Lord Howe could easily have stormed the works, and taken or destroyed the American army. But his lordship felt that his enemy was in his power, and he wished to spare his soldiers the bloodshed which an assault would have caused. He was to reduce the enemy’s works by regular siege. It was no part of Washington’s intention to wait for the issue of these operations. During the night of the 29th he silently withdrew his broken troops, and landed them safely in New York. So skilfully was this movement executed, that the last boat had pushed off from the shore before the British discovered that their enemies had departed.
But now New York had to be abandoned. Washington’s army was utterly demoralized by the defeat at Brooklyn. The men went home, in some instances, by entire regiments. Washington confessed to the President of Congress with deep concern that he had no confidence “in the generality of the troops.” To fight the well-disciplined and victorious British with such men was worse than useless. He marched northwards, and took up a strong position at Haerlem, a village nine miles from New York. But the English ships, sweeping up the Hudson river, showed themselves on his flank and in his rear; the English army approached him in front. There was no choice but retreat. Washington crossed his soldiers over to the Jersey side of the river. The English followed him, after storming a fort in which nearly three thousand men had been left, the whole of whom were made prisoners.
The fortunes of the revolted colonies were now at the very lowest ebb. Washington had only four thousand men under his immediate command. They were in miserable condition – imperfectly armed, poorly fed and clothed, without blankets, or tents, or shoes. An English officer said of them, without extreme exaggeration, “In a whole regiment there is scarce one pair of breeches.” This was the army which was to snatch a continent from the grasp of England! As they marched towards Philadelphia the people looked with derision upon their ragged defenders, and with fear upon the brilliant host of pursuers. Lord Howe renewed his offer of pardon to all who would submit. This time his lordship’s offers commanded some attention. Many of the wealthier patriots took the oath, and made their peace with a Government whose authority there was no longer any hope of throwing off.
Washington made good his retreat to Philadelphia, so hotly pursued that his rear-guard, engaged in pulling down bridges, were often in sight of the British pioneers sent to build them up. When he crossed the Delaware he secured all the boats for a distance of seventy miles along the river-course. Lord Howe was brought to a pause, and he decided to wait upon the eastern bank till the river should be frozen.
Washington knew well the desperate odds against him. He expected to be driven from the Eastern States. It was his thought, in that case, to retire beyond the Alleghanies, and in the wilderness to maintain undying resistance to the English yoke.
Winter came, but Lord Howe remained inactive. He himself was in New York; his army was scattered about among the villages of New Jersey, fearing no evil from the despised Americans. All the time Washington was increasing the number of his troops, and improving their condition. But something was needed to chase away the gloom which paralyzed the country. Ten miles from Philadelphia was the village of Trenton, held by a considerable force of British and Hessians. At sunset on Christmas evening Washington marched out from Philadelphia, having prepared a surprise for the careless garrison of Trenton. The night was dark and tempestuous, and the weather was so intensely cold that two of the soldiers were frozen to death. The march of the barefooted host could be tracked by the blood-marks which they left upon the snow. At daybreak they burst upon the astonished Royalists. The Hessians had drunk deep on the previous day, and they were ill prepared to fight. Their commander was slain as he attempted to bring his men up to the enemy. After his fall the soldiers laid down their arms, and surrendered at discretion.
1777 A.D. A week after this encounter three British regiments spent a night at Princeton, on their way to Trenton to retrieve the disaster which had there befallen their Hessian allies. Washington made another night march, attacked the Englishmen in the early morning, and after a stubborn resistance defeated them, inflicting severe loss.
These exploits, inconsiderable as they seem, raised incalculably the spirits of the American people. When triumphs like these were possible under circumstances so discouraging, there was no need to despair of the Commonwealth. Confidence in Washington had been somewhat shaken by the defeats which he had sustained. Henceforth it was unbounded. Congress invested him with absolute military authority for a period of six months, and public opinion confirmed the trust. The infant Republic was delivered from its most imminent jeopardy by the apparently trivial successes of Trenton and Princeton.
France still felt, with all the bitterness of the vanquished, her defeat at Quebec and her loss of Canada. She had always entertained the hope that the Americans would avenge her by throwing off the English yoke. To help forward its fulfilment, she sent occasionally a secret agent among them, to cultivate their good-will to the utmost. When the troubles began she sent secret assurances of sympathy, and secret offers of commercial advantages. She was not prepared as yet openly to espouse the American cause. But it was always safe to encourage the American dislike to England, and to connive at the fitting out of American privateers, to prey upon English commerce.
The Marquis de Lafayette was at this time serving in the French army. He was a lad of nineteen, of immense wealth, and enjoying a foremost place among the nobility of France. The American revolt had now become a topic at French dinner-tables. Lafayette heard of it first from the Duke of Gloucester, who told the story at a dinner given to him by some French officers. That conversation changed the destiny of the young Frenchman. “He was a man of no ability,” said Napoleon. “There is nothing in his head but the United States,” said Marie Antoinette. These judgments are perhaps not unduly severe. But Lafayette had the deepest sympathies with the cause of human liberty. They may not have been always wise, but they were always generous and true. No sooner had he satisfied himself that the American cause was the cause of liberty than he hastened to ally himself with it. He left his young wife and his great position, and he offered himself to Washington. His military value may not have been great; but his presence was a vast encouragement to a desponding people. He was a visible assurance of sympathy beyond the sea. America is the most grateful of nations; and this good, impulsive, vain man has ever deservedly held a high place in her love. Washington once, with tears of joy in his eyes, presented Lafayette to his troops. Counties are named after him, and cities and streets. Statues and paintings hand down to successive generations of Americans the image of their first and most faithful ally.
Lafayette was the lightning-rod by which the current of republican sentiments was flashed from America to France. He came home when the war was over and America free. He was the hero of the hour. A man who had helped to set up a Republic in America was an unquiet element for old France to receive back into her bosom. With the charm of a great name and boundless popularity to aid him, he everywhere urged that men should be free and self-governing. Before he had been long in France he was busily stirring up the oppressed Protestants of the south to revolt. Happily the advice of Washington, with whom he continued to correspond, arrested a course which might have led the enthusiastic Marquis to the scaffold. Few men of capacity so moderate have been so conspicuous, or have so powerfully influenced the course of human affairs.
Spring-time came – “the time when Kings go out to battle” – but General Howe was not ready. Washington was contented to wait, for he gained by delay. 1777 A.D. Congress sent him word that he was to lose no time in totally subduing the enemy. Washington could now afford to smile at the vain confidence which had so quickly taken the place of despair. Recruits flowed in upon him in a steady, if not a very copious stream. The old soldiers whose terms expired were induced, by bounties and patriotic appeals, to re-enlist for the war. By the middle of June, when Howe opened the campaign, Washington had eight thousand men under his command, tolerably armed and disciplined, and in good fighting spirit. The patriotic sentiment was powerfully reinforced by a thirst to avenge private wrongs. Howe’s German mercenaries had behaved very brutally in New Jersey – plundering and burning without stint. Many of the Americans had witnessed outrages such as turn the coward’s blood to flame.
Howe wished to take Philadelphia, then the political capital of the States. But Washington lay across his path, in a strong position, from which he could not be enticed to descend. Howe marched towards him, but shunned to attack him where he lay. Then he turned back to New York, and embarking his troops, sailed with them to Philadelphia. The army was landed on the 25th August, and Howe was at length ready to begin the summer’s work.
The American army waited for him on the banks of a small river called the Brandywine. The British superiority in numbers enabled them to attack the Americans in front and in flank. The Americans say that their right wing, on which the British attack fell with crushing weight, was badly led. One of the generals of that division was a certain William Alexander – known to himself and the country of his adoption as Lord Stirling – a warrior brave but foolish; “aged, and a little deaf.” The Americans were driven from the field; but they had fought bravely, and were undismayed by their defeat.
A fortnight later a British force, with Lord Cornwallis at its head, marched into Philadelphia. The Royalists were strong in that city of Quakers – specially strong among the Quakers themselves. The city was moved to unwonted cheerfulness. On that September morning, as the loyal inhabitants looked upon the bright uniforms and flashing arms of the King’s troops, and listened to the long-forbidden strains of “God save the King,” they felt as if a great and final deliverance had been vouchsafed to them. The patriots estimated the fall of the city more justly. It was seen that if Howe meant to hold Philadelphia, he had not force enough to do much else. Said the sagacious Benjamin Franklin, – “It is not General Howe that has taken Philadelphia; it is Philadelphia that has taken General Howe.”
The main body of the British were encamped at Germantown, guarding their new conquest. So little were the Americans daunted by their late reverses, that, within a week from the capture of Philadelphia, Washington resolved to attack the enemy. At sunrise on the 4th October the English were unexpectedly greeted by a bayonet-charge from a strong American force. It was a complete surprise, and at first the success was complete. But a dense fog, which had rendered the surprise possible, ultimately frustrated the purpose of the assailants. The onset of the eager Americans carried all before it. But as the darkness, enhanced by the firing, deepened over the combatants, confusion began to arise. Regiments got astray from their officers. Some regiments mistook each other for enemies, and acted on that belief. Confusion swelled to panic, and the Americans fled from the field.
Winter was now at hand, and the British army returned to quarters in Philadelphia. Howe would have fought again, but Washington declined to come down from the strong position to which he had retired. His army had again been suffered to fall into straits which threatened its very existence. A patriot Congress urged him to defeat the English, but could not be persuaded to supply his soldiers with shoes or blankets, or even with food. He was advised to fall back on some convenient town where his soldiers would find the comforts they needed so much. But Washington was resolute to keep near the enemy. He fixed on a position at Valley Forge, among the hills, twenty miles from Philadelphia. Thither through the snow marched his half-naked army. Log-huts were erected with a rapidity of which no soldiers are so capable as Americans. There Washington fixed himself. The enemy was within reach, and he knew that his own strength would grow. The campaign which had now closed had given much encouragement to the patriots. It is true they had been often defeated, but they had learned to place implicit confidence in their commander. They had learned also that in courage they were equal, in activity greatly superior, to their enemies. All they required was discipline and experience, which another campaign would give. There was no longer any reason to look with alarm upon the future.
In the month of June, when Howe was beginning to win his lingering way to Philadelphia, a British army set out from Canada to conquer the northern parts of the revolted territory. 1777 A.D. General Burgoyne was in command. He was resolute to succeed. “This army must not retreat,” he said, when they were about to embark. The army did not retreat. On a fair field general and soldiers would have played a part of which their country would have had no cause to be ashamed. But this was a work beyond their strength.
Burgoyne marched deep into the New England States. But he had to do with men of a different temper from those of New York and Philadelphia. At his approach every man took down his musket from the wall and hurried to the front. Little discipline had they, but a resolute purpose and a sure aim. Difficulties thickened around the fated army. At length Burgoyne found himself at Saratoga. It was now October. Heavy rains fell; provisions were growing scanty; the enemy was in great force, and much emboldened by success. Gradually it became evident that the British were surrounded, and that no hope of fighting their way out remained. Night and day a circle of fire encompassed them. Burgoyne called his officers together. They could find no place for their sorrowful communing beyond reach of the enemy’s musketry, so closely was the net already drawn. There was but one thing to do, and it was done. The British army surrendered. Nearly six thousand brave men, in sorrow and in shame, laid down their arms. The men who took them were mere peasants, no two of whom were dressed alike. The officers wore uncouth wigs, and most of them carried muskets and large powder-horns slung around their shoulders. No humiliation like this had ever befallen the British arms.
These grotesque American warriors behaved to their conquered enemies with true nobility. General Gates, the American commander, kept his men strictly within their lines, that they might not witness the piling of the British arms. No taunt was offered, no look of disrespect was directed against the fallen. “All were mute in astonishment and pity.”
England felt acutely the shame of this great disaster. Her people were used to victory. For many years she had been fighting in Europe, in India, in Canada, and always with brilliant success. Her defeat in America was contrary to all expectation. It was a bitter thing for a high-spirited people to hear that their veteran troops had surrendered to a crowd of half-armed peasantry. Under the depressing influence of this calamity it was determined to redress the wrongs of America. Parliament abandoned all claim to tax the colonies. Every vexatious enactment would be repealed; all would be forgiven, if America would return to her allegiance. Commissioners were sent bearing the olive-branch to Congress. Too late – altogether too late! Never more can America be a dependency of England. With few words Congress peremptorily declined the English overtures. America had chosen her course; for good or for evil she would follow it to the end.
A great war may be very glorious, but it is also very miserable. Twenty thousand Englishmen had already perished in this war. 1778 A.D. Trade languished, and among the working-classes there was want of employment and consequent want of food. American cruisers swarmed upon the sea, and inflicted enormous losses upon English commerce. The debt of the country increased. And for all these evils there was no compensation. There was not even the poor satisfaction of success in our unprofitable undertaking.
If it was any comfort to inflict even greater miseries than she endured, England did not fight in vain. The sufferings of America were very lamentable. The loss of life in battle and by disease, resulting from want and exposure, had been great. The fields in many districts were unsown. Trade was extinct; the trading classes were bankrupt. English cruisers had annihilated the fisheries and seized the greater part of the American merchant ships. Money had well-nigh disappeared from the country. Congress issued paper-money, which proved a very indifferent substitute. The public had so little confidence in the new currency, that Washington declared, “A waggon-load of money will scarcely purchase a waggon-load of provisions.”
But the war went on. It was not for England, with her high place among the nations, to retire defeated from an enterprise on which she had deliberately entered. As for the Americans, after they had declared their resolution to be independent, they could die, but they could not yield.
The surrender of Burgoyne brought an important ally to the American side. The gods help those who help themselves. So soon as America proved that she was likely to conquer in the struggle, France offered to come to her aid. France had always looked with interest on the war; partly because she hated England, and partly because her pulses already throbbed with that new life, whose misdirected energies produced, a few years afterwards, results so lamentable. Even now a people contending for their liberties awakened the sympathies of France. America had sent three Commissioners – one of whom was Benjamin Franklin – to Paris, to cultivate as opportunity offered the friendship of the French Government. For a time they laboured without visible results. But when news came that Burgoyne and his army had surrendered, hesitation was at an end. A treaty was signed by which France and America engaged to make common cause against England. The King opposed this treaty so long as he dared, but he was forced to give way. England, of course, accepted it as a declaration of war.
Spain could not miss the opportunity of avenging herself upon England. Her King desired to live at peace, he said, and to see his neighbours do the same. But he was profoundly interested in the liberties of the young Republic, and he was bound by strong ties to his good brother of France. Above all, England had in various quarters of the world grievously wronged him, by violating his territory and interfering with the trade of his subjects. And so he deemed it proper that he should waste the scanty substance of his people in equipping fleets and armies. When his preparations were complete he joined France and America in the league, and declared war against England.
The fleets of France and Spain appeared in the English Channel, and England had to face the perils of invasion. The spirit of her people rose nobly to meet the impending trial. The southern counties were one great camp. Voluntary contributions from all parts of the country aided Government to equip ships and soldiers. The King was to head his warlike people, should the enemy land, and share their danger and their glory. But the black cloud rolled harmlessly away, and the abounding heroism of the people was not further evoked. The invading admirals quarrelled. One of them wished to land at once; the other wished first to dispose of the English fleet. They could not agree upon a course, and therefore they sailed away home each to his own country, having effected nothing.
The war spread itself over a very wide surface. In the north, Paul Jones with three American ships alarmed the Scotch coast and destroyed much shipping. Spain besieged Gibraltar, but failed to regain that much-coveted prize. On the African coast, the French took Senegal from the English, and the English took Goree from the French. In the West Indies, the French took St. Vincent and Granada. On the American Continent, from New York to Savannah, the same wasteful and bloody labour was ruthlessly pursued.