replace the Earl of Dartmouth, whose attitude toward the war seemed at times less than wholehearted. He was a proud, intelligent, exceedingly serious man of sixty, tall, physically impressive, and, notably unlike the King and Lord North, he was a soldier. He had served in the Seven Years' War in Germany and with good reputation, until the Battle of Minden, when, during a cavalry attack, he was accused of being slow to obey orders. He was not charged with cowardice, as his critics liked to say. At a court-martial called at his own insistence, he was found guilty only of disobedience. But his military career ended when the court declared him unfit for further service.
As a politician in the years since, he had performed diligently, earning a high reputation as an administrator. In his new role he would direct the main operations of the war and was expected to take a firm hand. To many he seemed the perfect counterpart to the obliging, unassertive North.
For the "riotous rebels" of America, he had no sympathy. What was needed, Germain said, was a "decisive blow." The King thought highly of him.
Copyright © 2005 by David McCullough
His Excellency General Washington has arrived amongst us, universally admired. Joy was visible on every countenance.
~General Nathanael Greene
"Here we are at loggerheads," wrote the youthful brigadier general from Rhode Island, appraising the scene at Boston in the last days of October 1775.
I wish we had a large stock of [gun]powder that we might annoy the enemy wherever they make their appearance....but for want thereof we are obliged to remain idle spectators, for we cannot get at them and they are determined not to come to us.
At age thirty-three, Nathanael Greene was the youngest general officer in what constituted the American army, and by conventional criterion, an improbable choice for such responsibility. He had been a full-time soldier for all of six months. Unlike any of the other American generals, he had never served in a campaign, never set foot on a battlefield. He was a foundryman by trade. What he knew of warfare and military command came almost entirely from books.
Besides, he was a Quaker, and though of robust physique, a childhood accident had left him with a stiff right leg and a limp. He also suffered from occasional attacks of asthma.
But Nathanael Greene was no ordinary man. He had a quick, inquiring mind and uncommon resolve. He was extremely hardworking, forthright, good-natured, and a born leader. His commitment to the Glorious Cause of America, as it was called, was total. And if his youth was obvious, the Glorious Cause was to a large degree a young man's cause. The commander in chief of the army, George Washington, was himself only forty-three. John Hancock, the President of the Continental Congress, was thirty-nine, John Adams, forty, Thomas Jefferson, thirty-two, younger even than the young Rhode Island general. In such times many were being cast in roles seemingly beyond their experience or capacities, and Washington had quickly judged Nathanael Greene to be "an object of confidence."
He had been born and raised in Kent County, Rhode Island, on a farm by Potowomut Creek, near the village of Warwick, approximately sixty miles south of Boston. He was the third of the eight sons of a prominent, industrious Quaker also named Nathanael, and the one, of all the sons, his father counted on most to further the family interests. These included the home-farm, a general store, a gristmill, a sawmill, a coasting sloop, and the Greene forge, all, as was said, in "constant and profitable operation." The forge, the most thriving enterprise, which produced anchors and chains and employed scores of men, was one of the leading businesses in the colony, and the Greenes, as a result, had become people of substantial means. The fact that the patriarch owned a sedan chair was taken as the ultimate measure of just how greatly the family had prospered.
Because education did not figure prominently in his father's idea of the Quaker way, young Nathanael had received little schooling. "My father was a man [of] great piety," he would explain. "[He] had an excellent understanding, and was governed in his conduct by humanity and kind benevolence. But his mind was overshadowed with prejudices against literary accomplishments." With his brothers, Nathanael had been put to work at an early age, on the farm at first, then at the mills and forge. In time, determined to educate himself, he began reading all he could, guided and encouraged by several learned figures, including the Rhode Island clergyman Ezra Stiles, one of the wisest men of the time, who would later become the president of Yale College.
Nathanael read Caesar and Horace in English translation, Swift, Pope, and Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding. On visits to Newport and Boston, he began buying books and assembling his own library. Recalling their youth, one of his brothers would describe Nathanael during lulls in the clamor of the foundry, seated near the great trip-hammer, a leather-bound volume of Euclid in hand, calmly studying.
"I lament the want of a liberal education. I feel the mist [of] ignorance to surround me," he wrote to a like-minded friend. He found he enjoyed expressing himself on paper and had a penchant in such correspondence for endless philosophizing on the meaning of life. Yet for all this no thought of a life or occupation other than what he knew seems to have crossed his mind until the threat of conflict with Great Britain.
The description that would come down the generations in the family was of a "cheerful, vigorous, thoughtful" young man who, like his father, loved a "merry jest or tale," who did comic imitations of characters from Tristram Shandy, and relished the company of young ladies, while they, reportedly, "never felt lonely where he was." Once, accused by a dancing partner of dancing stiffly, because of his bad leg, Nathanael replied, "Very true, but you see I dance strong."
His defects were perceived to be a certain "nervous temperament" and susceptibility to poor health, impetuousness, and acute sensitivity to criticism.
Full-grown, he was a burly figure, about five feet ten inches tall, with the arms and shoulders of a foundryman, and handsome, though an inoculation for smallpox had left a cloudy spot in his right eye. A broad forehead and a full, "decided" mouth were considered his best features, though a soldier sent to deliver a message to the general would remember his "fine blue eyes, which struck me with a considerable degree of awe, that I could scarcely deliver my message."
In 1770, when Nathanael was still in his twenties, his father had put him in charge of another family-owned foundry in the neighboring village of Coventry, beside the Pawtuxet River, and on a nearby hill Nathanael built a house of his own. Following the death of his father late that same year, he took charge of the entire business. By 1774, when he met and married pretty, flirtatious Katherine Littlefield, who was fourteen years his junior, he was perceived to be a "very remarkable man."
It was then, too, with war threatening, that he turned his mind to "the military art." Having ample means to buy whatever books he needed, he acquired a number of costly military treatises few could afford. It was a day and age that saw no reason why one could not learn whatever was required learn virtually anything by the close study of books, and he was a prime example of such faith. Resolved to become a "fighting Quaker," he made himself as knowledgeable on tactics, military science, and leadership as any man in the colony.
"The first of all qualities [of a general] is courage," he read in the Memoirs Concerning the Art of War by Marshal Maurice de Saxe, one of the outstanding commanders of the era. "Without this the others are of little value, since they cannot be used. The second is intelligence, which must be strong and fertile in expedients. The third is health."
He took a leading part in organizing a militia unit, the Kentish Guards, only to be told that his stiff leg disqualified him from being an officer. To have it declared publicly that his limp his "halting" would be a "blemish" on the company was, as he wrote, a "mortification" beyond any he had known.
If unacceptable as an officer, he would willingly serve in the ranks. Shouldering an English musket he had bought at Boston from a British deserter, he marched as a private in company drills for eight months, until it became obvious that for a man of such knowledge and ability, it would be best to forget about the limp.
Almost overnight he was given full command of the Rhode Island regiments. Exactly how this came about remains unclear. One of his strongest admirers and mentors was Samuel Ward of Rhode Island, a delegate to the Continental Congress, who was also the uncle of Nathanael's wife Katherine and presumably used his influence. But that Nathanael had so willingly marched in the ranks could only have favored him strongly among his fellow volunteers when it came to choosing a commander.
General Greene had been at Boston since early May of 1775, at the head of what was called the Rhode Island Army of Observation, applying himself every waking moment, at times sleeping only a few hours a night. Thus far no one had found cause to complain about his youth or inexperience.
Whatever he lacked in knowledge or experience, he tried to make up for with "watchfulness and industry," he would later confide to John Adams.
As commander of the "Army of Observation," encamped at the American citadel on Prospect Hill, he tried to take in everything, to observe and appraise the situation as realistically as possible. While the American army controlled the land around Boston, the British, strongly fortified in the city and on Bunker Hill, had control of the sea and could thereby supply their troops and send reinforcements. (Only weeks before, in September, reinforcements of five regiments had arrived.) The task at hand, therefore, seemed clear enough: to confine the King's men in Boston, cut them off from supplies of fresh provisions, and keep them from coming out to gain what one of their generals, Burgoyne, called "elbow room."
If it ever came to a fight, the American army had scarcely any artillery, and almost no gunpowder, yet to Greene the greater weakness and worry was the continuing disorderly state of the army itself. As he wrote to his friend Samuel Ward at the Continental Congress, the prospect was deeply disturbing, "when you consider how raw and undisciplined the troops are in general, and what war-like preparations are going on [in] England."
At the start of the siege there had been no American army. Even now it had no flag or uniforms. Though in some official documents it had been referred to as the Continental Army, there was no clear agreement on what it should be called in actual practice. At first it was referred to as the New England army, or the army at Boston. The Continental Congress had appointed George Washington to lead "the army of the United Colonies," but in correspondence with the general, the President of Congress, John Hancock, referred to it only as "the troops under your command." Washington, in his formal orders, called them the "Troops of the United Provinces of North America." Privately he described them as the "raw materials" for an army.
To the British and those Loyalists who had taken refuge in Boston, they were simply "the rebels," or "the country people," undeserving the words "American" or "army." General John Burgoyne disdainfully dubbed them "a preposterous parade," a "rabble in arms."
In April, when the call for help first went out after Lexington and Concord, militia and volunteer troops from the other New England colonies had come by the thousands to join forces with the Massachusetts regiments 1,500 Rhode Islanders led by Nathanael Greene, 5,000 from Connecticut under the command of Israel Putnam. John Stark's New Hampshire regiment of 1,000 had marched in snow and rain, "wet and sloppy," "through mud and mire," without food or tents, seventy-five miles in three and a half days. The Massachusetts regiments, by far the strongest of the provincial troops, possibly numbered more than 10,000.
By June a sprawling, spontaneous, high-spirited New England army such as had never been seen was gathered about Boston. Washington, arriving in the first week of July, was told he had 20,000 men, but no one knew for certain. No count had been taken until he made it a first order of business. In fact, there were 16,000, of which fewer than 14,000 were fit for duty. More than 1,500 were sick, another 1,500 absent.
In a regular army such a count could have been accomplished in a matter of hours, Washington noted disapprovingly. As things were, it took eight days. The enemy's total strength was believed to be 11,000. In reality, there were perhaps 7,000 of the King's men in Boston, or roughly half the number under Washington's command.
In a formal address from the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, Washington had been warned not to expect "regularity and discipline" among the men. The youth of the army had little or no experience with military life. Nor were they "possessed of the absolute necessity of cleanliness." Beyond that Washington found them to be men of a decidedly different sort than he had expected, and he was not at all pleased.
The lay of the land about Boston was also different from anything in the general's military experience. In the simplest terms, as he drew in his own rough map, the setting was one of three irregular peninsulas at the head of Boston Harbor, with the peninsula of Boston in the middle, that of Charlestown (and Bunker Hill) just to the north, and Dorchester close by to the south. But as Boston was connected to the mainland only by a narrow, half-mile causeway, or neck, it was more like an island than a peninsula. And thus, by barricading the Neck, it had been relatively simple to keep the British "bottled up" in Boston, just as the British had built their own barricades at the Neck to keep the Americans from coming in.
The British still held Charlestown, which was largely in ruins, and Bunker Hill, which was their citadel and a formidable advantage. Neither side had yet moved to fortify the even higher ground of the Dorchester peninsula overlooking the harbor.
With its numerous green hills falling away to blue water, it was a particularly beautiful part of the world and especially in summer. Washington thought it "very delightful country," and more the pity that it should be a theater of war. A British officer described it as "country of the most charming green that delighted eye ever gazed on." Views sketched from the uplands of Charlestown by one of the British engineers, Captain Archibald Robertson, show how many broad, open fields and meadows there were, and how modest was the skyline of Boston, its church spires more like those of a country village. They might have been sketches of Arcadia.
Had a seagull's-eye view been possible, one could have seen the whole American army and its fortifications strung out in a great arc of about ten miles around the landward side of Boston, from the Mystic River on the northeast to Roxbury to the south, with British redcoats camped on the slopes of the Boston Common and manning defenses at the Neck and within the town and on Bunker Hill. A lofty beacon pole rose from the crest of Beacon Hill, and at the center of the town, the Province House, headquarters for the British command, could be readily identified by its large, octagonal cupola and distinctive gold weather vane of an Indian with bow and arrow.
In the harbor off Long Wharf were British ships lying at anchor and three were ships of the line, ships of fifty guns or more while over to the right of the Dorchester peninsula, at the narrow entrance to the Inner Harbor, on Castle Island, stood the old fort Castle William, also occupied by the British.
The main concentration of American troops was at Prospect Hill to the north. Others were encamped a few miles farther inland, at the pretty little college town of Cambridge on the Charles River, and close to the Neck at Roxbury, where the white spire of the Roxbury meetinghouse rose from the top of still another prominent hill. At Cambridge troops were encamped mainly on the Common, though most of the town and the red-brick buildings of Harvard College had also been taken over.
Needing more than his rough sketch of the terrain, Washington had assigned a talented nineteen-year-old lieutenant, John Trumbull, the son of the governor of Connecticut, to do a series of maps and drawings. For one sketch of the British defenses at the Neck, young Trumbull had crawled through high grass almost to the enemy line.
For their part, the British had assigned an experienced cartographer, Lieutenant Richard Williams, who, with the help of a small crew, moved his surveyor's transit and brass chains from one vantage point to the next, taking and recording careful sightings. The result was a beautifully delineated, hand-colored map showing "the True Situation of His Majesty's Army and also those of the Rebels." All fortifications were clearly marked, all landmarks neatly labeled, including "Mount Whoredom," Boston's red-light district. Lieutenant Williams had been appalled to find prostitution so in evidence in what was supposedly the center of Puritanism "There's perhaps no town of its size could turn out more whores than this could," he noted in his journal and accuracy demanded that this, too, be shown on the map.
Not the least of Washington's problems was that he had command of a siege, yet within his entire army there was not one trained engineer to design and oversee the building of defenses. Still, he ordered larger and stronger defenses built, and the work went forward. "Thousands are at work every day," wrote the Reverend William Emerson of Concord after touring the lines. " 'Tis surprising the work that has been done....'Tis incredible." It had been the Reverend Emerson who declared the morning of April 19, as British regiments advanced on Concord, "Let us stand our ground. If we die, let us die here!"
With telescopes from Prospect Hill and other vantage points, the army kept constant watch on the regulars in Boston, just as the regulars kept watch on the army. ("It seemed to be the principle employment of both armies to look at each other with spyglasses," wrote the eminent Loyalist Peter Oliver, former chief justice of the province.)
Washington knew little about Boston. He had been there only once and but briefly twenty years before, when he was a young Virginia colonel hoping for advancement in the regular army. And though each side dispatched its spies, he put particular emphasis on "intelligence" from the start, and was willing to pay for it. Indeed, the first large sum entered in his account book was for $333.33 , a great deal of money, for an unnamed man "to go into Boston...for the purpose of conveying intelligence of the enemy's movements and designs."
The fear that the British were preparing an attack was ever present. "We scarcely lie down or rise up, but with expectation that the night or the day must produce some important event," wrote one of Washington's staff.
It was in the first week of August, at the end of his first month as commander, when Washington learned how much worse things were than he knew. A report on the supply of gunpowder at hand revealed a total of less than 10,000 pounds, and the situation was not expected to improve soon. Very little gunpowder was produced in the colonies. What supplies there were came mainly by clandestine shipments from Europe to New York and Philadelphia by way of the Dutch island St. Eustatius in the Caribbean. At present, there was powder enough only for about nine rounds per man. According to one account, Washington was so stunned by the report he did not utter a word for half an hour.
The sprawling American encampments bore little resemblance to the usual military presence. Tents and shelters were mainly patched-together concoctions of whatever could be found. Each was "a portraiture of the temper and taste of the person that encamps in it," wrote clergyman Emerson.
Some are made of boards, some of sailcloth, and some partly of one and partly of the other. Others are made of stone and turf, and others again of brick and others brush. Some are thrown up in a hurry and look as if they could not help it mere necessity others are curiously wrought with doors and windows.
A notable exception was the encampment of Nathanael Greene's Rhode Islanders. There, "proper tents" were arranged row on row like "the regular camp of the enemy...everything in the most exact English taste," recorded Emerson approvingly. On the whole, however, he thought "the great variety" of the camps most picturesque.
Others were considerably less charmed. The drunken carousing to be seen, the foul language to be heard were appalling to many, even among the soldiers themselves. "Wickedness prevails very much," declared Lieutenant Joseph Hodgkins of Ipswich, Massachusetts.
A veteran of Bunker Hill and a cobbler by trade, Hodgkins was thirty-two years old and a man, like many, who had already seen a good deal of trouble and sorrow in his life. His first wife and four of their five children had all died of disease before the war began. To the remaining child and to his second wife, Sarah Perkins, and the two children born of this second marriage, he was a devoted father and husband. Greatly concerned for their welfare and knowing her concern for him, he wrote to Sarah at every chance. But for now, as he told her, he had no time to be "pertickler" about details.
A British ship's surgeon who used the privileges of his profession to visit some of the rebel camps, described roads crowded with carts and wagons hauling mostly provisions, but also, he noted, inordinate quantities of rum "for without New England rum, a New England army could not be kept together." The rebels, he calculated, were consuming a bottle a day per man.
To judge by the diary of an officer with the Connecticut troops at Roxbury, Lieutenant Jabez Fitch, who enjoyed a sociable drink, there was considerably more besides plain rum to be had. "Drank some grog," he recorded at the close of one day, after a stop at a nearby tavern; "the gin sling passed very briskly," reads another entry. "In the morning I attended the alarm post as usual...then down at Lt. Brewster's tent to drink Ens. Perkins' cherry rum, came back and eat breakfast...." He imbibed wine and brandy sling, and on an expedition "up into Cambridge town," after a stop to sample "some flip" (a sweet, potent mix of liquor, beer, and sugar), he made for another tavern, the Punch Bowl, "where there was fiddling and dancing in great plenty....I came home a little before daylight in."
Lieutenant Fitch was one of a number of veterans of the French and Indian War, an easygoing Norwich, Connecticut, farmer and the father of eight children. He enjoyed soldiering and felt so sure his fourteen-year-old son would, too, that he had brought the boy along with him. Lieutenant Fitch, an early member of the Sons of Liberty, had been one of the first to answer the call for reinforcements for Boston. Little seemed ever to bother him, though he did object to soldiers "dirty as hogs." Much of his free time he spent writing in his diary or to his wife. The sound of British shells overhead was like that of a flock of geese, he wrote, and "has done more to exhilarate the spirits of our people than 200 gallons of New England rum."
For all its lack of ammunition, tents, and uniforms, the army was amply fed. Fresh produce in abundance and at low prices rolled into the camps all through summer and early fall. The men could count on meat or fish almost every day. Jabez Fitch wrote of enjoying fresh eggs, clams, apples, peaches, and watermelons, a "very good" breakfast of "warm bread and good camp butter with a good dish of coffee," "a hearty dinner of pork and cabbage." As yet, no one was complaining of a shortage of food.
There had been sickness aplenty from the start, deadly "camp fever," which grew worse as summer went on. Anxious mothers and wives from the surrounding towns and countryside came to nurse the sick and dying. "Your brother Elihu lies very dangerously sick with a dysentery...his life is despaired of," wrote Abigail Adams from nearby Braintree to her husband John in Philadelphia. "Your mother is with him in great anguish." Captain Elihu Adams, a farmer with a wife and three children, was one of several hundred who died of illness.
"Camp fever" or "putrid fever" were terms used for the highly infectious, deadly scourges of dysentery, typhus, and typhoid fever, the causes of which were unknown or only partially understood. Dysentery had been the curse of armies since ancient times, as recorded by Herodotus. Typhus, characterized by high fever, severe headaches, and delirium, was carried by lice and fleas, which were a plague amid the army. (One soldier recorded seeing a dead body so covered with lice that it was thought the lice alone had killed the man.) Typhoid fever, also characterized by a raging fever, red rash, vomiting, diarrhea, and excruciating abdominal pain, was caused by the bacillus Salmonella typhosa in contaminated food or water, usually the result of too little separation between sewage and drinking water.
And it was not the troops alone who suffered from camp fever. Many of those who came to nurse them were sickened, or carried the disease home, and thus it lay waste to one New England town after another. Of the parishioners of a single church in Danbury, Connecticut, more than a hundred would die of camp fever by November.
"Infectious filth" was understood to be the killer. Cleanliness in person, clean cooking utensils, clean water and unspoiled meat and produce were seen as essential to the prolonged health of the army, and this was among the chief reasons for constant insistence on discipline and order, and especially with so many thousands encamped in such close company.
As it was, open latrines were the worst of it, but there was also, as recorded in one orderly book, a "great neglect of people repairing to the necessaries." Instead, they voided "excrement about the fields perniciously." The smell of many camps was vile in the extreme.
New England men were also averse to washing their own clothes, considering that women's work. The British included women in their army wives and other so-called camp followers, some of whom were prostitutes who did the washing, but that was not the way with the New Englanders.
The troops were in good spirits, but had yet to accept the necessity of order or obedience. Many had volunteered on the condition that they could elect their own officers, and the officers, in turn, were inclined out of laziness, or for the sake of their own popularity, to let those in the ranks do much as they pleased. Many officers had little or no idea of what they were supposed to do. "The officers in general," remembered John Trumbull, "[were] quite as ignorant of military life as the troops."
Washington had declared new rules and regulations in force, insisting on discipline, and he made his presence felt by reviewing the defenses on horseback almost daily. "New lords, new laws," observed Pastor Emerson. "New orders from his Excellency are read to the respective regiments every morning after prayers. The strictest government is taking place."
Those who broke the rules were subjected to severe punishment or disgrace. They were flogged, or made to ride the "wooden horse," or drummed out of camp. One man was whipped for "making a disturbance in the time of public worship," another for desertion. Another received twenty "stripes" for striking an officer, another, thirty for damning an officer. But change was maddeningly slow in coming.
As scathing as any eyewitness description was that provided by a precocious young New Englander of Loyalist inclinations named Benjamin Thompson, who, after being refused a commission by Washington, served in the British army, later settled in Europe, renamed himself Count Rumford, and ultimately became one of the era's prominent men of science. Washington's army, wrote Thompson, was "the most wretchedly clothed, and as dirty a set of mortals as ever disgraced the name of a soldier....They would rather let their clothes rot upon their backs than be at the trouble of cleaning 'em themselves." To this "nasty way of life" Thompson attributed all the "putrid, malignant and infectious disorders" that took such a heavy toll.
His Loyalist bias notwithstanding, Thompson's portrayal was largely the truth. Such British commanders as Burgoyne and Percy were hardly to be blamed for dismissing Washington's army as "peasantry," "ragamuffins," or "rabble in arms." Except for Greene's Rhode Islanders and a few Connecticut units, they looked more like farmers in from the fields than soldiers.
That so many were filthy dirty was perfectly understandable, as so many, when not drilling, spent their days digging trenches, hauling rock, and throwing up great mounds of earth for defense. At one point early in the siege there were 4,000 men at work on Prospect Hill alone. It was dirty, hard labor, and there was little chance or the means ever to bathe or enjoy such luxury as a change of clothes.
Few of the men had what would pass for a uniform. Field officers were all but indistinguishable from the troops they led. Not only were most men unwashed and often unshaven, they were clad in a bewildering variety of this and that, largely whatever they, or others at home, had been able to throw together before they trudged off to war. (One Connecticut woman was reported to have "fitted out" five sons and eleven grandsons.) They wore heavy homespun coats and shirts, these often in tatters from constant wear, britches of every color and condition, cowhide shoes and moccasins, and on their heads, old broad-brimmed felt hats, weathered and sweat-stained, beaver hats, farmer's straw hats, or striped bandannas tied sailor-fashion. The tricorn, a dressier hat, was more likely to be worn by officers and others of higher status, such as chaplains and doctors. Only here and there might an old regimental coat be seen, something left over from the French and Indian War.
The arms they bore were "as various as their costumes," mainly muskets and fowling pieces (in effect, shotguns), and the more ancient the gun, it seemed, the greater the owner's pride in it. The most common and by far the most important was the flintlock musket, a single-shot, smooth-bore, muzzle-loading weapon that threw a lead ball weighing about an ounce and which could inflict terrible damage. The average musket measured 5 feet and weighed about 10 pounds. Though not especially accurate, it could be primed, loaded, fired, and rapidly reloaded and fired again. A good musket man could get off three to four rounds per minute, or a shot every fifteen seconds.
The trouble now was that so many of the men, accustomed to firearms since childhood, used them any way they saw fit, almost any time they pleased to start fires, for example, or blast away at wild geese.
In order that officers could be distinguished from those in the ranks, Washington directed that major generals wear purple ribbons across their chests, brigadiers, pink ribbons. Field officers were to be identified by different-colored cockades in their hats. Sergeants were to tie a red cloth to their right shoulders. Washington himself chose to wear a light blue ribbon across his chest, between coat and waistcoat. But then there was never any mistaking the impeccably uniformed, commanding figure of Washington, who looked always as if on parade.
The day he officially took command at Cambridge, July 3, had been marked by appropriate martial fanfare, "a great deal of grandeur," as Lieutenant Hodgkins, the Ipswich cobbler, recorded, "one and twenty drummers and as many fifers a beating and playing round the parade [ground]." A young newly arrived doctor from Barnstable, James Thacher, assigned to the army's hospital at Cambridge, described seeing the commander-in-chief for the first time:
His Excellency was on horseback, in company with several military gentlemen. It was not difficult to distinguish him from all others. His personal appearance is truly noble and majestic, being tall and well proportioned. His dress is a blue coat with buff colored facings, a rich epaulet on each shoulder, buff underdress, and an elegant small sword, a black cockade in his hat.
The great majority of the army were farmers and skilled artisans: shoemakers, saddlers, carpenters, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, coopers, tailors, and ship chandlers. Colonel John Glover's regiment from Marblehead, who were destined to play as important a part as any, were nearly all sailors and fishermen.
It was an army of men accustomed to hard work, hard work being the common lot. They were familiar with adversity and making do in a harsh climate. Resourceful, handy with tools, they could drive a yoke of oxen or "hove up" a stump or tie a proper knot as readily as butcher a hog or mend a pair of shoes. They knew from experience, most of them, the hardships and setbacks of life. Preparing for the worst was second nature. Rare was the man who had never seen someone die.
To be sure, an appreciable number had no trade. They were drifters, tavern lowlife, some, the dregs of society. But by and large they were good, solid citizens as "worthy people as ever marched out of step," as would be said married men with families who depended on them and with whom they tried to keep contact as best they could.
It was the first American army and an army of everyone, men of every shape and size and makeup, different colors, different nationalities, different ways of talking, and all degrees of physical condition. Many were missing teeth or fingers, pitted by smallpox or scarred by past wars or the all-too-common hazards of life and toil in the eighteenth century. Some were not even men, but smooth-faced boys of fifteen or less.
One of the oldest and by far the most popular, was General Israel Putnam, a hero of the Battle of Bunker Hill, who at fifty-seven was known affectionately as "Old Put." Rough, "thick-set," "all bones and muscles," and leathery, with flowing gray locks and a head like a cannonball, he was a Pomfret, Connecticut, farmer who had survived hair-raising exploits fighting the French and Indians, shipwreck, even a face-to-face encounter with a she-wolf in her den, if the stories were to be believed. Old Put also spoke with a slight lisp and could barely write his name. But, as said, Old Put feared nothing.
At the other extreme was little Israel Trask, who was all of ten. Like the son of Lieutenant Jabez Fitch, Israel had volunteered with his father, Lieutenant Jonathan Trask of Marblehead, and served as messenger and cook's helper.
John Greenwood, a fifer one of the more than 500 fifers and drummers in the army was sixteen, but small for his age and looked younger. Born and raised in Boston, he had grown up with "the troubles" always close to home. A young apprentice living in his house had been one of those killed in the Boston Massacre. Thrilled by the sound of the fifes and drums of the regulars occupying the city, John had somehow acquired "an old split fife," upon which, after puttying up the crack, he learned to play several tunes before being sent to live with an uncle in Falmouth (Portland), Maine. In May 1775, hearing the news of Lexington and Concord, he had set off on foot with little more than the clothes on his back, his fife protruding from a front pocket. All alone he walked to Boston, 150 miles through what was still, much of the route, uninhabited wilderness. Stopping at wayside taverns, where troops were gathered, he would bring out the fife and play "a tune or two," as he would later recall.
They used to ask me where I came from and where I was going to, and when I told them I was going to fight for my country, they were astonished such a little boy, and alone, should have such courage. Thus by the help of my fife I lived, as it were, on what is usually called free quarters nearly upon the entire route.
After reaching the army encampments, he was urged to enlist, with the promise of $8 a month. Later, passing through Cambridge, he learned of the battle raging at Bunker Hill. Wounded men were being laid out on the Common. "Everywhere the greatest terror and confusion seemed to prevail." The boy started running along the road that led to the battle, past wagons carrying more casualties and wounded men struggling back to Cambridge on foot. Terrified, he wished he had never enlisted. "I could positively feel my hair stand on end." But then he saw a lone soldier coming down the road.
...a Negro man, wounded in the back of his neck, passed me and, his collar being open and he not having anything on except his shirt and trousers, I saw the wound quite plainly and the blood running down his back. I asked him if it hurt him much, as he did not seem to mind it. He said no, that he was only to get a plaster put on it and meant to return. You cannot conceive what encouragement this immediately gave me. I began to feel brave and like a soldier from that moment, and fear never troubled me afterward during the whole war.
In response to concerns in Congress over how much of the army was in fact made up of old men and boys, as well as Negroes and Indians, General William Heath reported:
There are in the Massachusetts regiments some few lads and old men, and in several regiments, some Negroes. Such is also the case with the regiments from the other colonies. Rhode Island has a number of Negroes and Indians. The New Hampshire regiments have less of both.
General John Thomas, who commanded the Massachusetts troops at Roxbury, also responded:
The regiments at Roxbury, the privates, are equal to any I served with [in the] last war, very few old men, and in the ranks very few boys. Our fifers are many of them boys. We have some Negroes, but I look upon them in general equally serviceable with other men, for fatigue and in action; many of them have proved themselves brave.
Like most southerners, Washington did not want blacks in the army and would soon issue orders saying that neither "Negroes, boys unable to bear arms, nor old men" were to be enlisted. By year's end, however, with new recruits urgently needed and numbers of free blacks wanting to serve, he would change his mind and in a landmark general order authorize their enlistment.
While no contemporary drawings or paintings of individual soldiers have survived, a fair idea of how they looked emerges from the descriptions in notices posted of deserters. One George Reynolds of Rhode Island, as an example, was five feet nine and a half inches tall, age seventeen, and "carried his head something on his right shoulder." Thomas Williams was an immigrant "an old country man" who spoke "good English" and had "a film in his left eye." David Relph, a "saucy fellow," was wearing a white coat, jacket and breeches, and ruffled shirt when last seen.
Deserted from Col. Brewer's regiment, and Capt. Harvey's company [said a notice in the Essex, Connecticut, Gazette], one Simeon Smith of Greenfield, a joiner by trade, a thin-spared fellow, about 5 feet 4 inches high, had on a blue coat and black vest, a metal button on his hat, black long hair, black eyes, his voice in the hermaphrodite fashion, the masculine rather predominant. Likewise, Mathias Smith, a small smart fellow, a saddler by trade, gray headed, has a younger look in his face, is apt to say, "I swear! I swear!" And between his words will spit smart; had on a green coat, and an old red great coat; he is a right gamester, although he wears something of a sober look; likewise John Daby, a long hump-shouldered fellow, a shoemaker by trade, drawls his words, and for comfortable says comfable. He had a green coat, thick leather breeches, slim legs, lost some of his fore teeth.
For every full-fledged deserter there were a half-dozen others inclined to stroll off on almost any pretext, to do a little clam digging perhaps, or who might vanish for several weeks to see wives and children, help with the harvest at home, or ply their trades for some much-needed "hard money." Sometimes they requested a furlough; as often they just up and left, only to come straggling back into camp when it suited. It was not that they had no heart for soldiering, or were wanting in spirit. They simply had had little experience with other people telling them what to do every hour of the day. Having volunteered to fight, they failed to see the sense in a lot of fuss over rules and regulations.
It was midsummer by the time the first troops from outside New England began showing up, companies of riflemen from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, "hardy men, many of them exceeding six feet in height," noted Dr. James Thacher, who was himself short and slight.
One Virginia company, led by Captain Daniel Morgan, had marched on a "bee-line" for Boston, covering six hundred miles in three weeks, or an average of thirty miles a day in the heat of summer.
Mostly backwoodsmen of Scotch-Irish descent, they wore long, fringed hunting shirts, "rifle shirts" of homespun linen, in colors ranging from undyed tan and gray to shades of brown and even black, these tied at the waist with belts carrying tomahawks. At a review they demonstrated how, with their long-barreled rifles, a frontier weapon made in Pennsylvania and largely unknown in New England, they could hit a mark seven inches in diameter at a distance of 250 yards, while the ordinary musket was accurate at only 100 yards or so. It was "rifling" spiraled grooves inside the long barrel that increased the accuracy, and the new men began firing at British sentries with deadly effect, until the British caught on and kept their heads down or stayed out of range.
Welcome as they were at first, the riflemen soon proved even more indifferent to discipline than the New Englanders, and obstreperous to the point that Washington began to wish they had never come.
Work on defenses went on steadily, the troops toiling with picks and shovels in all weather, sometimes working through the night when the heat of day was too severe. It was endless, brute labor, but they were remarkably proficient at it far more so than their British counterparts. As the size and reach of the defenses increased, visitors by the hundreds came to see for themselves. Roads were crowded with spectators to whom the giant ramparts were wondrous works. Nothing on such scale had ever been built by New Englanders before breastworks "in many places seventeen feet in thickness," trenches "wide and deep," "verily their fortifications appear to be the works of seven years."
The work parties were fired on from time to time. British and American sentries alike were fired on repeatedly. On August 2, as Lieutenant Samuel Bixby of Connecticut recorded in his diary, "One of Gen[eral] Washington's riflemen was killed by the regulars today and then hung! up by the neck!"
His comrades, seeing this, were much enraged and immediately asked leave of the Gen[eral] to go down and do as they pleased. The riflemen marched immediately and began operations. The regulars fired at them from all parts with cannon and swivels, but the riflemen skulked about, and kept up their sharp shooting all day. Many of the regulars fell, but the riflemen lost only one man.
Both sides staged sporadic night raids on the other's lines, or launched forays to capture hay and livestock from nearby harbor islands. The night of August 30, the British made a surprise breakout at the Neck, set fire to a tavern, and withdrew back to their defenses. The same night, three hundred Americans attacked Lighthouse Island, killed several of the enemy, and took twenty-three prisoners, with the loss of one American soldier.
Night was the time for "frolicking," remembered John Greenwood, the fifer, "as the British were constantly sending bombs at us, and sometimes from two to six at a time could be seen in the air overhead, looking like moving stars in the heavens." Some early-morning British bombardments lasted several hours, the British clearly having no shortage of powder. In one furious cannonade from the British works on Bunker Hill, a rifleman lost a leg and a company clerk with Nathanael Greene's Kentish Guards, Augustus Mumford, had his head blown off.
Mumford was the first Rhode Island casualty of the war, and the horror of his death moved Nathanael Greene as nothing had since the siege began. To his wife "Caty," who was pregnant with their first child, Greene wrote that he wished she could be spared such news and any fears she had for his own safety.
British deserters kept crossing the lines, usually at night and alone, but sometimes three or four together. Half-starved and disgruntled, they came from both Boston and from the British ships in harbor, and nearly always with bits of news or descriptions of their travails, word of which would spread rapidly through the camps the next day. One night a lone British lighthorseman swam his horse across. Another night, fifteen men deserted the ships in the harbor.
Then days would follow without incident, one day like another. An officer with a company of Pennsylvania riflemen wrote of nothing to do but pick blueberries and play cricket. "Nothing of note....Nothing important....All quiet," Lieutenant Bixby of Connecticut recorded. On the other side, a British diarist drearily echoed the same refrain, writing, "Nothing extraordinary....Nothing extraordinary," day after day.
Washington kept expecting the British to attack and failed to understand why they would delay, if an end to the rebellion was what they wanted.
By the close of summer, with increasing losses from disease, desertions, and absences of one sort or other, his army was in serious decline. Spirits suffered. The patriotic fervor that had sent thousands rushing to the scene in late April and May was hardly evident any longer.
It was not just that the army was shrinking; it was due to disappear entirely in a matter of months, the troops having signed on to serve only until the end of the year. The Connecticut enlistments would be up even sooner.
It had been the common expectation that the rising of such an armed force as gathered outside Boston would cause the British to think again and reach an accommodation. A short campaign had been anticipated by nearly everyone, including Washington, who had told his wife he would be home by fall.
There were still too few tents, still a shortage of blankets and clothing, and no one had forgotten that winter was on the way. Farmers and soldiers knew about weather. Weather could be the great determiner between failure and success, the great test of one's staying power.
In truth, the situation was worse than they realized, and no one perceived this as clearly as Washington. Seeing things as they were, and not as he would wish them to be, was one of his salient strengths.
He knew how little money was at hand, and he understood as did no one else the difficulties of dealing with Congress. He knew how essential it was to the future effectiveness of the army to break down regional differences and biases among the troops. But at the same time he struggled with his own mounting contempt for New Englanders. Writing to Lund Washington, a cousin and his business manager at home at Mount Vernon, he railed against the Yankees as "exceeding dirty and nasty," nothing like what he had expected. He had only contempt for "these people," he confided in a letter to Congressman Richard Henry Lee, another fellow Virginian. The heart of the problem was an "unaccountable kind of stupidity in the lower class of these people, which believe me prevails but too generally among the officers...who are ne[ar]ly of the same kidney with the privates." All such officers desired was to "curry favor with the men" and thereby get reelected.
Still, he allowed, if properly led, the army would undoubtedly fight. And in a letter to General Philip Schuyler, who was in command at Albany, Washington insisted possibly to rally his own resolve that they must never lose sight of "the goodness of our cause." Difficulties were not insurmountable. "Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages."
On first arriving in Cambridge, Washington had been offered the home of the president of Harvard, Samuel Langdon, for his residence. But finding it too cramped for his needs and those of his staff (his military "family"), the general moved a few days later to one of the largest, most elegant houses in town, a gray clapboard Georgian mansion half a mile from the college on the King's Highway. Three stories tall, with an unobstructed view of the Charles River, it belonged to a wealthy Loyalist, John Vassall, who, fearing for his life and the lives of his family, had abandoned the place, fine furnishings and all, to take refuge in Boston. For Washington, who had a fondness for handsome architecture and river views, the house suited perfectly and would serve as his command headquarters through the siege, with his office established in a drawing room off the front hall.
The house became a hive of activity, with people coming and going at all hours. It was there that Washington conferred with his highest-ranking officers, convened his councils of war, and, with staff help, coped with numberless problems of organization, issued orders, and labored over correspondence paperwork without end, letters to Congress, appeals to the governors of the New England states, and the legislature of Massachusetts. There, too, he received or entertained local dignitaries and politicians and their wives, always in elegant fashion, as was both his pleasure and part of the role he felt he must play. And as with everything connected with that role his uniform, the house, his horses and equipage, the military dress and bearing of his staff appearances were of great importance: a leader must look and act the part.
To judge by surviving household accounts, Virginia hospitality more than lived up to its reputation at Cambridge. Purchases included quantities of beef, lamb, roasting pig, wild ducks, geese, turtle, and a variety of fresh fish, of which Washington was especially fond; plums, peaches, barrels of cider, brandy and rum by the gallon, and limes by the hundreds, these to fend off scurvy. One entry accounts for payment to a man named Simon Lovett "for carting a load of liquor from Beverly."
The domestic staff included a steward, two cooks (one of whom was French), a kitchen maid, a washerwoman, eight others whose duties were not specified and included several slaves, plus a personal tailor for the commander, one Giles Alexander. Washington's body servant, a black slave named William ("Billy") Lee, was his steady companion. Riding with Washington on his rounds of the defenses, Billy Lee became a familiar figure, a large spyglass in a leather case slung over one shoulder.
As apparent to all, His Excellency was in the prime of life. A strapping man of commanding presence, he stood six feet two inches tall and weighed perhaps 190 pounds. His hair was reddish brown, his eyes gray-blue, and the bridge of his prominent nose unusually wide. The face was largely unlined, but freckled and sun-beaten and slightly scarred by smallpox. A few "defective teeth" were apparent when he smiled.
He carried himself like a soldier and sat a horse like the perfect Virginia gentleman. It was the look and bearing of a man accustomed to respect and to being obeyed. He was not austere. There was no hint of arrogance. "Amiable" and "modest" were words frequently used to describe him, and there was a softness in his eyes that people remembered. Yet he had a certain distance in manner that set him off from, or above, others.
"Be easy...but not too familiar," he advised his officers, "lest you subject yourself to a want of that respect, which is necessary to support a proper command."
It was a philosophy unfamiliar to most Yankees, who saw nothing inappropriate about a captain shaving one of his soldiers, or rough-hewn General Putnam standing in line for his rations along with everyone else. Nor was it easy for Putnam and others of the older officers to change their ways. On one occasion, surveying the work on defenses by horseback, Putnam paused to ask a soldier to throw a large rock in the path up onto the parapet. "Sir, I am a corporal," the soldier protested. "Oh, I ask your pardon, sir," said the general, who dismounted and threw the rock himself, to the delight of all present.
The Philadelphia physician and patriot Benjamin Rush, a staunch admirer, observed that Washington "has so much martial dignity in his deportment that you would distinguish him to be a general and a soldier from among 10,000 people. There is not a king in Europe that would not look like a valet de chambre by his side."
A Connecticut delegate to the Continental Congress, Eliphalet Dyer, who had heartily joined in the unanimous decision to make Washington the commander-in-chief, judged him to be no "harum scarum" fellow. John Adams, who had put Washington's name in nomination for the command, described him in a letter to his wife Abigail as amiable and brave. "This appointment," wrote Adams, "will have great effect in cementing and securing the union of these colonies," and he prophesied that Washington could become "one of the most important characters in the world." After meeting the general herself for the first time, as a guest at one of his social occasions at Cambridge, Abigail wrote to tell her husband he had hardly said enough.
Washington's effect on the troops and young officers was striking. "Joy was visible on every countenance," according to Nathanael Greene, "and it seemed as if the spirit of conquest breathed through the whole army."
I hope we shall be taught to copy his example and to prefer the love of liberty in this time of public danger to all the soft pleasures of domestic life and support ourselves with manly fortitude amidst all the dangers and hardships that attend a state of war.
Joseph Reed, a young man with a long jaw and a somewhat quizzical look in his eyes, was a charming, London-trained Philadelphia lawyer who had been chosen as part of an honorary escort when Washington departed Philadelphia for his new command. Reed had intended to ride only as far as New York, but found himself so in awe of the general that he continued on to Cambridge to become Washington's secretary, despite the fact that he had made no provisions for his wife and three young children or for his law practice. As Reed explained, Washington had "expressed himself to me in such terms that I thought myself bound by every tie of duty and honor to comply with his request to help him through the sea of difficulties."
Few would ever provide a more succinct description of Washington's particular hold on men.
Born in Tidewater Virginia on February 11, 1732 (by the Old Style calendar), George Washington was the great-grandson of John Washington, who had emigrated from Northampton, England, in 1657. His father, Augustine Washington, was a tobacco planter also known for his "noble appearance and manly proportions." His mother, Mary Ball, was widowed when Washington was eleven. Because of the family's reduced circumstances, he had had little education only seven or eight years of schooling by private tutor, no training in Latin or Greek or law, as had so many prominent Virginia patriots and, as those close to him knew, he was self-conscious about this.
By steady application he had learned to write in a clear, strong hand and to express himself on paper with force and clarity. He learned to dance Virginians loved to dance and he was no exception and he learned to comport himself in the elaborately polite society of the day with perfect manners and polish. (Of the 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation that he had laboriously copied down as a boy, Rule Number One read: "Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those who are present.") He enjoyed parties and particularly the company of attractive women. As would be said of British officers, he "liked his glass, his lass, his game of cards," though gambling never became the obsession it was for so many of his counterparts on the British side.
The great teacher for Washington was experience. At age sixteen, he had set out to make his way in the world, as a surveyor's apprentice on an expedition into the wilderness of western Virginia, over the Blue Ridge Mountains, and as years passed he spent more time in the backcountry beyond the Blue Ridge than all but a few from the Tidewater. In addition, surveying proved highly remunerative.
In 1753, at twenty, he had been sent by the governor of Virginia to the wilds of western Pennsylvania, to challenge French claims to the Allegheny River valley, and publication of his diary of the venture, The Journal of Major George Washington, made his daring and resourcefulness known throughout the colonies and in Europe. A year later, on his first command, inexperience and poor judgment led to his famous encounter with French troops and Indians at Great Meadows, in the same remote corner of western Pennsylvania the small, bloody backwoods incident, and first defeat for Washington, that set in motion the conflict that ultimately involved much of the world.
"I heard the bullets whistle; and believe me there is something charming in the sound," he had written in a letter printed later in the London Magazine, which could be taken as the bravado of a callow youth, but, as he had found, he was one of those rare few who, under fire, were without fear.
As a provincial officer fighting with the British army during General Edward Braddock's defeat in western Pennsylvania, he had shown conspicuous courage under fire and a marked ability for leadership. If, as a young officer, he seemed at times flagrantly, unattractively ambitious, he had long since overcome that. In 1759, spurned in his desire for a royal commission, he had "retired" at age twenty-seven to the life of a Virginia planter and, that same year, married Martha Dandridge Custis of Williamsburg, an attractive, extremely wealthy widow with two children, to whom he gave full devotion. The children, John Parke Custis and Patsy, were treated quite as though they were his own. Indeed, one of the worst tragedies of Washington's life had been the death of seventeen-year-old Patsy of an epileptic fit in 1773.
Like other planters of the Tidewater, Washington embraced a life very like that of the English gentry. English by ancestry, he was, in dress, manner, and his favorite pastimes, as close to being an English country gentleman as was possible for an American of the day, and intentionally. His handsome green coach with its brass fittings and leather lining had been custom built in England to his specifications. He ordered his clothes from England, and only the finest English wools and linens and latest fashions would do. He wore English boots, English shoes, and Morocco leather slippers, all made to order for him in London. The books on his shelves, including the military treatises, were published in London. The very glass in the windows through which he viewed his domain was imported English glass.
Only the year before taking command at Cambridge, Washington had commenced an ambitious expansion of his Virginia home, Mount Vernon, which, when completed, would double its size. He was adding a library and building a two-story dining room, or banquet hall, suitable for entertaining on a grand scale. He was a builder by nature. He had a passion for architecture and landscape design, and Mount Vernon was his creation, everything done to his own ideas and plans. How extremely important all this was to him and the pleasure he drew from it, few people ever understood.
He had an abiding dislike of disorder and cared intensely about every detail wallpaper, paint color, ceiling ornaments and insisted on perfection. He hated to be away from the project. Even at the distance of Cambridge, with all that weighed on his mind, he worried that things were not being handled as he wished at Mount Vernon and filled pages of instruction for his manager, Lund Washington.
I wish you would quicken Lanphire and Sears [the carpenters] about the dining room chimney piece (to be executed as mentioned in one of my last letters) as I could wish to have that end of the house completely finished before I return. I wish you had done the end of the new kitchen next the garden, as also the old kitchen, with rusticated boards; however, as it is not, I would have the corners done so in the manner of our new church....What have you done with the well? Is that walled up? Have you any acc[oun]ts of the painter?
Second only to his passion for architecture and landscape design was a love of the theater, which again was quite characteristic of Virginians. He had seen his first known theatrical production at age nineteen on a trip with his older brother to Barbados. It was the first and only time Washington had ever been beyond American shores and the place where he was "strongly attacked" by smallpox. Later, at Williamsburg, as a member of the Virginia legislature, he had attended the theater regularly. During a visit to Annapolis, he recorded going to "the play" four nights out of five. In New York later he attended the theater seven times and saw his first production of Hamlet.
But of all the theatrical productions he had seen it was Cato, by the English author Joseph Addison, the most popular play of the time, that Washington loved best. One line in particular he was to think of or quote frequently in his role now as commander-in-chief: "'Tis not in mortals to command success, but we'll do more, Sempronius, we'll deserve it."
Though Washington was often said to be the richest man in America, he probably did not rank among the ten richest. He was very wealthy, nonetheless, and in large part because of his marriage to Martha Custis. His wealth was in land, upwards of 54,000 acres, including some 8,000 acres at Mount Vernon, another 4,000 acres in Virginia's Dismal Swamp, nearly all of which he had acquired for speculation. In addition, he owned more than one hundred slaves, another measure of great wealth, whose labors made possible his whole way of life.
In a popular English novel of the day, The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, Tobias Smollett wrote that to be a country gentleman one was "obliged to keep horses, hounds, carriages, with suitable numbers of servants, and maintain an elegant table for the entertainment of his neighbors." It could have been a description of life at Mount Vernon, with the difference that the servants were black slaves.
Among the Virginia gentry who had taken up fox hunting with an exuberance no less than to be found on the country estates of England, Washington stood out. Thomas Jefferson considered him "the best horseman of his age." That Washington was known to hunt up to seven hours straight, riding as close to the hounds as possible, "leaping fences, and going extremely quick," and always to the end, to be in on the kill, was considered not only a measure of his love of the chase and his exceptional physical stamina, but also of his uncommon, unrelenting determination.
Billy Lee, the body servant, rode with him, rode like the wind by all accounts, and no less fearlessly than his master.
"Found a fox in Mr. Phil Alexander's island which was lost after a chase of seven hours," Washington recorded in his diary at the end of one winter day in 1772, but he did not give up, as shown in his entry for the day following: "Found a fox in the same place again which was killed at the end of 6 hours."
An English sporting writer of a later era would describe fox hunting as "the image of war without its guilt and only half its danger." In some years, according to Washington's own records, the days he devoted to fox hunting added up to a month. He kept precise account of exactly how long each chase lasted, to the minute. Again, he was a man who loved precision in everything.
Stories were told of extraordinary feats of strength how, for example, Washington had thrown a stone from the bed of a stream to the top of Virginia's famous Natural Bridge, a height of 215 feet. The Philadelphia artist Charles Willson Peale, who had been a guest at Mount Vernon in 1772 while painting Washington's portrait, described how he and several other young men were on the lawn throwing an iron bar for sport, when Washington appeared and, without bothering to remove his coat, took a turn, throwing it "far, very far beyond our utmost limit."
Washington's wealth and way of life, like his physique and horsemanship, were of great importance to large numbers of the men he led and among many in Congress. The feeling was that if he, George Washington, who had so much, was willing to risk "his all," however daunting the odds, then who were they to equivocate. That he was also serving without pay was widely taken as further evidence of the genuineness of his commitment.
There were, to be sure, those in the ranks and among the local populace who had little fondness for Virginia planters and their high-and-mighty airs, or who saw stunning incongruity in the cause of liberty being led by a slavemaster.
It was also a matter of record that Washington had been retired from military life for fifteen years, during which he had not even drilled a militia company. His only prior experience had been in backwoods warfare a very different kind of warfare and most notably in the Braddock campaign of 1755, which had been a disaster. He was by no means an experienced commander. He had never led an army in battle, never before commanded anything larger than a regiment. And never had he directed a siege.
Washington was quite aware of his limitations. In formal acceptance of the new command, on June 16, 1775, standing at his place in Congress, he had addressed John Hancock:
I am truly sensible of the high honor done me in this appointment, yet I feel great distress from a consciousness that my abilities and military experience may not be equal to the extensive and important trust. However, as the Congress desire i[t], I will enter upon the momentous duty, and exert every power I possess in their service and for the support of the glorious Cause.
He knew he might not succeed, and he gave Congress fair warning:
But lest some unlucky event should happen unfavorable to my reputation, I beg it may be remembered by every gentleman in the room that I this day declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I [am] honored with.
To his wife Martha he wrote that "far from seeking this appointment, I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it, not only from my unwillingness to part with you and the family, but from a consciousness of its being a trust too great for my capacity....it has been a kind of destiny that has thrown me upon this service...."
Yet he had attended Congress in his splendid blue and buff uniform, conspicuously signaling a readiness to take command. If he saw the responsibility as too great for his ability, it was because he had a realistic idea of how immense that responsibility would be. For such a trust, to lead an undisciplined, poorly armed volunteer force of farmers and tradesmen against the best-trained, best-equipped, most formidable military force on earth and with so much riding on the outcome was, in reality, more than any man was qualified for.
But he knew also that someone had to take command, and however impossible the task and the odds, he knew he was better suited than any of the others Congress might have in mind.
Without question, Congress had made the right choice, and not the least of reasons was political. As a Virginian, Washington represented the richest, most populous of the thirteen colonies. He himself had had years of political experience in the Virginia legislature and as a member of the Continental Congress. It was as one of them that the members of Congress knew him best and respected him, not as a general. He knew the ways of politics and factious politicians. He understood how the system worked. For all the delays and frustrations, however severe the tests of patience he was to suffer in his dealings with them and the system, he never forgot that Congress held the ultimate power, that he, the commander-in-chief, was the servant of some fifty-six delegates who, in far-off Philadelphia, unlike Parliament, met in secrecy.
In the first days of September, Washington began drawing up plans for two bold moves.
He had decided to carry the war into Canada with a surprise attack on the British at Quebec. A thousand men from the ranks longing for action volunteered at once. Led by an aggressive Connecticut colonel named Benedict Arnold, they were to advance on Quebec across the Maine wilderness, taking a northeastern route up the Kennebec River. Hastily conceived, this "secret expedition" was based on too little knowledge of the terrain, but in small units the men began marching off for Newburyport, north of Boston, from where they would sail by sloop and schooner to the mouth of the Kennebec.
He felt he could detach a thousand troops this way, Washington informed Congress, because he had concluded, from intelligence gathered from spies and British deserters, that the enemy in Boston had no intention of launching an attack until they were reinforced.
His second plan was to end the waiting and strike at Boston, which, it was understood, could mean destruction of the town. British defenses were formidable. In fact, defenses on both sides had been strengthened to the point where many believed neither army would dare attack the other. Also, a siege by definition required a great deal of prolonged standing still and waiting. But standing still and waiting were not the way to win a war, and not in Washington's nature.
"The inactive state we lie in is exceedingly disagreeable," he had confided to his brother John. He wanted a "speedy finish," to fight and be done with it. "No danger is to be considered when put in competition with the magnitude of the cause," he had asserted earlier in a letter to the governor of Rhode Island.
According to his instructions from Congress, he was to take no action of consequence until advising with his council of war, and thus a meeting was scheduled for the morning of September 11, "to know," he informed his generals, "whether in your judgments, we cannot make a successful attack upon the troops in Boston, by means of boats."
On September 10, mutiny broke out among the Pennsylvania riflemen, after several of the worst troublemakers had been confined to the guardhouse. Though the mutiny was put down at once by General Greene and a large detachment of Rhode Island troops, it only added to the sense of an army coming apart, and Washington was visibly shaken.
The council of war convened in his office as scheduled the next morning three major generals, including the venerable Israel Putnam, and four brigadiers. All were New Englanders but one, Major General Charles Lee, who was Washington's second-in-command and the only professional soldier present. A former British officer and veteran of the French and Indian War, Lee, like Washington, had fought in the ill-fated Braddock campaign and later settled in Virginia. He was a spare, odd-looking man with a long, hooked nose and dark, bony face. Rough in manner, rough of speech, he had nothing of Washington's dignity. Even in uniform he looked perpetually unkempt.
Lee might have been a character out of an English novel, such were his eccentricities and colorful past. He had once been married to an Indian woman, the daughter of a Seneca chief. He had served gallantly with the British army in Spain, and as aide-de-camp to the King of Poland. Like Frederick the Great, he made a flamboyant show of his love for dogs, keeping two or three with him most of the time. A New Hampshire clergyman, Jeremy Belknap, after dining with the general in Cambridge, thought him "an odd genius...a great sloven, wretchedly profane, and a great admirer of dogs, one of them a native of Pomerania, which I should have taken for a bear had I seen him in the woods."
Lee was also self-assured, highly opinionated, moody, and ill-tempered (his Indian name was Boiling Water), and he was thought by many to have the best military mind of any of the generals, a view he openly shared. Washington considered him "the first officer in military knowledge and experience we have in the whole army," and it was at Washington's specific request that Congress had made Lee second-in-command.
Whatever opinions Lee had of Washington, he kept to himself, except to remark that he thought the appellation "Excellency" perfectly absurd.
In striking contrast to Lee was Major General Artemus Ward, a heavy-set, pious-looking Massachusetts farmer, storekeeper, justice of the peace, and veteran of the French and Indian War, who had had overall command of the siege of Boston prior to Washington's arrival. Ward was considered "a good man, a thorough New England man," though uninspiring. General Lee privately called him a "fat, old church warden" with "no acquaintance whatever with military matters." But if unspectacular, Ward was competent, thoughtful, and not without good sense, as time would show.
Washington had assigned Lee to command the left wing of the army, Putnam, the center, while Ward was responsible for the right wing, which included Dorchester. As early as July 9, at Washington's first council of war, it had been proposed that the army take possession of Dorchester Heights, but the idea was unanimously rejected. Ward, however, refused to drop the subject. When in August he again recommended that an effort be made to fortify the Heights, again nothing was done.
The brigadiers present now were John Thomas and William Heath of Massachusetts, John Sullivan of New Hampshire, Joseph Spencer of Connecticut, and Nathanael Greene. Thomas was a physician in his early fifties, tall and quiet-spoken. Heath, a much younger man, was a fifth-generation Roxbury farmer, age thirty-eight, who would affably describe himself in a memoir as "of middling stature, light complexion, very corpulent, and bald-headed." Sullivan, a lawyer and politician in his mid-forties, had served with Washington in the Continental Congress, and Spencer, who was older even than Israel Putnam (his troops referred to him as "Granny"), would play almost no part.
Of these New Englanders, all citizen-soldiers, Washington quickly surmised that Thomas, Sullivan, and Greene were the best he had. Thomas was the most commanding in appearance and had served in the French and Indian War. Earlier, his pride hurt that the less experienced Heath was to outrank him, Thomas had talked of resigning, until Washington sent an urgent plea in which, paraphrasing a line from his favorite play Cato, he said that in such a cause as they were engaged, "surely every post ought to be deemed honorable in which a man can serve his country."
His council assembled, Washington made the case for an all-out amphibious assault on Boston, by sending troops across the shallow Back Bay in flat-bottomed boats big enough to carry fifty men each. He reminded the generals of what they already knew: that winter was fast approaching and the troops were without barracks and firewood; that men already eager to go home would be extremely difficult to keep on duty once they felt the "severity of a northern winter." When enlistments expired, the disbanding of one army before another was assembled could mean ruin. Gunpowder was still in short supply, but there was enough at hand to mount an attack. Of course, "the hazard, the loss of men in the attempt and the probable consequences of failure" had also to be considered.
There was discussion of these and other points, including the enemy's defenses, after which it was agreed unanimously not to attack, not for the "present at least."
It was a sound decision. The "hazard" was far too great, the chance of disastrous failure all too real. Casualties could have been horrendous. Unless they caught the tide exactly right, the men in the boats could have been stranded on mudflats a hundred yards or more from dry ground and forced to struggle through knee-deep muck while under withering fire. The slaughter could have been quite as horrible as that of the British at Bunker Hill.
In fact, such a headlong attack on their works was exactly what the British generals were hoping for, certain that if the Americans were to be so foolhardy, it would mean the end of the rebellion.
In restraining Washington, the council had proven its value. For the "present at least," discretion was truly the better part of valor.
Washington accepted the decision, but work on the flat-bottomed boats continued, and in a long letter to John Hancock, he made the case for a "decisive stroke," adding, "I cannot say that I have wholly laid it aside." Many in Congress, he sensed, were as impatient as he with the stalemate. "The state of inactivity, in which this army has lain for some time, by no means corresponds with my wishes, by some decisive stroke, to relieve my country from the heavy expense its subsistence must create."
As Washington also reminded Hancock and thus Congress his war chest was empty. The fact that the troops had not been paid for weeks did not help morale or alleviate hardships at home. "The paymaster has not a single dollar in hand."
Money at least was on the way. On September 29, $500,000 in Continental bills from Philadelphia were delivered to the headquarters at Cambridge, and in a few days thousands of troops were at last receiving some pay. "I send you eleven dollars," Lieutenant Joseph Hodgkins wrote to his wife Sarah on October 6. His monthly pay was $13.
Asked what they were fighting for, most of the army officers and men in the ranks would until now have said it was in defense of their country and of their rightful liberties as freeborn Englishmen. It was to "defend our common rights" that he went to war, Nathanael Greene had told his wife. The British regulars, the hated redcoats, were the "invaders" and must be repelled. "We are soldiers who devote ourselves to arms not for the invasion of other countries but for the defense of our own, not for the gratification of our own private interest, but for the public security," Greene had written in another letter to Samuel Ward. Writing to General Thomas, Washington had said the object was "neither glory nor extent of territory, but a defense of all that is dear and valuable in life."
Independence was not mentioned. Nor had independence been on the minds of those who fought at Bunker Hill or in Washington's thoughts when he took command of the army. En route to Cambridge from Philadelphia, he had been quite specific in assuring the New York Provincial Congress that "every exertion of my worthy colleagues and myself will be equally extended to the reestablishment of peace and harmony between the mother country and the colonies."
But more and more of late there was talk of independence. The Reverend Belknap, from his visits to the camps, concluded that indepen-
dence had "become a favorite point in the army." A "declaration of independence" was heartily wished for, wrote Nathanael Greene, who was one of the first to say it in writing. "We had as good to begin in earnest first as last."
In late September, the discovery that the surgeon general of the army and head of the hospital at Cambridge, Dr. Benjamin Church, was a spy, the first American traitor, rocked everyone. Church had been one of the local dignitaries who had escorted Washington into Cambridge the day of his arrival. He was as prominent and trustworthy a man as any in the province, it was thought, a member of the Provincial Congress, poet, author, a Harvard classmate of John Hancock, and an outspoken patriot. Yet the whole time he had been secretly corresponding with the British in cipher, and was in their pay.
His treachery had been discovered quite by chance. A mysterious, enciphered letter carried by a young woman of questionable morals had wound up in the hands of a friend of Nathanael Greene, who brought the letter to Greene, who in turn carried it directly to Washington. When the woman was apprehended, she confessed she had been keeping company with Church and said the letter was his. The letter was deciphered and Church exposed. The whole army, indeed all New England and the Congress at Philadelphia, were stunned. Who could say how many other Dr. Churches there might be?
Church, who was tried, convicted, and imprisoned, kept insisting he was innocent. Sent into exile, on a ship bound for the West Indies, he disappeared at sea. Only years later did further evidence come to light proving his guilt.
On October 18, a raw, gloomy Wednesday, a congressional committee of three, including Benjamin Franklin, gathered by a roaring fire in Washington's study and, after lengthy deliberations with the commander and his generals, concluded that if an attack on Boston meant the destruction of the town, they could not approve.
At a meeting of the war council it was decided still again that the risks were too great "under the circumstances," as said Brigadier General Horatio Gates, who had been absent from the previous meeting. Like Charles Lee, Gates was an experienced, former British officer.
"Things hereabouts remain in pretty much the same situation," wrote James Warren, president of the Massachusetts Assembly. "We look at their lines and they view ours....They want courage to attack us and we want powder to attack them and so there is no attack on either side."
On October 24, a post rider from Maine brought news that British ships had attacked and burned the defenseless town of Falmouth. The townspeople had been given advance warning and consequently no one was killed, but the entire population was without homes on the eve of winter. The attack was decried as an outrage, "proof of the diabolical designs" of the administration in London, as Washington said.
At the same time, Washington was dealt a further setback when his bright and by-now-indispensable secretary, Joseph Reed, decided he could no longer delay a return to Philadelphia to see to his affairs and look after his family. "You cannot but be sensible of your importance to me...judge you therefore how much I wished for your return," Washington would tell the absent Reed in one of a string of letters. "I miss you exceedingly; and if an express declaration of this be wanting, to hasten your return, I make it most heartily," he wrote another day.
John Adams, who had come to know Reed in Philadelphia, described him as "very sensible," "amiable," even "tender," and Washington felt much the same way. To Reed, as to almost no one, he signed his letters not with the standard "Your Obedient Servant," but "Your Affectionate and Obedient Servant."
The days were turning "cold and blustering," recorded the still uncomplaining Lieutenant Jabez Fitch. The construction of barracks had begun. Washington authorized an order for 10,000 cords of firewood. With epidemic dysentery sweeping through the outlying towns, Dr. Thacher worried over the numbers of ill soldiers in the camps and crowding the hospital. To add further to the miseries of camp life, local farmers were charging ever-higher prices.
Washington fumed over such absence of patriotism, his dislike of New Englanders compounding by the day. Yet the faith of the local populace and their leaders in him remained high. They understood the adversities he faced and they were depending on him, no less than Congress and patriots everywhere were depending on him. As James Warren wrote to John Adams, "He is certainly the best man for the place he is in, important as it is, that ever lived."
Adams, who was acutely sensitive to the differences between New Englanders and Virginians, having experienced firsthand in Congress the distrust many from the middle and southern provinces felt for New Englanders, had become gravely concerned about the damage to the Cause such opinions and prejudices could have should they get out of hand.
Gentlemen in other colonies have large plantations of slaves, and...are accustomed, habituated to higher notions of themselves and the distinction between them and the common people than we are....I dread the consequences of this dissimilitude of character, and without the utmost caution on both sides, and the most considerate forbearance with one another and prudent condescension on both sides, they will certainly be fatal.
Nathanael Greene felt certain that Washington only needed time to make himself "acquainted with the genius" of the New England troops.
Meanwhile, Washington put increasing trust in Greene, as well as another impressive young New Englander, Henry Knox, to whom he assigned one of the most difficult and crucial missions of the war.
Colonel Henry Knox was hard not to notice. Six feet tall, he bulked large, weighing perhaps 250 pounds. He had a booming voice. He was gregarious, jovial, quick of mind, highly energetic "very fat, but very active" and all of twenty-five.
"Town-born" in Boston, in a narrow house on Sea Street facing the harbor, he was seventh of the ten sons of Mary Campbell and William Knox, Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. When his father, a shipmaster, disappeared in the West Indies, nine-year-old Henry went to work to help support his mother, and was thus, like Nathanael Greene, almost entirely self-educated. He became a bookseller, eventually opening his own London Book Store on Cornhill Street, offering a "large and very elegant assortment" of the latest books and magazines from London. In the notices he placed in the Boston Gazette, the name Henry Knox always appeared in larger type than the name of the store.
Though not especially prosperous, the store became "a great resort for British officers and Tory ladies," "a fashionable morning lounge," and its large, genial proprietor became one of the best-known young men in town. John Adams, a frequent patron, remembered Knox as a youth "of pleasing manners and inquisitive turn of mind." Another patron was Nathanael Greene, who not only shared Knox's love of books, but also an interest in "the military art," and it was thus, on the eve of war, that an important friendship had commenced.
Knox read all he could on gunnery and tactics, and, as Greene had joined the Rhode Island Kentish Guards, Knox signed up with the new Boston Grenadier Corps, enjoying everything about it, including the eating and drinking that went on.
At about the same time, Knox suffered an accident which, like Greene's stiff knee, might have precluded service as an officer. On a bird-hunting expedition on Noddle's Island in the harbor, his fowling piece exploded, destroying the third and fourth fingers of his left hand. In public thereafter he kept the hand wrapped in a handkerchief.
To further complicate life, Knox had taken up the patriot cause and fallen in love with the daughter of a prominent Tory. She, too, was a patron of the bookstore, a correspondingly plump, gregarious young woman named Lucy Flucker, whose father, Thomas Flucker, was the royal secretary of the province. "My charmer," he called her, and neither his maimed hand nor his politics deterred her ardor. Despite the objections of her family, they were married. When Lucy's father, in an effort to give his new son-in-law added respectability, arranged for Knox to be offered a commission in the British army, Knox declined.
In the tense days following the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord, the young couple packed what little they could carry and slipped out of Boston in disguise. Lucy was never again to see her mother and father, who would eventually sail for England.
Having settled Lucy safely in Worcester, Knox reported for service with General Artemus Ward, who assigned him to planning and building fortifications. "Long to see you, which nothing would prevent but the flattering hope of being able to do some little service to my distressed and devoted country," he wrote to her.
Washington first met Knox while inspecting the defenses at Roxbury on July 5, only three days after he had taken command of the army, and apparently he was impressed, while Knox thought Washington everything to be wished for in a commander. "General Washington fills his place with vast ease and dignity, and dispenses happiness around him," Knox wrote. He was called to confer at headquarters, and later, like Nathanael Greene, invited to dine with the general and his guests on several occasions.
It was Henry Knox who first suggested the idea of going after the cannon at far-off Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain, an undertaking so enormous, so fraught with certain difficulties, that many thought it impossible.
The capture of Fort Ticonderoga from the British by Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold, and a handful of Green Mountain Boys earlier in May had been sensational news, but the fort and its captured artillery were abandoned. When Knox told Washington he was confident the guns could be retrieved and hauled overland to Boston, Washington agreed at once, and put the young officer in charge of the expedition.
Like nearly everyone, Washington enjoyed Knox's company. Probably he also saw something of himself in the large, confident, self-educated young man with the pleasing manners who had lost his father when still a boy and had done so much on his own, and who was so ready to take on a task of such difficulty and potential consequence.
That such a scheme hatched by a junior officer in his twenties who had had no experience was transmitted so directly to the supreme commander, seriously considered, and acted upon, also marked an important difference between the civilian army of the Americans and that of the British. In an army where nearly everyone was new to the tasks of soldiering and fighting a war, almost anyone's ideas deserved a hearing.
By November 16, Knox was on his way, accompanied by his nineteen-year-old brother, William, and with authority to spend as much as $1,000. "Don't be afraid," he wrote to Lucy. "There is no fighting in the [assignment]. I am upon business only."
With the days growing shorter and colder, flocks of wild geese overhead grew in such numbers that orders had to be posted to keep the men from firing at them and wasting precious powder. "Every officer that stands an idle spectator, and sees such a wanton waste of powder, and doesn't do his utmost to suppress the evil, may expect to be reported," declared Nathanael Greene.
So great was the need to conserve powder that the morning gun, a camp ritual, was dispensed with. Spears were issued to the troops to be used in the event of a British attack.
Every colonel or commanding officer of a regiment [read another of Greene's orders] to appoint thirty men that are active, bold, and resolute to use the spears in the defense of the lines instead of guns.
The first snow fell on November 21, and in the days to follow it was obvious winter had come to stay, with winds as bitter as January and still more snow. The distress within Boston was reportedly extreme. The British were cutting trees and tearing down old houses for firewood. Supplying the besieged city by sea had become increasingly difficult because of winter storms and American privateers. Food was in desperately short supply. The King's troops were said to be so hungry that many were ready to desert at first chance. Some of the redcoats said openly that if there were another action and they could "get off under the smoke," they would choose "the fresh beef side of the question." Men in their ranks were dying of scurvy. Worse, smallpox raged.
Meanwhile, deserters from the American side were telling the British that Washington's army was tired and unpaid, that there was too little clothing to keep warm, and that most of the men longed to go home.
A memorable story of an incident that occurred at about this time may or may not be entirely reliable, but portrays vividly the level of tension among the troops and Washington's own pent-up anger and exasperation. It was told years afterward by Israel Trask, the ten-year-old boy who had enlisted with his father and in whose eyes Washington seemed almost supernatural.
A snowball fight broke out on Harvard Yard between fifty or more backwoods Virginia riflemen and an equal number of sailors from the Marblehead regiment. The fight quickly turned fierce, with "biting and gouging on the one part, and knockdown on the other part with as much apparent fury as the most deadly enmity could create," according to Trask. Hundreds of others rushed to the scene. Soon more than a thousand men had joined in a furious brawl. Then Washington arrived:
I only saw him and his colored servant, both mounted [Trask remembered]. With the spring of a deer, he leaped from his saddle, threw the reins of his bridle into the hands of his servant, and rushed into the thickest of the melee, with an iron grip seized two tall, brawny, athletic, savage-looking riflemen by the throat, keeping them at arm's length, alternating shaking and talking to them.
Seeing this, the others took flight "at the top of their speed in all directions from the scene of the conflict." If Trask's memory served, the whole row, from start to finish, lasted all of fifteen minutes and nothing more came of it.
On November 25, the British sent several boatloads of the ragged poor of Boston, some 300 men, women, and children, across the Back Bay, depositing them on the shore near Cambridge for the rebels to cope with.
They were a heartrending sight. Many were sick and dying, "the whole in the most miserable and piteous condition," wrote Washington. According to one explanation, General Howe was making room in Boston for the reinforcements expected to arrive anytime. But it was also said that numbers of the sick had been sent "with [the] design of spreading the smallpox through this country and camp," an accusation Washington refused to believe. But when another 150 desperate people were dispatched from Boston, as smallpox continued unabated there, Washington described the disease as a "weapon of defense they are using against us."
Nearly all his efforts and those of his senior officers were concentrated now on trying to hold the army together. The Connecticut troops, whose enlistments were to expire on December 9, were counting the days until they could start for home. Nothing, it seemed, could change their minds.
A stirring summons to renewed devotion to the cause of liberty, as strong and eloquent an appeal to the men in the ranks, "the guardians of America," as had yet been seen in print, appeared in the New England Chronicle, signed simply "A Freeman." Not only did it celebrate the Glorious Cause, but it spoke of a break with Britain soon to come and a future "big with everything good and great," when Americans would decide their own salvation.
Your exertions in the cause of freedom, guided by wisdom and animated by zeal and courage, have gained you the love and confidence of your grateful countrymen; and they look to you, who are experienced veterans, and trust that you will still be the guardians of America. As I have the honor to be an American, and one among the free millions, who are defended by your valor, I would pay the tribute of thanks, and express my gratitude, while I solicit you to continue in your present honorable and important station. I doubt not America will always find enough of her sons ready to flock to her standard, and support her freedom; but experience proves that experienced soldiers are more capable of performing the duties of the camp, and better qualified to face the enemy, than others; and therefore every friend of America will be desirous that most of the gentlemen who compose the present army may continue in the service of their country until "Liberty, Peace, and Safety" are established. Although your private concerns may call for your assistance at home, yet the voice of your country is still louder, and it is painful to heroic minds to quit the field when liberty calls, and the voice of injured millions cries "To arms! to arms!" Never was a cause more important or glorious than that which you are engaged in; not only your wives, your children, and distant posterity, but humanity at large, the world of mankind, are interested in it; for if tyranny should prevail in this great country, we may expect liberty will expire throughout the world. Therefore, more human glory and happiness may depend upon your exertions than ever yet depended upon any of the sons of men. He that is a soldier in defense of such a cause, needs no title; his post is a post of honor, and although not an emperor, yet he shall wear a crown of glory and blessed will be his memory!
The savage and brutal barbarity of our enemies in burning Falmouth, is a full demonstration that there is not the least remains of virtue, wisdom, or humanity, in the British court; and that they are fully determined with fire and sword, to butcher and destroy, beggar and enslave the whole American people. Therefore we expect soon to break off all kind of connection with Britain, and form into a Grand Republic of the American United Colonies, which will, by the blessing of heaven, soon work out our salvation, and perpetuate the liberties, increase the wealth, the power and the glory of this Western world.
Notwithstanding the many difficulties we have to encounter, and the rage of our merciless enemies, we have a glorious prospect before us, big with everything good and great. The further we enter into the field of independence, our prospects will expand and brighten, and a complete Republic will soon complete our happiness.
But reenlistments were alarmingly few. Of eleven regiments, or roughly 10,000 men, fewer than 1,000 had agreed to stay. Some stimulus besides love of country must be found to make men want to serve, Washington advised Congress. Paying the troops a few months in advance might help, he wrote, but again he had no money at hand. By late November, he could report that only 2,540 of his army had reenlisted. "Our situation is truly alarming, and of this General Howe is well apprised....No doubt when he is reinforced he will avail himself of the information."
Washington was a man of exceptional, almost excessive self-command, rarely permitting himself any show of discouragement or despair, but in the privacy of his correspondence with Joseph Reed, he began now to reveal how very low and bitter he felt, if the truth were known. Never had he seen "such a dearth of public spirit and want of virtue" as among the Yankee soldiers, he confided in a letter to Reed of November 28. "These people" were still beyond his comprehension. A "dirty, mercenary spirit pervades the whole," he wrote. "Could I have foreseen what I have and am like to experience, no consideration upon earth should have induced me to accept this command."
For six long months there had been hardly a shred of good news, no single event to lift the spirits of the army, no sign to suggest better days might lie ahead.
The next day, amazingly, came "glad tidings." A privateer, the schooner Lee, under the command of Captain John Manley, had captured an enemy supply ship, the brig Nancy, off Cape Ann, north of Boston. The ship was loaded with military treasure a supply of war material such as Congress could not be expected to provide for months to come, including 2,500 stands of arms, cannon, mortars, flints, some forty tons of shot, and 2,000 bayonets nearly everything needed but powder.
The Lee was one of the first of several armed schooners Washington had sent out to prey on enemy shipping. It was a first triumph for his new "navy," and John Manley, a first hero. It was an "instance of divine favor, for nothing surely ever came more apropos," Washington wrote immediately to Joseph Reed.
With the end of enlistments only days away, concern grew extreme. "Our people are almost bewitched about getting home," wrote Lieutenant Hodgkins to his wife Sarah. "I hope I and all my townsmen shall have virtue enough to stay all winter as volunteers, before we will leave the line without men. For our all is at stake, and if we do not exert ourselves in this Glorious Cause, our all is gone."
"I want you to come home and see us," she wrote. "I look for you almost every day, but I don't allow myself to depend on anything, for I find there is nothing to be depended upon but trouble and disappointments."
"I want to see you very much," she said in other letters, warning him that if he did not "alter" his mind about staying with the army, it would be "such a disappointment that I can't put up with it."
The troops were called repeatedly into formation to be addressed by officers and chaplains. A Connecticut soldier who had decided nothing could keep him from going home, described how his regiment was called out time and again to hear speeches. "We was ordered to form a hollow square," wrote Simeon Lyman in his diary, "and General Lee came in and the first words was, 'Men I do not know what to call you; [you] are the worst of all creatures,' and [he] flung and cursed and swore at us...and our lieutenants begged us to stay." But for Simeon Lyman, like nearly all the regiment, December 9 was his last day as a soldier. On Sunday, December 10, he wrote:
In the morning we was ordered to parade before the general's door, and we was counted off and dismissed, and we we[nt] to the lieuten[ant] and he gave us a dram, and then we marched off.
General Lee stood and watched, finding a measure of encouragement only in the response of the troops who remained:
Some of the Connecticutians who were homesick could not be prevailed on to tarry, which means in the New England dialect to serve any longer. They accordingly marched off bag and baggage, but in passing through the lines of the regiments, they were so horribly hissed, groaned at, and pelted that I believe they wished their aunts, grandmothers, and even sweethearts, to whom the days before they were so much attached, [were] at the devil's own palace.
Washington pleaded with Congress and the provincial governments to send more men with all possible speed. And new recruits did continue to arrive, though only in dribs and drabs.
There was still no news from the expedition to Quebec, and no word from Colonel Knox. When General Schuyler at Albany wrote to bemoan his tribulations, Washington responded, "Let me ask you, sir, when is the time for brave men to exert themselves in the cause of liberty and their country, if this is not?" He understood the troubles Schuyler faced, "but we must bear up against them, and make the best of mankind as they are, since we cannot have them as we wish."
Earlier in the fall, Washington had written to his wife Martha to say he would welcome her company in Cambridge, if she did not think it too late in the season for such a journey. Six hundred miles on dreadful roads by coach could be punishing even in fair weather, and especially for someone unaccustomed to travel, no matter her wealth or status.
On December 11, after more than a month on the road, Martha Washington arrived, accompanied by her son John Custis, his wife Eleanor, George Lewis, who was a nephew of Washington, and Elizabeth Gates, the English wife of General Gates. Joseph Reed, who had looked after the generals' ladies during their stop in Philadelphia, offered the thought, after seeing them on their way, that they would be "not a bad supply...in a country where wood is scarce."
Sarah Mifflin, the wife of Colonel Thomas Mifflin, a young aide-de-camp, also arrived. The handsome colonel belonged to one of Philadelphia's most prominent families, and with his beautiful, stylish wife added a distinct touch of glamour to Washington's circle, while Elizabeth Gates caused something of a sensation, going about Cambridge in a mannish English riding habit.
Martha Washington, who had never been so far from home or in the midst of war, wrote to a friend in Virginia that the boom of cannon seemed to surprise no one but her. "I confess I shudder every time I hear the sound of a gun....To me that never see anything of war, the preparations are very terrible indeed. But I endeavor to keep my fears to myself as well as I can."
In the meantime, after much debate, the Congress at Philadelphia had passed a directive to Washington to destroy the enemy forces in Boston, "even if the town must be burnt." John Hancock, whose stone mansion on Beacon Hill overlooking the Common was one of the prominent features on the skyline, had spoken "heartily" for the measure.
Work on fortifications continued without letup, and despite freezing winds and snow, the work improved. Washington kept moving the lines nearer and nearer the enemy. A newly completed bastion at Cobble Hill, below Prospect Hill and fully a half mile nearer to Boston, was described in the Providence Gazette as "the most perfect piece of fortification that the American army has constructed during the present campaign."
On December 24, a storm swept across the whole of the province. In the vicinity of Boston, temperatures dropped to the low twenties, and a foot of snow fell. Christmas Day, a Monday, was still bitterly cold, but clear, and the troops continued with their routine as on any day.
On December 30, several British ships arrived in the harbor, presumably bringing reinforcements.
"This is the last day of the old enlisted soldiers' service," wrote a greatly distressed Nathanael Greene to Congressman Samuel Ward the following day, December 31. "Nothing but confusion and disorder reign."
We have suffered prodigiously for want of wood. Many regiments have been obliged to eat their provisions raw for want of firing to cook, and notwithstanding we have burned up all the fences and cut down all the trees for a mile around the camp, our suffering has been inconceivable....We have never been so weak as we shall be tomorrow.
On New Year's Day, Monday, January 1, 1776, the first copies of the speech delivered by King George III at the opening of Parliament back in October were sent across the lines from Boston. They had arrived with the ships from London.
The reaction among the army was rage and indignation. The speech was burned in public by the soldiers and had stunning effect everywhere, as word of its contents rapidly spread. Its charges of traitorous rebellion, its ominous reference to "foreign assistance," assuredly ended any hope of reconciliation or a short war. It marked a turning point as clear as the advent of the new year.
"We have consulted our wishes rather than our reason in the indulgence of an idea of accommodation," Nathanael Greene wrote in another fervent letter to Samuel Ward in Philadelphia.
Heaven hath decreed that tottering empire Britain to irretrievable ruin and thanks to God, since Providence hath so determined, America must raise an empire of permanent duration, supported upon the grand pillars of Truth, Freedom, and Religion, encouraged by the smiles of Justice and defended by her own patriotic sons....Permit me then to recommend from the sincerity of my heart, ready at all times to bleed in my country's cause, a Declaration of Independence, and call upon the world and the great God who governs it to witness the necessity, propriety and rectitude thereof.
The effect of the King's speech on Washington was profound. If nothing else could "satisfy a tyrant and his diabolical ministry," he wrote to Joseph Reed, "we were determined to shake off all connections with a state so unjust and unnatural. This I would tell them, not under covert, but in words as clear as the sun in its meridian brightness."
Meanwhile, that New Year's Day, the great turnover of the army commenced, as new regiments arrived and the old departed "by hundreds and by thousands...in the very teeth of an enemy," as General Heath noted.
Yet substantial numbers who had been in the lines stayed on, including many who had served since Bunker Hill, like Samuel Webb of Connecticut and young John Greenwood, the fifer. Joseph Hodgkins would stay, for all that he and his wife longed for each other. So would the artist John Trumbull and Dr. James Thacher. Many, like Lieutenant Jabez Fitch of Connecticut, would go home, but reenlist a little later in the new year. How many of the "old army" would fight on is impossible to know, but it may have been as many as 9,000.
At the Cambridge headquarters, Washington declared in his general orders for New Year's Day the commencement of a "new army, which in every point of view is entirely continental." And thus the army, though still 90 percent a New England army, had a name, the Continental Army.
He stressed the hope that "the importance of the great Cause we are engaged in will be deeply impressed upon every man's mind." Everything "dear and valuable to freemen" was at stake, he said, calling on their patriotism to rally morale and commitment, but also expressing exactly what he felt.
With the crash of a 13-gun salute, he raised a new flag in honor of the birthday of the new army a flag of thirteen red and white stripes, with the British colors (the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew) represented in the upper corner. When the British in Boston saw it flying from Prospect Hill, they at first mistook it for a flag of surrender.
Copyright © 2005 by David McCullough
Table of Contents
Part I: The Siege
Chapter One: Sovereign Duty
Chapter Two: Rabble in Arms
Chapter Three: Dorchester Heights
Part II: Fateful Summer
Chapter Four: The Lines Are Drawn
Chapter Five: Field of Battle
Part III: The Long Retreat
Chapter Six: Fortune Frowns
Chapter Seven: Darkest Hour