The Agonizing Path to Victory (1777–1778)

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The Agonizing Path to Victory (1777–1778)

After capturing New York City, British General William Howe (1729–1814) set out to seize the Hudson River Val ley and isolate New England from the rest of the colonies. His efforts kept George Washington (1732–1799), commander in chief of the Continental army, occupied in 1777 and 1778. Howe's mission was part of a three-pronged plan for British victory in America. The other two targets were Canada (a cam paign handled by British generals Guy Carleton and John Bur goyne) and the Southern Colonies (a land and sea expedition planned for 1778–79 and headed by General Henry Clinton, who succeeded Howe as commander in chief of British forces in America in May 1778).

In January 1777, after his completely unexpected vic tories at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey, George Washing ton had settled in for a miserably uncomfortable winter at Morristown, New Jersey. Meanwhile, Howe and his British troops enjoyed a comfortable winter in New York.

Washington was gratified to see his Continental army achieve its greatest strength in 1777–78, when it reached a total of about 35,000 men (not all of them were with Washington; some were in Canada and in the South). Late in 1776, the Continental Congress had authorized the raising of 76,000 troops, who would serve for three years or until the war ended. Formerly, soldiers were required to serve for just one year. As it turned out, though, nowhere near 76,000 troops ever actually served in America's army at once. Each state was given a quota—a number of soldiers it was required to provide—but none of the states ever met its quota.

America's prospects looked bright when, in the summer of 1777, Washington welcomed to his ranks a volunteer soldier from France. The nineteen-year-old Marquis (pronounced mar-KEE) de Lafayette (1757–1834) had come without the permission of his government. At this point in time, the French were still not sure about joining the Americans— who seemed to lose more often than they won—against the British. It would take another spectacular victory before France decided to enter the Revolutionary War.

Howe takes Philadelphia

Howe and Washington spent the spring and early summer of 1777 in minor skirmishes in New Jersey. Howe did not have enough troops to chase after Washington, and Washington's troop strength was down to 1,000 men, many of them sick. By the end of the summer, though, Washington had 8,000 new men. In late August, he rode at the side of his new friend and admirer, the Marquis de Lafayette, through the streets of Philadelphia, America's capital and General Howe's next target.

Around the same time, Howe landed his forces at the top of the Chesapeake Bay in northeastern Maryland. He planned to march through Delaware and into Pennsylvania, then take the all-important city of Philadelphia. Upon learning of Howe's intentions, Washington and his troops rushed to Brandywine Creek (on the Delaware-Pennsylvania border) and awaited Howe's arrival. Howe's troops proved stronger than Washington's; they succeeded in pushing the American soldiers northward. The Americans retreated toward Philadelphia, and the city fell to Howe's forces on September 26, 1777. Like the loss of New York City, the capture of what was then America's largest city was another embarrassing defeat for the Americans. Washington lost half of his men; his reputation, which rose and fell depending on whether he had just won or lost, was blackened.

The Canadian Campaign

Meanwhile, fighting on another front—an aspect of the war known as the Canadian Campaign—was heating up. Canada was a British possession that had been won from the French in 1763. In the late eighteenth century, most residents of Canada were Native Americans or people of French descent. During the American Revolution, the colonists tried to per suade Canada to become a "fourteenth colony" and join in America's rebellion against Great Britain.

But Canada was under the control of British soldiers and a popular governor, General Guy Carleton (1724–1808). Largely because of Carleton's influence, Canadians remained loyal to Great Britain. Hoping to make Canadians see things their way, the Continental Congress had authorized an inva sion of Canada in June 1775.

The struggle was still going on a year later, when Gen eral John "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne (1722–1792) arrived in Montreal, Canada, from England, bringing British and Ger man reinforcements to assist the embattled Carleton. Carleton was having a hard time of it; even though Canadians were loyal to Great Britain, they were passively loyal. They had shown no willingness to actively fight against the Americans. But with Burgoyne's reinforcements, the British were able to drive the Americans out of Canada.

Next, Burgoyne proposed a British invasion of America from Canada along the Lake Champlain-Hudson River route. After many delays, the plan was approved, and in June 1777, a confident Burgoyne launched what came to be known as "Bur goyne's Offensive." It would be an incredible journey—by boat, on foot, in wagons, and on horseback—through a wild and uncharted wilderness.

Burgoyne's Offensive, June-October 1777

Burgoyne commanded a force of about 10,500 British and German soldiers, Native Americans, and camp followers (see Chapter 7: Assembling an Army [1775–1776]). The offensive began well, with the easy capture of Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain in early July 1777. (The fort had been taken from the British by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold two years earlier.) Burgoyne's contempt for American soldiers grew with the ease of his victory at Ticonderoga. American morale suffered badly at this defeat.

Burgoyne proceeded on his way to join forces with Howe at Albany, New York (in eastern New York State on the west bank of the Hudson River). The grueling trip from the Lake Champlain region to Fort Edward (in eastern New York on the northern tip of the Hudson) took about a month to complete. Mother Nature placed roadblocks in Burgoyne's way. He had to cut roads through pathless forests; he had to build bridges; and at one point he had to construct a two-mile-long log road across a swamp.

American patriots added obstructions of their own. Philip Schuyler (1733–1804) dispatched a thousand men with axes to cut down trees to block trails. They also dug ditches, making the already marshy pathways into virtual swamps, and pushed rocks into streams to make them overflow and to block the passage of boats. Burgoyne's exhausted party finally reached Fort Edward on July 29, 1777.

A little more than two weeks later, a large number of Burgoyne's German soldiers were killed or captured at nearby Bennington, Vermont. Burgoyne had sent them out to seize supplies and horses from the citizens of Vermont, because at this early stage of his offensive, he was already suffering shortages. Burgoyne had not anticipated this problem, and the events of the summer of 1777 pointed out three flaws in his great plan: First, he and his troops would have to resort to foraging and plundering the countryside for supplies because bringing supplies down from Canada was too difficult. Second, Burgoyne had hoped for support from the large numbers of Loyalists in New York, but they failed to turn out for him. According to Mark M. Boatner III "the Loyalists had an interesting effect on British strategic planners, who tended to count on finding stronger support … [w]hen Tory support failed to materialize in New England the British expected to find it in New York. The hope of Loyalist assistance had a part in luring them into the unfortunate Bennington raid." Third, the local population was going to prove actively hostile and be a hindrance to his advance.

The more Americans saw of British and German soldiers, the more inclined they were to dislike them. News of the Jane McCrea tragedy (see Chapter 8: Native Americans and Blacks in the American Revolution) turned the population completely against the British. The defeat at Bennington was the beginning of the end for Burgoyne and his grand plan. From then on, the problem of feeding his army would grow even worse.

Burgoyne pressed on toward Albany, hoping to get relief from Howe. In early September of 1777, he crossed the Hudson River to Saratoga, New York. Later that month he was engaged by American generals Horatio (pronounced huh-RAY-shee-oh) Gates (c. 1728–1806) and Benedict Arnold (1741–1801; he had not yet turned traitor and joined the British) in the first of two famous battles of Saratoga at Freeman's Farm.

Battles at Saratoga, New York

By the time they reached Saratoga, Burgoyne's forces had dwindled to 5,700 men; there were many deaths and desertions due to hunger. Gates and Arnold surrounded Burgoyne with three times as many men. The fighting began on September 19, 1777, and it was fierce. Burgoyne waited for Howe to come to his aid, but he never did. Finally, when the situation seemed futile, Burgoyne called his generals together to discuss surrender. He asked them to consider three points: 1) Did military history offer any examples of a similar situation—an army surrendering when outnumbered, surrounded, low on food, and with retreat impossible? 2) Would a surrender under such circumstances be disgraceful? 3) Was Burgoyne's army now in a situation in which it had to surrender?

Burgoyne's generals answered "yes" to the first question; some obscure European battles were given as examples. The generals answered "no" to the second question. To the

third question, they replied that they were willing to fight to the death if they had any chance at all of winning; if nothing were to be gained by such a sacrifice, however, they felt that it would be better to surrender honorably and save some lives.

Burgoyne's surrender on October 17, 1777, was truly humiliating for him. America's victory at Saratoga marked the turning point in the Revolution. Twelve hundred British soldiers had died in the fighting there. After the dust of the Saratoga battles cleared, the British held only New York City, part of Rhode Island, and Philadelphia. They were unable to subdue either the American army or the people of the vast American countryside.

The sufferings at Saratoga

Frederika von Riedesel (pronounced REE-day-zel) was a German noblewoman—a baroness—who spent six years living in America during the time of the Revolutionary War. As the wife of the German general who accompanied British General John Burgoyne from Canada to Saratoga, she saw battles, was taken prisoner, nursed her children through illnesses, and maintained a brave and optimistic outlook. In Letters and Journals Relating to the War of the American Revolution and the Capture of the German Troops at Saratoga, a book comprised of the letters she wrote during that time, Riedesel offers a vivid picture of that eventful period in American history. In this passage, the baroness describes the aftermath of the first phase of the fighting at Saratoga, "a village of some thirty isolated houses."

On the 19th of September, there was an affair between the two armies…. I was an eye witness of the whole affair; and as I knew thatmy husband was in the midst of it, I was full of care and anguish, and shivered at every shot, for I could hear every thing. I saw a great number of wounded, and what was still more harrowing [distressing], they even brought three of them into the house where I was. One of these was Major Harnage…. He had received a shot through the lower partof the bowels, from which he suffered exceedingly. A few days after our arrival, I heard plaintive moans in another room near me, and I learned that they came from [an English officer by the name of] Young…. I went to him, and found him lying on a little straw…. He wasa young man, probably eighteen or nineteen years old…. On account ofhis own sufferings he uttered no complaint. He had bled considerably, and they wished to take off his leg, but he could not bring his mind to it, and now [infection] had set in. I sent him pillows and coverings, and my women servants [sent him] a mattress. I redoubled my care of him, and I visited him every day, for which I received from the sufferer a thousand blessings. Finally, they attempted the amputation of the limb, but it was too late, and he died a few days afterward. As he occupied an apartment close to mine, and the walls were very thin, I could hear his last groans through the partition of my room.

The baroness described how the inhabitants of the New York countryside fled at the approach of Burgoyne's party and rushed to join Gates's army. She pointed out that this ultimately led to Burgoyne's defeat at Saratoga, because every one of those who fled "was a soldier by nature, and could shoot very well; besides, the thought of fighting for their fatherland and their freedom … inspired them with still greater courage."

The generals' critics

Even with news of the victory at Saratoga, the autumn of 1777 proved to be an especially difficult time for George Washington. He had always had his share of critics, but now many military experts of his era were voicing strong objections to the war strategies he had employed in the prior months. Historians have said that he should have marched north in July 1777, put down Burgoyne's invasion from Canada, returned with the additional northern troops, and stopped Howe before he took Philadelphia. Certain members of Congress were so disgusted with Washington that they secretly tried to get him removed from his command.

Some historians have speculated that a group of Washington's critics devised a plot, known as "Conway's Cabal" (pronounced kah-BALL), that aimed to have Washington replaced. (Other historians doubt that such a plot ever existed.) If successful, the cabal, or plot, would have allowed a group of New England congressmen to take over command of the American Revolution.

Around the time that American forces commanded by Gates were winning a great victory at Saratoga, Washington and his troops were stinging from their loss at Brandywine Creek. In this battle, the Americans were pushed back toward Philadelphia by British troops under Howe. This set the stage for the loss of the city of Philadelphia to the British. (See earlier section titled "Howe takes Philadelphia.") Among the influential Americans upset by Washington's retreat were Samuel Adams (1722–1803); Benjamin Rush (1745–1813), a respected army physician; Congressman Richard Henry Lee (1732–1794); and Thomas Mifflin (1744–1800), a general in the Continental army. These men and others criticized how Washington procured supplies, supervised his troops, and ran things on the battlefield. Washington's foes in Congress complained to all who would listen and sent around a paper that attacked both Washington's abilities and his popularity.

At this point, Thomas Conway (1735–c. 1800) entered the picture. Conway was an Irish-born officer in the French army who was fighting alongside the Americans in the Revolution. Having performed bravely at Brandywine, he boasted about himself and asked Congress to promote him to major general, although he was the most junior of the twenty-four generals serving in the American army. In a letter to Gates he wrote: "Heaven has been determined to save your country; or a weak General [referring to Washington] and bad Councellors would have ruined it."

Hearing about the letter, Washington was shocked that Conway and Gates were working together to discredit him. He wrote to Richard Henry Lee protesting the promotion of Conway. Washington claimed that such an appointment would have a disastrous effect on the morale of those soldiers who had served longer. He said he feared that some of his best officers might resign in disgust. According to John Rhodehamel in George Washington, Writings, Washington wrote in a letter to Lee: "I have been a Slave to the service: I have undergone more than most Men are aware of…. It will be impossible for me tobe of any further service, if such … difficulties are thrown in my way." When Washington learned that other patriots opposed him and his policies, he became angry and bitter towards them. He even threatened to resign from his job as head of the American army if the negative talk persisted.

Conway denied ever making the "weak general" statement; nonetheless, he offered his resignation to the Continental Congress. But foes of Washington in Congress promoted Conway to the rank of major general. His job would involve a close working relationship with Washington. When Conway went to work alongside Washington, he was treated politely but very coldly. In a letter to Washington, Conway complained about not being received warmly and speculated that Washington would not support him in the carrying out of his duties. Washington forwarded the letter to Congress, admitting that he had a personal dislike for Conway but protesting that he never would have failed to support the man as claimed. Meanwhile, nine generals protested the promotion of Conway, declaring that he was not a talented military leader and that he was disliked and distrusted by other officers.

In the end, Conway and Gates claimed the original let ter was harmless and offered to have it published. But they never offered to let Washington see it. Henry Laurens, presi dent of the Continental Congress, wrote to a friend that he

had seen the letter. Though it did not contain the "weak general" phrase, what it did say about Washington was, according to Laurens, "ten times worse in every way." Finally, in an act that showed how Conway's Cabal had failed, Congress sent Gates back to the American army and Conway back to the French army. Washington was able to reestablish a good working relationship with Gates.

Howe had his critics, too. His decision to go to Philadelphia instead of helping Burgoyne at Saratoga stands as one of the major blunders in Great Britain's military history. Howe had not conquered Washington's army, nor had he destroyed Washington's will to fight on. In fact, American morale was growing. And in the eyes of the world, Washington and his troops were becoming worthy of admiration. They had shown they could overcome defeat and return to do battle again and again. In France, people began to refer to America's commander in chief as le grand Washington (the great Washington). When France's King Louis XVI (the sixteenth) heard

of Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga, he finally agreed to join America in the war.

The winter at Valley Forge, December 19, 1777-June 1778

Howe spent a comfortable and lighthearted winter of 1777–1778 in Philadelphia. In eighteenth-century America's most sophisticated city, he attended plays, concerts, and balls, and he entertained the ladies, declaring them even more beautiful than the ladies of New York. Meanwhile, George Washington and his men suffered terribly at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

The winter at Valley Forge was the darkest time of the Revolution. During that brutal season, Washington wrote to Congress that 4,000 of his army of 11,000 men were "unfit for duty because they were bare foot and otherwise naked." James Thacher (1754–1844), who was a surgeon for the Continental army, wrote a famous diary called the Military Journal during the American Revolutionary War. In it, he describes the problems facing Washington and his troops:

In the month of December the troops were employed in erecting log huts for winter quarters, when about one-half of the men were destitute of [shirts], shoes and stockings. Some thousands were without blankets, and were obliged to warm themselves over fires all night, after the fatigues [pronounced fa-TEEGS; tiring activities] of the day, instead of reposing in comfortable lodgings. At one time nearly three thousand men were [listed] unfit for duty from the want of clothing; and it was not uncommon to track the march of the men over ice and frozen ground by the blood from their naked feet. Several times … they experienced little less than a famine in camp; and more than once our general officers were alarmed by the fear of a total dissolution [breaking apart] of the army from want of provisions…. Under these unexampled[never before seen or heard of] sufferings, the soldiers exercised a degree of patience and fortitude which reflects on them the highest honor, and which ought ever to entitle them to the gratitude of their country…. Thecommander-in-chief [General Washington] … manifested a fatherly concern and fellow-feeling for their sufferings and made every exertion in his power to remedy the evil and to administer the much-desired relief. Being authorized by Congress, he reluctantly resorted to the unpopular [action] of taking provisions from the inhabitants by force, and thus procured a small supply for immediate necessity.

By the end of the harsh winter of 1778, a quarter of Washington's troops had died at Valley Forge.



Boatner, Mark M. III. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994.

Commager, Henry Steele, and Richard B. Morris, eds. The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995.

Dolan, Edward F. The American Revolution: How We Fought the War of Independence. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1995.

Flexner, James Thomas. George Washington in the American Revolution (1775–1783). Boston: Little, Brown, 1968.

Hawke, David. The Colonial Experience. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966.

Johnson, Paul. "The Role of Benjamin Franklin." In A History of the American People. New York: Harper Collins, pp. 134–42.

Jones, Robert F. George Washington. New York: Twayne, 1979.

Marrin, Albert. The War for Independence: The Story of the American Revolution. New York: Atheneum, 1988.

Rhodehamel, John, ed. George Washington, Writings. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1997.

Riedesel, Mrs. General. Letters and Journals Relating to the War of the American Revolution and the Capture of the German Troops at Saratoga. Translated from the original German by William L. Stone. Albany: Joel Munsell, 1867, pp. 114–15, 125.

Thacher, James. Military Journal of the American Revolution (one of several titles under which the book was published). Hartford, CT: Hurlbut, Williams & Co., 1862. Reprinted. New York: New York Times & Arno Press, 1969.

Trevelyan, George Otto. The American Revolution. Edited by Richard B. Morris. New York: David McKay Co., 1964.

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Web Sites

"American Revolution Timeline: An Unlikely Victory, 1777–1783." The History Place. [Online] Available (accessed on January 20,2000).

Benjamin Franklin in Paris

Back in September 1776, Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was one of three men appointed by Congress to go to Paris and ask the French for help in the Revolutionary War effort. He was then seventy-years-old and had an international reputation as a scientist, inventor, writer, editor, and champion of the common man. The citizens of France may have loved Franklin, but King Louis XVI was not impressed. He did not think much of the Continental army and its record of losses, either. Louis wanted proof that America could defeat the British before he would commit himself to helping them. For more than a year, Franklin worked behind the scenes, discussing the American cause with the king's advisers and trying to arrange a meeting with the king himself. At last, on December 17, 1777, after hearing about the American victory at Saratoga and the fighting spirit shown by George Washington's soldiers, King Louis agreed to recognize American independence. This paved the way for France to enter the war.

The first French sailing fleet arrived in Virginia in July 1778. Franklin had accomplished his mission. When George Washington heard the news of the French alliance, he proclaimed "a day of rejoicing throughout the whole army." The American Revolution had become a world event.

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The Agonizing Path to Victory (1777–1778)

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The Agonizing Path to Victory (1777–1778)