Wednesday, December 4, 2013

How Washington’s Farewell to his Officers Saved a Young Republic

It was only nine days after the English under Sir Guy Carlson, Commander-in-Chief of all British Forces in North America, sailed out of New York Harbor in 1782.  On the way out an enraged gunner on one of the ships let go one final round on Patriot crowds jeering on Staten Island.  The ball plunked pitifully in the water well short of its target.  Barring some skirmishing by Native allies on the frontier that was the last shot of the war.  The American Revolution was essentially over and to the world’s surprise the upstart Colonies were the victors.
General George Washington, commander of the Continental Army had rushed from Virginia with many of his staff officers and top commanders to take control of the last bastion of British power in the fledgling states.  He had to cool his heels outside of the city for some time. 
Although Carlson had received orders from London to evacuate in August, he informed the President of Congress in a letter that it would take weeks to complete the task because he would also be taking with him all of the Tory refugees who could reach the city—eventually 29,000 of them—and slaves who had escaped into British lines after they were promised freedom.   By the treaty ending the war, the slaves were supposed to be returned to their “rightful owners” but despite the objections of  Southern members of Congress, the new government was eager enough to see the Red Coat army gone that they were willing to wink at this breach of the treaty.
With the refugees and former slaves safely aboard, Carlton finally loaded his garrisons and set sail on November 27.
Washington refused to enter the city until his scouts confirmed that all the troops were gone and an English ensign flying from a high pole on the Battery Park was hauled down and replaced by American colors.  That was hard because the British had greased the pole. Numerous attempts were made before the flag was finally hauled down and the Stars and Stripes were nailed to the pole.
Immediately upon spying the new flag, Washington entered the city at the head of his troops and paraded down Broadway to the Battery.
Washington did not plan to stay long in New York after securing the city.  Like all soldiers, he was eager to return home.  But he had a few loose ends to wrap up first.
In the more than two years since the last major battle, the defeat of Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown, Washington had to keep his army together and in the field until a treaty could be concluded and the British left.  But with the immediate military threat removed, Congress had been even more reluctant than usual to support the troops with supplies, provisions, and pay.  With victory at hand actual privation stalked the Army as it had in the bleakest days of the war.
Moral not only suffered, but mutiny brewed.  Although many veterans had been mustered out, fresh levies had taken their place.  A band of Pennsylvania troops stationed at Lancaster moved to march on the capital at Philadelphia.  They entered the city unobstructed and were joined by members of the local garrison who trapped Congress in the State House. 
Although the mutiny was quelled and the emergency passed, Washington was mortified.  He was also concerned by similar sentiments being voiced even among his closest circle of brother officers.  Many wanted their beloved commander to seize the government and rule as either a dictator—or even a king—who would dispense favors and honors among them.  Some could even imagine themselves as a new hereditary nobility.
Virtually unique in all history, Washington, the victorious commander, would have none of it.  He sincerely believed in civilian government and civilian authority over the military, even though it caused him no end of vexations. 
He decided to call his officers together for a “final farewell” before departing the city.  He chose the Frauncis Tavern, one of the few meeting places with food and drink in the city large enough for the gathering.  The tavern on Pearl Street had been built as the elegant mansion for a wealthy merchant but had been a popular gathering point since before the Revolution.
At noon on December 4, 1782 General Washington entered the Long Room of the tavern where 80 of his officers, including most of those to whom he was personally connected, were assembled.  It was an emotional scene.  It was described in 1830 in a memoir by Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge.  Although some historians doubt the accuracy of such recollections long after the fact, most believe that something very like the scene he described actually took place:
At 12 o'clock the officers repaired to Fraunces Tavern in Pearl Street where General Washington had appointed to meet them and to take his final leave of them. We had been assembled but a few moments when his excellence entered the room. His emotions were too strong to be concealed which seemed to be reciprocated by every officer present. After partaking of a slight refreshment in almost breathless silence the General filled his glass with wine and turning to the officers said, “With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.”
After the officers had taken a glass of wine General Washington said “I cannot come to each of you but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.” General Knox being nearest to him turned to the Commander-in-chief who, suffused in tears, was incapable of utterance but grasped his hand when they embraced each other in silence. In the same affectionate manner every officer in the room marched up and parted with his general in chief. Such a scene of sorrow and weeping I had never before witnessed and fondly hope I may never be called to witness again.
Then, without much further ceremony or the need for pointed commentary, the offers rose to escort their commander to a barge that took him to New Jersey.  From there he rode to Annapolis, Maryland where Congress was sitting after the mutiny scare in Philadelphia.  There he submitted a final report and tendered his resignation.  Then on to retirement at Mount Vernon.
These final displays were the example to his officers and troops.  There would be no military coup, no dictatorship, no new American royalty or nobility.
It was an act more profound in many ways than any battlefield victory.

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