Note: Part II of a series in which we look at George Washington as the Continental Army Commander in the American Revolution.
On June 15, 1775 the Continental Congress appointed George Washington as the Commanding General of the Continental Army. With Massachusetts and other New England militia units already besieging the British Army in Boston, Congress created a new Continental Army as a signal to the enemy that it was facing united Colonies, not just crazy, disgruntled Yankees.
A unified command was essential, as was the arrival on the scene at the earliest possible moment of troops from the Middle and Southern colonies. The choice for the Commander was the subject of some intrigue. There were other candidates.
Most noteworthy was retired British Regular Army Lt. Colonel Charles Lee who had served as a junior officer with the 44th Foot Regiment in the French and Indian Wars. Although he was away from the unit for the Battle of the Monongahela, Lee did serve at the Siege of Louisbourg, a failed attempt to capture Ft. Ticonderoga, the capture of Ft. Niagara, and the failed attack on Montreal. After returning to England and rising in the ranks, he became a mercenary serving with the Portuguese against a Spanish invasion and in the service of King Stanislaus II of Poland in the Russo-Turkish War. After retiring from the British Army he expressed sympathy for the Colonial cause and immigrated to Virginia where he purchased an estate. Lee was by far the most experienced officer available and had many supporters.
Thomas Mifflin, a “fighting Quaker” from Pennsylvania was put forward by that colony’s delegates. Artemus Ward, already commanding the troops in front of Boston, was naturally a candidate. Among other names mentioned was another former British Regular officer, Richard Montgomery originally of Dublin, a veteran soldier with strong political links to British Whigs, and married into New York’s powerful Livingston family.
Each of these men had regional and political support in Congress. Virginia delegate Colonel George Washington was officially uninterested in the position. But he showed up in Congress wearing his full uniform as Colonel of the Virginia Regiment—the Virginia Blues. At a sturdy 6’2” the gentlemanly Washington cut quite a martial figure. His mere presence inspired the members, especially in contrast to the slovenly, crude, and eccentric Lee.
Like other candidates, Washington had served in the French and Indian Wars—in fact he started the war with his attack on a French scouting party near Fort Duquesne. He established Ft. Necessity nearby, but was soon driven out by French reinforcements. He served as General Braddock’s aide-de-camp on his doomed expedition and was noted for his coolness under fire and getting as many men as possible out of the ambush.
As commanding officer of the Virginia Blues he had established a series of frontier outposts for protection against Indian raids and conducted years of low grade warfare in the west.
Massachusetts delegate John Adams quickly recognized Washington as the best candidate. He knew that a Virginia officer was essential in rallying the rest of the colonies to the rescue of his state. Adams distrusted Lee because of his British roots and was offended by his uncouth manners. He used all of his considerable legislative skill to line up a majority to elect Washington.
In the end, however the choice might have come down to a matter of pay. Lee insisted on the pay of a British Major General. Washington promised to serve “without pay” only for expenses. The frugal Congress, which had no power to raise revenues, liked that. Washington accepted the appointment with appropriate, if feigned, modesty. In a letter home he wrote:
I assure you, in the most solemn manner, that, so 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, and that I should enjoy more happiness in one month with you at home than I have the most distant prospect of finding abroad.
The ailing General Ward was confirmed as official second in command, Lee made senior Major General, Montgomery a Brigadier, and Mifflin rode north with Washington as his aide-de-camp and was soon to rise to Quarter Master General.
Another Currier and Ives print gets it wrong Washington assuming Command in Massachusetts for the Siege of Boston. Few of the mostly Militia units and volunteers had uniforms, let alone the later Continental uniforms shown.
Washington was in New York City on his way to assume command of the siege when he received an account of the Battle of Bunker Hill from the Massachusetts Committee on Safety. The report exaggerated British losses and papered over the difficulties Connecticut General Israel Putnam experienced trying to assert command, but it heartened the new commander. He arrived on July 2 to find the army in some disarray and a general stalemate between the two sides. He spent the next months gaining the confidence of his new command and its officers, reorganizing—basically creating—the Continental Line while trying to keep his Militia and volunteers on duty. There were a few indecisive skirmishes and both sides suffered near starvation and small pox outbreaks over an exceptionally harsh winter.
But that same snowy winter allowed the rotund young former bookseller Col. Henry Knox to drag the heavy cannons captured at Fort Ticonderoga overland. Some of the cannon, under Knox’s command were able to begin shelling Boston on March 2, 1776. On March 5 Washington moved more cannon to the commanding Dorchester Heights in an overnight surprise operation. That placed the British fleet, as well as the city under Continental guns.
An astonished British General William Howe is said to have proclaimed, “My God, these fellows have done more work in one night than I could make my army do in three months.” It was checkmate and game over. After delays because of unfavorable winds, British boarded ships and sailed from the city on March 17. American troops, all handpicked for earlier exposure to and survival of small pox, led by A-teams Ward entered the city on March 20.
Washington had forged an army from a disorganized rabble in arms, liberated the cradle of the Revolution, and notched the first significant victory of the war—significant enough to embolden those in the Continental Congress led by John Adams who were pushing for a full declaration of independence. The Commanding General’s prestige could not have been greater.
However things would take a turn for the much worse.
With Boston secured, Washington moved his army to defend New York, the key mid-Atlantic port where the Hudson River flowing north and Lake Champlain provided an invasion route to or from Upper Canada and Quebec. Control over the port and river also prevented New England from being cut off from the capitol at Philadelphia, the breadbasket Colonies of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the South. The city was a prime target for the British and Washington knew they had an intact army in Nova Scotia and a powerful fleet.
Subordinates Generals Charles Lee and Nathaniel Greene began construction of fortifications in Manhattan and on Brooklyn Heights before Washington and his 18,000 troops arrived from Boston. Neither believed that the city could be held against a full scale British attack and wanted to position artillery under Knox to do the greatest damage to an invasion force possible before retreating and taking up defensive positions up the Hudson and in New Jersey.
Aggressive and overconfident, Washington wanted to lure the British into a full set-piece battle hoping to crush the invasion bring a quick end to the war. He had not yet conducted a full scale battle and over estimated his still rudely trained troops. Ft. Washington on the tip of Manhattan and Ft. Lee opposite it across the Hudson were hastily erected.
The British fleet commanded by Admiral Richard Howe began arriving and anchoring off of Staten Island in late June. Troops under his brother William landed on the Island on July 2, quickly dispersing a small Continental garrison there while the Staten Island Militia simply switched sides. Couriers from Philadelphia arrived on July 5 and the Declaration of Independence was read to the troops and public in the city on that day.
In late August, the British transported about 22,000 men including 9,000 Hessians from Staten Island to Long Island. In the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776, the British outflanked the American positions, driving the Americans back to their Brooklyn Heights fortifications. It was a humiliating defeat marked by the rapid collapse of the Militia units that made up most of Washington’s command. General Howe then began to lay siege to the works but Washington skillfully executed managed a nighttime retreat through his unguarded rear across the East River to Manhattan.
The sacrifice of the Maryland 400 in its rear guard action in the Battle of Long Island allowed most of the surviving army to Join Washington on Brooklyn Heights and eventually escape from the island.
The Howe Brothers attempted to negotiate a Colonial surrender and an end to the war with rejected overtures to Washington and the fruitless Staten Island Peace Conference with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Edward Rutledge on September 11. Realizing that Manhattan was probably indefensible despite Congressional orders to hold the city at all costs Washington took advantage of the lull in actions to position 5,000 troops in the New York City which then only occupied the lower portion of Manhattan, and took the rest of the army to Harlem Heights. He now realized that his troops fought best from fortified defensive positions supported by artillery.
Washington managed to evacuate thousands of troops and his precious artillery from the disaster on Long Island.
On September 15, General Howe landed about 12,000 men on lower Manhattan, quickly taking control of New York City. The Americans withdrew to Harlem, where they skirmished the next day, but held their ground. Rather than attempting to dislodge Washington from his strong position a second time, Howe again opted for a flanking maneuver. Landing troops with some opposition in October in Westchester County, he sought once again to encircle Washington. To defend against this move, Washington withdrew most of his army to White Plains, where after a short battle on October 28 he retreated further north. Washington’s forces got away under a dense fog which concealed their movement from the British—not the last time that the General would use the weather to his advantage. But the remaining Continental Army troops in upper Manhattan were left cut-off. Howe returned to Manhattan and captured Fort Washington in mid-November, taking almost 3,000 prisoners. Four days later, November 20, Fort Lee across the Hudson fell.
Washington brought moved most of his army across the Hudson into New Jersey, but was immediately forced to retreat by the aggressive British advance. The battered and demoralized Continental forces were in danger of being over-run and destroyed laying the capital at Philadelphia exposed.
As winter began to set in, General Howe anticipated putting a quick end to the rebellion come the spring campaign season. He expected his field forces in New Jersey to go into camp for the winter and for Washington to do the same while losing many if not most of his troops to the ends of their short enlistments or by desertion.
It was the nadir of the war for Washington. But the General had a daring and aggressive surprise up his sleeve—one of the most audacious attacks in history which not only surprised his enemy but gave him a much needed victory which probably saved his command.
Washington and most his remaining army—90% of those who had fought on Long Island were gone due to death, injury, capture, desertion, or the expiration of short term Militia enlistment—were in desperate condition and camped on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River hoping desperately to block any British move against Philadelphia. He received some reinforcements—2,000 troops under General John Sullivan and 800 from Ft. Ticonderoga under General Horatio Gates on December 20.
About the same time a spy in Washington’s elaborate intelligence operation brought word that three battalions of Hessians under Col. Johann Rall were posted across the river at Trenton, New Jersey and that Rall had failed to fortify his position confident that any attack by the rag-tag Continentals could be repelled at bayonet point. Washington hatched a bold and desperate plan.
He knew that the Christmas loving Germans would be celebrating on December 25 and would probably not be in either great shape or on the lookout for an attack the next morning. On the other hand Christmas was not a major holiday for most of his own troops. And they had nothing in camp with which to celebrate anyway. Washington planned a surprise crossing of the Delaware under cover of night after which he would split his main force into two columns under Generals Sullivan and Greene who would attack Trenton from both sides of the town at dawn.
Washington’s friend, Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush who was with the army as a volunteer surgeon reported seeing a note scrawled by the General that said “Victory or Death” which became the password of the operation
To get the men across, the turned once again to the Marblehead men under Col. Glover who had masterfully executed the evacuation of Long Island with their boats. Each man was issued 60 rounds of musket balls and powder and three days ration. Field guns were also to be taken across by the boats. There were delays in assembling and the weather turned foul—a pelting sleet and wind resulting in choppy water which was also partially iced over. Despite not being able to complete the crossing before dawn, all troops made it across without the loss of a single life despite some falling overboard, as did the important cannon. Unlike the famous picture, Washington did not foolishly stand up in the boat that carried him and his horse.
The men, many of them shoeless with rags tied around their feet marched rapidly south to a road junction about two miles from Trenton where Green and Sullivan’s columns split. Sullivan took the river road and Green swung around to attack the town from the rear. Each column sent a 40 advance guard ahead. On the march some curious locals enthusiastically grabbed their hunting muskets and joined the troops.
On the march Washington was surprised to encounter a local Militia band of 50 men under Adam Stephens who unaware of the planned attack, had just executed their own surprise hit and run raid against an isolated Hessian picket post. Washington was furious that Stephens may have inadvertently alerted Rall but it was too late to turn back. Stephens and his men fell in line with the troops and continued the march. For his part Rall thought the small raid was the attack that some local Tories had warned him that the Continentals were preparing. The ease with which it was repelled led him to conclude that the threat had been exaggerated. He took no action to put his post on alert.
Outposts about a mile from Trenton were attacked about 8 am and quickly routed. Sullivan and Green’s columns attacked the city itself as planned and Henry Knox brought his artillery to bear. The surprise was effective. The Hessians, the finest professional troops in Europe, tried to organize a defense but were quickly overwhelmed. A detachment of British Dragoons was also quickly scattered. There was sharp fighting and Rall rallied his regiment outside of town and organized a bayonet counter attack on the town. Washington, watching from nearby heights led the reserve down to meet the charge while Knox’s men recaptured cannon which had changed hands turning it on the Hessians. Taking positions in the cover of houses, Green’s men peppered the Germans from three sides. Rall was mortally wounded and forced to surrender. Another regiment tried to make a break out, but was surrounded and captured by Sullivan. The whole battle was over in less than an hour. It was an overwhelming American victory.
The Continentals suffered only two dead—both of exposure on the march not enemy fire—and five wounded including the commanding general’s cousin Captain William Washington and a young Lt. James Monroe, the future President. The Hessians lost 22 dead, including all four colonels, 83 wounded and almost 900 captured. In addition the Continentals came into possession of all of the enemy’s arms, munitions, rations, and critical supplies like boots and greatcoats.
Washington learned that a secondary attack across the Delaware to the north under General John Cadwalader and Militia under General James Ewing had been prevented from crossing by the bad weather and not having the experienced Marblehead boatmen. Their combined 2,800 men had been expected to join Washington at Trenton where a united army could then push on against Princeton and New Brunswick. That left Washington with only 2,400 effectuals exposed to a possible counter attack by Howe. He prudently decided to withdraw back across the river with his spoils and prisoners.
The victory after the drubbing in New York re-assured Congress and buoyed moral in the army. Re-enlistments increased, desertion decreased, and the colonies were able to recruit fresh bodies for the Line regiments.
But Washington was not yet done. With his re-united army he re-crossed the Delaware at Trenton on December 29. After a sharp skirmish at Assunpink Creek on January 2, he swung around an army under Cornwallis sent by Howe to find and punish him. The next day after Washington personally led the troops of fallen General Hugh Mercer rallying them and panicked Militia and driving two brigades of the British back on Cornwallis near Trenton. Meanwhile Sullivan captured the city and a sizable detachment held up in Nassau Hall, the main building of the College of New Jersey.
Washington then marched to Morristown and finally went into winter quarters. Stung by three defeats to the Continentals in a few days and hectored by attacks on his supply lines and isolated outposts by the New Jersey Militia, Howe ordered Cornwallis and most of the other troops to fall back to New York.
Thus ended Washington’s first campaign season, a mixed bag of triumph, disaster, and redemption. Everyone now recognized it would be long war and Washington realized that above all he must keep an army in the field no matter what setbacks in hopes of bleeding the Royal Treasury and eroding support of the war in Parliament. He would concentrate on training and equipping his troops and cultivating a reliable and loyal officer corps. He learned to distrust Militia, which had broken and run too often, and lean heavily on his Continental Line. Six long, eventful years of war stretched ahead.
Tomorrow: War, More War, Intrigue, and the World Turned Upside Down.
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