The British musicians had it right when they played The World Turned Upside Down on October 19, 1781. On that day British forces commanded by Lieutenant General Lord Cornwallis marched out of their fortifications at Yorktown, Virginia between ranks of Continental Army and French troops. Cornwallis, feigning illness, dispatched Irish born Brigadier General Charles O’Hara to do the distasteful duty. O’Hara attempted to offer the sword of surrender to the senior French officer, the Comte de Rochambeau who declined pointing to General George Washington. Washington, irked at Cornwallis’s breach of decorum, likewise refused to accept the sword from an inferior officer. He chose his subordinate, General Benjamin Lincoln, who had been humiliated at the surrender of Savannah, Georgia, to accept the sword. 7,087 British and German mercenary officers and enlisted men and 840 sailors from the British fleet in the York River lay down their arms.
Modern historians accurately emphasize that the victory at Yorktown would have been impossible except for the large French Army under Rochambeau and the presence of the French Fleet under the Comte de Grasse at sea. After the patriotic hagiography of Washington in the 19th Century, it has become fashionable to decry the Continental commander’s generalship, particularly in light of his long string of battlefield losses to the British—especially the disastrous Long Island campaign. But Washington was masterfully in command of the operation from the time the allies reached agreement in Newport, Rhode Island.
Since the moral boosting but small victories at Trenton and Princeton, Washington’s main achievement had been just keeping his army in the field against a far superior force through terrible deprivation and brutal winters at Valley Forge and Morristown, with poor material support from a Congress with no power to levy taxes in to pay for the war.
On the battlefield in personal command, Washington’s record was at best mixed. In 1777 he lost the Battle of Brandywine allowing Major General Lord William Howe, Commander in Chief of His Majesty’s Forces in North America, to capture Philadelphia and also lost an attempt to go on the offensive at Germantown. He was able to deter the always slow and timid Howe from marching his army up the Hudson to join up with Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne’s invasion force from Canada. A northern Army under Horatio Gates with the notable assistance of Benedict Arnold was able to destroy Burgoyne’s army in battles around Saratoga—a turning point in the war which encouraged the French to enter the conflict. But because he was not on the scene, Washington would get scant credit in his role as over-all Commander in Chief.
Washington reams General Charles Lee a new one and dismisses him on the spot before rallying his fleeing troops at the Battle of Monmouth--a stalemate that none-the-less turned the British back to New York.
The Battle of Monmouth in June of 1778, one of the largest field battles of the war, ended up at tactical tie after the early stages of the Continental attack against an army under new British commander Sir Henry Clinton were bungled by Washington’s old rival for command, General Charles Lee who he angrily relieved in the field. Washington rallied his fleeing troops and snatched a stalemate from the jaws of defeat. Despite not being beaten in the field, however, Clinton was discouraged and retreated to New York achieving Washington’s most important strategic mission—keeping the Continental Army in intact to fight another day.
In 1779 Clinton moved up the Hudson but was checked by a counter-offensive by outnumbered Continental units under General Mad Anthony Wayne. Skirmishes at Verplanck’s Point and at Stony Point showed that the Continental infantry had become formidable and were an enormous boost to morale. With the Continental also still in possession of key fortifications on the Hudson, Clinton was forced to turn back again.
While Washington went into another brutal winter encampment a Morristown, New Jersey, Clinton and much of his Army sailed south where they took Savannah from troops under General Benjamin Lincoln. As much of the fighting shifted south, Washington’s influence in Congress was at its low point and he could not get his choice of Nathaniel Greene to take command there approved. Instead they appointed the official victor of Saratoga, Horatio Gates, who had been involved in plots to replace Washington in over-all command. Gates failed badly and was finally replaced by Green who initiated a Fabian strategy of hit-and-run attacks and engaging in bloody battles which the British technically won but sustained heavy losses. The British, now under Cornwallis after Clinton returned to New York, were forced to retreat north into Virginia where the Marquis de Lafayette, Washington’s young favorite, was playing cat and mouse with British raiders under Tory Col. Banastre Tarleton and turncoat Benedict Arnold.
The winter of 1780-81 instead of concentrating the army in one encampment as in the past, Washington dispersed his regiments to towns around New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania in order to supplement inadequate rations from Congress with foraging opportunities. On New Year’s Day, 1781 veteran troops of the Pennsylvania Line, some of the finest troops in the Army under the command of Anthony Wayne, mutinied. They had not been paid by Pennsylvania since enlistment. In fact the only money most had ever seen was a paltry $20 enlistment bonus, far less than that paid by other states. They had enlisted for “three years or the duration of the war” and figured that their enlistments expired on the First. They resolved to march on Philadelphia to demand back pay. One officer was killed trying to prevent it. A committee of sergeants was elected to present their petition and negotiate. They organized themselves into units and set off on an orderly march.
The Mutiny of the Pennsylvania Line on New Year's Day 1781 was more orderly than this illustration. One officer was shot trying to prevent the men from leaving camp, but most marched away peacefully and in good order.
When Clinton heard of the mutiny, he offered the men immunity and parole plus enrolment bonuses and standard Regular Army pay if they would switch sides. But the men refused and declared their loyalty to the new nation. Washington and Wayne were sympathetic to the men and wrote in their behalf to both Congress and the government of Pennsylvania. Eventually the crisis was averted due to loans arranged by financier Robert Morris. Pennsylvanian agreed to discharge the three year men who did not accept a new, more generous, re-enlistment bonus. Approximately 1,250 infantrymen and 67 artillerymen were discharged. Some later returned to the service for new bonuses. Only 1,050 remained on the rolls. Some regiments were disbanded and their remaining officers and men transferred to other units. Almost everyone was given a furlough to go home with instructions to assemble with their new regiments which were each posted to different towns. Almost all came back. By spring Wayne was able to take command and march his men out for another campaign season.
The close thing, which had sent Congress into a panic, was indicative of Washington’s struggle keeping his army together and effective.
The years of effective stalemate between Washington’s main army and Clinton in New York was the background when Rochambeau arrived at Newport, Rhode Island along with a formidable French fleet under Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse, and $20,000 in coin for the cash strapped Continental Army. Together Washington and the French hashed out the plan to move swiftly to trap Cornwallis’s army in Virginia before Clinton could re-enforce it. The audacious details of moving two entire armies—4,000 Continentals and 5,000 French—by a combination of forced march and sail all the way from Newport to Virginia were mostly the work of Washington himself.
The result was that the trap was successfully sprung, a text book siege and gallant final assault, plus the French fleet fighting off the Royal Navy and preventing re-enforcements. The world was indeed turned upside down. But the war was not over. Clinton still had a large Army in New York and fighting on the western Frontier continued with ever greater cruelty and brutality on both sides.
But the American Revolution was now another world war, an extension of a long series of European and colonial conflicts between the British and the French. The interests of both nations in the Caribbean, Africa, and India were now in play in addition to the fate of American Independence. The treasuries of both countries were being bled dry and their military and naval forces stretched to the limit. In Paris Benjamin Franklin and John Adams now had leverage to open negotiations to end the war with recognition of U.S, Independence. But the process would take time.
Under the circumstances neither Washington nor Clinton wanted to risk their armies wastefully. They went into a long period of wary, watchful waiting.
But the Continental Army was idle and hungry. An idle, hungry army is a very dangerous thing.
The aftermath of other revolutions won by rebel armies after protracted wars would come to similar cross roads. It almost never ended well. Usually the victorious General would place himself at the head of his troops and overthrow what civil revolutionary authority there was, declaring himself President, Dictator, or Monarch and consolidating his power by lavishing the spoils of war on his officers and men. Other times revolutions devolved into bitter civil war. Almost never did it end with civil government intact and hardly a shot fired in anger.
One man, General Washington himself, prevented calamity in one of the most important acts of his distinguished career and one that is little remembered today. This is what happened.
The bulk of the Army had been encamped at Newburgh, New York to keep the British Army under close surveillance and bottled up in New York City since March of 1782. As another winter approached, all eyes turned to Congress where proposals to provide pensions when the Army was inevitably disbanded were being debated.
In 1780, to squelch earlier discontent among the troops, Congress had pledged to, on the model of the British, put all officers on half-pay for the rest of their lives. Now the treasury, such as it was, was empty and with no power to compel the states to fund the government under the new Articles of Confederation, there was no way to make good on that promise. Worse, in January Superintendent of Finance Robert Morris announced that the coffers were empty and that he was suspending paying the Army.
Previously Morris, a financier and one of the wealthiest men in the new nation, had met such emergencies by personally guaranteeing notes—and buying many of them himself. That he refused to do so at this juncture was part a plan of a faction of Congress known as the Nationalists to put pressure on the new government to assert limited powers of taxation, notably the ability to levy an import duty or impost. This was bitterly opposed by a larger block of Congress and many states had passed instructions to their delegates forbidding them to vote in favor of payments of pensions fearing that it would force the adoption of taxation.
The Nationalists, who included Morris, Gouverneur Morris of New York, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton who had left the Army to take a seat in Congress from New York, backed the impost plan not only to meet obligations to the Army, but to pay the many debts Congress amassed during the Revolution. They hoped that a possible crisis involving the Army might force Congress to move. They were in more or less confidential communication with officers in the Army, including some senior commanders.
Among those was one of Washington’s favorite officers, General Henry Knox who was encouraged to draft a memorial to Congress signed by other senior officers of such impressive stature that they could not be dismissed as mere malcontents. After expressing dissatisfaction with the suspension of pay, the memorial offered a compromise on the pension issue. Instead of half pay for a life time, they indicated the Army would be satisfied with a lump sum payment. It concluded with a not very veiled threat that “that any further experiments on their [the army’s] patience may have fatal effects.” Private messages were also sent to Secretary of War Benjamin Lincoln, himself recently out of the Army and the officer delegated by Washington to receive the surrender of the British at Yorktown, that made clear the dangerous state of moral in the Army.
The memorial was delivered to Congress by General Alexander McDougall and Colonels John Brooks and Matthias Ogden in late December 1782. McDougall and Brooks lingered in Philadelphia to lobby Congress and monitor the situation. They met with a special committee in early January to explain the seriousness of the situation. That committee reported to the whole body on January 22 at which time Robert Morris shocked Congress by announcing his resignation in despair of the body acting. The nationalists twice tried to pass legislation calling for pensions at full pay to end on a specific date as an alternative to the original lifetime half pay or the Army’s immediate lump sum. On February 4 Congress rejected the proposal for the second time.
Brooks hastened back to Newburgh to rally the officer corps for more decisive action. McDougall wrote Knox under the significant pseudonym Brutus suggested that the Army refuse to disband when peace was announced until their demands were met. That action would be virtual mutiny in the face of an order from Congress to demobilize. Knox was sympathetic but non-committal.
Meanwhile other dissenting forces in the Army became involved. That included the staff of Washington’s chief rival General Horatio Gates, the victor at Saratoga and a clique of younger officers long dissatisfied with Washington’s leadership and outside the thrall of the cult of personal loyalty to him. Nationalists in Congress may have believed that these officers might be the core of a coup d’état should it become necessary.
By mid-February rumors that a peace treaty was at hand swirled around both the capital in Philadelphia and the camp in Newburgh, bring the situation closer to crisis. Hamilton wrote privately to Washington, his patron in the Army and who was said to regard him, like the Marquis de Lafayette as a son. Taking advantage of the relationship, Hamilton warned the General of the dangers in his camp and urged him to “take the direction” of the army’s anger—in other words be ready to assume command of a coup against Congress.
Shocked, Washington wrote back that he sympathized with the plights of both the Army and of Congress but flatly said that he would be no part of a plan to use the Army as a threat to the civil government in contradiction to the republican principles on which the war had been conducted.
On February 21 Knox dashed the hopes of Congressional Nationalists that he would lend his prestige to a threat not to disband the Army undoubtedly after consultation with Washington. In letters he expressed again sympathy for the Army’s plight but declared he would not participate in any mutiny or revolt and expressed the hope that the Army would only be used “against the Enemies of the Liberties in America.”
Without the support of Washington and Knox—indeed with their declared opposition—the Nationalists turned their attention to Gates as their best bet for a man on a white horse. They sent Gates a signal of their support should he decide to move with Pennsylvania Colonel Walter Stewart, returning to duty after an illness. He arrived in camp on March 8 and met with Gates. Rumors about an impending demonstration of some kind swirled through the camp.
On March 10 an unsigned letter, later attributed to Major John Armstrong, Jr. who was an aide to Gates, began circulating in camp calling for a meeting of field grade officers the next day, March 11 at 11 am.
As soon as Washington got wind of it he denounced the “disorderly... and irregular nature” of the anonymously called meeting in his general orders of the day on the morning of the 11th. Without explicitly banning the meeting, he proposed his own meeting of officers on March 15. The letter was carefully worded to give the impression that Washington himself would not attend. Instead, he directed the meeting to be chaired by the “senior officer present” knowing full well that would be Gates.
The next day a second anonymous letter appeared claiming that Washington’s endorsement of a meeting on the 15th was a signal the General would support a threat in force to Congress. Washington was furious.
For the next three days the camp was awash in rumors and whispered plot.
On the appointed time on Saturday, March 15 the officers assembled in the New Building or Temple which had just been constructed and was the largest facility in camp capable of hold such a meeting. As expected, Gates took the chair. Shortly after he called the meeting to order, Washington suddenly and unexpectedly appeared and asked permission to address the assembly.
His sudden appearance caused quite a stir—and for one of the few times in his experience in the Army the greeting was not unanimously adulatory. Younger officers and those who had not personally served close to him hooted and jeered. Gates must have been none to glad to see his commander, but had no choice but to allow him to speak.
Washington came to the front of the room and turned to face his officers. He gave a short speech with unusual heat and passion, a departure from his carefully cultivated image of lofty probity. He had carefully drafted the statement, but gave it without notes as if extemporaneously. He called upon the assembly to oppose anyone “who wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood.”
"I have grown not only gray, but nearly blind in the service of my country" Washington told his brother officers at Newburgh bringing many to tears and diffusing a potential mutiny or coup against Congress.
Then he drew sheets of paper folded in half length-wise from inside his coat. It was a letter from a member of Congress, he said. He fumbled with the paper and seemed to have difficulty reading it. He then drew from another pocket a new pair of spectacles. Almost no one except his closest aides had yet seen him wear them. He slowly unfolded them and perched them unsteadily on his nose.
“Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” Many of the officers wept. The sympathy and sentiment of the room swung immediately to Washington. After reading the letter, which really added little to the issue at hand, the General bowed and left the building without waiting for a response. He didn’t have to wait. The conspiracy or potential coup or whatever had been afoot collapsed.
A motion was made to denounce the anonymous letters. It passed virtually unanimously with on Colonel Timothy Pickering protesting. Other motions affirmed the loyalty of the Army. A committee consisting of General Knox and Colonel Brooks was appointed to draft a final resolution which expressed the “utmost confidence” of the Army in Congress and the “disdain and abhorrence” for the irregular proposals circulated earlier.
How much of the proceedings that morning were carefully stage-managed in advance by Washington and Knox and how much was happy accident is hotly debated by historians. I am in the camp that recognizes Washington as a brilliant tactician. The old fox knew exactly what he was doing.
The speech went down in history as the Newburgh Address, but it was a bit of stage business that carried the day.
Meanwhile Washington sent copies of both the anonymous letters and his address to Congress which was debating, yet again, the pension issue. Even steadfast opponents now realized how narrowly disaster had been averted. The Nationalist now saw an opportunity. They advised the creation of a committee to study the intelligence and come up with a solution. Shrewdly, they stacked the committee with steadfast opponents of any pension plan. But presented with mounting evidence of deep dissatisfaction in the Army and the prospect that in the future Washington might not be able to so deftly turn aside open rebellion, one anti-pension delegate, Eliphalet Dyer of Connecticut, now came forward with a proposal for a lump-sum payment, including arrears pay.
As finally approved, the pension plan called for half-pay for five years, mirroring the solution proposed by Knox and twice rejected before. The payment was not in cash, but in government bonds, highly speculative securities many thought would be worthless. Many officers sold their bonds to speculators for pennies on the dollar. But those who held onto the bonds were made whole. Thanks to the adoption of the Constitution, the new ability of the nation to levy import duties and all of the taxes, and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s determination to fully pay off Revolutionary War debt, the bonds were redeemed by the government at full value in 1790.
But Congress was not yet out of the woods. Discontent spread to the still uncompensated non-commissioned officers and there was some minor rioting in camp and talk of marching on Philadelphia to claim their back pay. Once again the specter of the Army refusing to disband was raised.
On April 19, eight years to the day since the Battles of Lexington and Concord, with news of a final Peace Treaty confirmed, Washington declared the war over. Congress quickly ordered him to disband the Army and voted each enlisted man and non-commissioned officer three months’ pay. Since there were still no funds in the treasury, Robert Morris stepped up $800,000 in notes on his personal accounts to the troops. Many soldiers, in need of cash just to get home, sold their notes to speculators at deep discounts. The notes, whether retained by the soldiers or by the speculators were also paid off by Hamilton.
Soldiers left camp over the next few months either on a furlough from which they never expected to be recalled or outright discharged. The notes were given them upon their separation. This caused difficulties when a Pennsylvania regiment was swept by rumors that they would be discharged before getting their notes. They departed camp and marched on Philadelphia in June, sending Congress scurrying to Princeton, New Jersey. There is evidence that some supporters of the Newburgh plot also had a hand in this dangerous mini-uprising including Walter Stewart, John Armstrong, and Gouverneur Morris.
The crisis passed. The Army was formally disbanded in November except for small garrisons at West Point and on the frontier.
But Washington had one last appearance before his officers which was also critical in staving off the hopes of some that they could become a hereditary class of American aristocrats.
Washington entered New York City to wild cheers after seeing the signal that the last British ship had taken sail in 1783.
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. 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.
Washington was hovering outside the city with many of his staff officers and top commanders waiting to take control of the last bastion of British power in the fledgling states.
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.
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, the day designated by Congress for the disbandment of the Continental Army, 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 and aristocracy.
It was an act more profound in many ways than any battlefield victory.
Tomorrow—First in Peace.