A Ragtag Force Enters the Revolution (1776–1777)

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A Ragtag Force Enters the Revolution (1776–1777)

New York was one of the Middle Colonies. It was different in many ways from the New England Colonies. In New England, a half-million families, mostly of English descent, scratched out a living on small plots of rocky land. In contrast, fewer than 200,000 people lived in all of New York in 1776. Because of unusual land-grant policies, huge tracts of New York's fertile land were owned by a handful of men, most of them descended from the New World's early Dutch or English settlers. At the beginning of the American Revolution, then, about twenty wealthy families (including that of American General Philip Schuyler; 1733–1804) owned most of New York's land and wielded most of the region's political and economic power. These families were connected by intermarriage, and most of them—including many of the ordinary citizens of New York—were loyal to King George III (called Loyalists).

In 1776 New York City (the largest in the colony of New York) was nothing like the bustling city it is today. Its population then numbered about 25,000. (According to present– day estimates, about 7.5 million people now call the city home.) Most of the colonists in the prewar era lived on the southern tip

of a long, thin island called Manhattan. (Sometimes New York City is referred to simply as New York, and sometimes Manhattan—one of the five boroughs, or sections, of the city—is referred to as New York City. The other four boroughs of New York City are Staten Island, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens.) New York's harbor bustled with shipping activity all year long, but the city still lagged behind Boston and Philadelphia in terms of shipping trade. What, then, was so important about New York that the British would set their sights on it?

The answer, in part, was New York's location and its status as a population center. Waterways were vital transportation routes in those days of poor roads. New York was situated on a lake-and-river chain that connected it with British-controlled Canada. Control of that chain meant control of the Hudson River. If Great Britain controlled the Hudson River, she could prevent the movement of American military supplies and soldiers and isolate New England and New York from the rest of the colonies. A country divided could be conquered more easily.

New York was also situated on a deep harbor that did not freeze in the winter. Soldiers could be transported to New York by ship at any time of the year, and British warships could easily anchor off New York. If the British wanted to take the colonies, they had to occupy every important center of strength; New York was such a center.

At the beginning of the war in 1775, the British believed that they could end the revolutionary conflict quickly by administering one fierce military blow to Boston, where colonial resistance was strongest. But Britain's technical "victory" at Boston's Bunker Hill was, in reality, no victory at all— the loss of redcoat soldiers was too high, and the rebels had not been subdued. (See Chapter 6: Lexington, Concord, and the Organization of Colonial Resistance.)

When General George Washington (1732–1799) showed that America had the men, the will, and the weapons to put up a strong defense, British General William Howe (1729–1814) abandoned Boston and headed for Nova Scotia, Canada, where he planned to rest, await reinforcements, then travel with them and await more reinforcements in New York. (Howe had replaced Thomas Gage as commander of British forces.) With New York City as their command center, the British sought to defeat all thirteen American colonies.

Continental army prepares to defend New York

Knowing early that New York was a prime British target, back in June 1775 Washington had sent Schuyler there (it was Schuyler's home colony) to begin the huge job of organizing and commanding a New York-based army. The difficulties

Schuyler faced were the same as those that troubled Washington, but where Washington had succeeded, Schuyler more often failed. His problem stemmed in part from an old boundary dispute that had pitted him and the citizens of New York (called "Yorkers") against New Englanders. Remembering their old hostility, "Yankee" volunteers from New England fought with Schuyler's "Yorker" soldiers; both groups were alienated by Schuyler's arrogant personality. Schuyler suffered from rheumatic (pronounced ROOmatic) gout, a hereditary and painful disease of the joints. His ill health kept him isolated and unable to attend to the needs of his men.

On top of the tension between Yankees and Yorkers, there was tension between New York's patriots and Loyalists. Patriot mobs enjoyed roughing up Loyalists in the streets. The Loyalist governor of New York, William Tryon (1729–1788), had become so nervous that in October of 1775, he took refuge on a British warship and stayed there for six months.

In January 1776, Washington sent General Charles Lee (1731–1782) to recruit volunteers in Connecticut for the defense of New York City. (Like Schuyler, Lee also suffered from gout—so badly that he had to be carried into New York City.) According to Mark M. Boatner III in Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, when Lee saw what kind of city New York was, he wrote to Washington: "What to do with the city, I [must say], puzzles me. It is so encircled with deep navigable waters [waters deep enough to allow ships through] that whoever commands the sea must command the town." This presented the colonists with a major problem, since America had no navy to speak of. Another major problem was the outrageous behavior of the men who had come to defend New York. Once again, it would become clear to George Washington that America's was not a trained and willing army.

Washington tries to control his men

Washington arrived in New York City on April 13, 1776, half expecting to find that Howe had gotten there ahead of him. He found the city poorly fortified, but he was equally dismayed by the soldiers who greeted him. The Americans were amateurs at soldiering, and they had mixed reasons for being there. Their motives ranged from patriotism to adventure and beyond, and many had never been away from home before. Richard Wheeler wrote in Voices of 1776: "Many of the men caused the general grief. They swam in the nude under the eyes of sensitive female citizens, they drank too much, fought … [and] swore with such abandon that Washington began to fear that these insults to Heaven might affect the army's luck."

As he had done at Boston, Washington exerted the force of his personality and put his men to work. Over the next several months, he struggled to transform his men into some thing resembling professional soldiers. As Boatner put it: "The Americans dug like prairie dogs, throwing up numerous forti fications in and around New York City."

The call for independence

While Washington was bracing for an attack by the British in New York City, talk of independence swept across the colonies. Founding Father John Adams predicted: "Every day rolls in upon us Independence like a torrent." And on June 7, 1776, a clear call for independence was heard in Philadelphia. Congressman Richard Henry Lee (of the old and distinguished Lee family of Virginia) stood before Congress and read his bold proclamation, which began: "Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."

Next came a heated debate over this resolution. Most, but not all, of the delegates in Congress were in favor of inde pendence. When no agreement could be reached, action on Lee's resolution was postponed for three weeks.

Drafting a Declaration of Independence

On June 11, 1776, the Continental Congress elected Thomas Jefferson of Virginia (1743–1826), John Adams of Massachusetts (1735–1826), Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania (1706–1790), Roger Sherman of Connecticut (1721–1793), and Robert R. Livingston of New York (1746–1813)—known as the Committee of Five—to draw up a statement that would present to the entire world the colonies' case for independence. The resulting statement was the Declaration of Independence.

John Adams, a champion of independence, was elated at Congress's move. As the Committee of Five went about its work, Adams dominated it by the force of his personality. He decided that Jefferson should draft the declaration. Many years later, Adams explained his choice in a letter to his friend, Timothy Pickering. Jefferson "had the Reputation of a masterly Pen," wrote Adams. Up until that time, the shy, thirty-three-year-old Jefferson had not spoken "three Sentences together" in Congress. He disliked public speaking—apparently his voice was weak—but he was well read and an eloquent writer. Jefferson hesitated to take on the enormous task; he thought that Adams ought to write the Declaration, but Adams felt he could not because he was too "unpopular."

Jefferson's document, with only a few changes made by the rest of the Committee, was presented to Congress for consideration on July 2, 1776. The Declaration of Independence offered the reasons why a separation from Great Britain was necessary (the three main reasons were taxation without representation, the presence of British troops in the colonies, and the trade restrictions imposed on the colonies by King George III and Parliament), and it laid out the truths for which the Revolutionary War was fought. The document was, in effect, a formal announcement by thirteen formerly separate colonies that they now considered themselves to be an independent and united nation. "With the signing [of the Declaration of Independence]," noted Edward F. Dolan in The American Revolution: How We Fought the War of Independence, "the thirteen British colonies ceased to exist." The purpose of the patriots' fight was to establish a new kind of nation—one in which men were entitled to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." John Adams foresaw what a terrible war it would be when he wrote to a friend: "A bloody conflict we are destined to endure."

The debate over independence

Long after the event, both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson wrote accounts of the congressional debates of July 1–4, 1776. The first matter up for discussion was Lee's resolution, which declared the colonies' independence. After much persuasive talk, the resolution was adopted by Congress on July 2, 1776. Then, Jefferson's Declaration of Independence was discussed at length. Jefferson decided to play a passive role in the debate, but he grew uncomfortable as he listened to Congress analyze each and every word of his document. Deliberation continued on July 3 and went over to the fourth. To distract the over-anxious Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin entertained him with amusing stories. John Adams led the fight for the adoption of the Declaration. As noted by Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris in The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, Jefferson wrote: "I will say for Mr. Adams, that he supported the Declaration with zeal and ability, fighting fearlessly for every word of it."

The Declaration of Independence was finally adopted later on July 4, nearly word for word as Jefferson had submitted it. As noted in The John Adams Papers, John Adams summed up the event this way: "I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure it will cost us to maintain this declaration and support and defend these States. Yet through all the gloom I can see the rays of ravishing [dazzling; stunning] light and glory. I can see that the end is more than worth all the means, and that posterity [those who come after] will triumph in that day's transactions."

Declared: "All men are created equal"; blacks and women excluded

Some of the most stirring and often-repeated words from the Declaration of Independence are these: "We hold

these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…." (Self-evidenttruths are truths that require no proof or explanation.) The Declaration of Independence was a unique document for its time. The idea of all men being equal was a bold one, as was the notion that governments derive their powers from the consent of the men who are governed. But what about people of color? What about women?

Certainly there were many people who opposed slavery in 1776. In fact, Jefferson's original version of the Declaration of Independence contained a passage attacking slavery, even though Jefferson himself was a slave owner. But other slave-owning congressmen objected to this section of the document, so it was dropped.

The issue of the equality of women was not addressed in the Declaration of Independence, either. Abigail Adams (1744–1818), wife of Congressman John Adams, was a dedicated letter writer like her husband. He knew her thoughts on the topic of women's rights; back in 1775, she had voiced her opinion on the topic in one of her many letters to him. As quoted in "Women's Voices: Quotations from Women: Abigail Adams:"

In the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment [stir up] a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.

The Declaration of Independence was not a perfect document, principally because it excluded many people from its guarantees of equality. But signing it was an extremely courageous act. The fifty-five men who put their signatures on the historic document risked their lives and their property in doing so.

On July 4, 1776, church bells rang out over Philadelphia to announce the passage of the Declaration of Independence. But the actual signing of the Declaration by most members of the Continental Congress did not take place until August 2. The names of the signers, who were committing an act of treason in the eyes of the British, were kept secret until the following January, when American victories at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey, made Congress bold enough to publish them.

Howe arrives in New York

While the Continental Congress was making historic decisions about a free and independent future for the colonies, Howe and his British troops were sailing for New York from Halifax, Nova Scotia. In June 1776, Howe led three ships and 9,000 men to the peninsula of Sandy Hook at the mouth of lower New York Bay. By the end of the month, he was joined by his brother, Admiral Richard Howe, who came from England with more ships and thousands of German soldiers (Hessians; pronounced HESH-uns). On July 2, 1776, the day the Declaration of Independence went before Congress for approval, General Howe landed his troops on Staten Island in New York harbor. Howe's ships met no opposition from the Americans.

Next, as New York patriots were celebrating the Declaration of Independence, the Howe brothers did something odd. Although they had orders to crush the rebellion in the colonies, they decided, in Richard Howe's words, to show "the people of America that the Door was yet open for Reconciliation." Both Howes had strong ties to the colonies. Their brother, George, had given his life to defend America during the French and Indian War (1756–63), and the grateful citizens of Massachusetts erected a monument in his honor. What was more, the Howes were sympathetic to the American cause. Their behavior during the Revolutionary War still has historians debating about whether they really wanted to win it for the British.

On July 14, 1776, the Howes sent a letter addressed to George Washington, Esquire. ("Esquire" is a courtesy title, roughly equivalent to "Mr. George Washington.") According to James Thomas Flexner's George Washington in the American Revolution (1775–1783), Washington's assistants informed the British messenger that "there was no such person in the army…. If Lord Howe wishes to communicate with General Washington [emphasis added], he must address him properly." The Howes could not do that because the British government refused to recognize Washington's post in the Continental army. When Washington finally agreed to a meeting with the Howes' representative, Colonel Paterson, he learned that the British were offering to "pardon" the rebel colonists, meaning they would forgive the Americans for their defiance and disloyalty. Washington replied that "those who had committed no fault [needed] no pardon."

A week later, Colonel Henry Knox (1750–1806), who was present at the meeting between Paterson and Washington, wrote to his wife, Lucy: "General Washington was very handsomely dressed and made a most elegant appearance. Paterson appeared awe-struck, as if he was before something supernatural. Indeed I don't wonder at it. He was before a very great man indeed." Both Washington and the Continental Congress rejected the Howes' offer. The Howes felt they were left with no choice but to use military force to make the Americans change their minds.

Howe has trouble with reinforcements

But the Howes were not yet in a position to attack; they were still waiting for the rest of the reinforcements that trickled into New York throughout the summer. The new soldiers came from England, Scotland, Germany, and parts of the British Empire. Some were former black slaves, all that was left of Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment after most were killed in battle or by disease (see Chapter 8: Native Americans and Blacks in the American Revolution). Britain's forces came on ships escorted by men-of-war (warships) to protect them and their supplies from raids by American privateers. (Privateers are privately owned ships authorized by governments to attack and capture enemy vessels during wartime.) A sizeable number of Loyalist citizens of New York also volunteered to serve under William Howe.

Howe was greeted warmly and enjoyed a comfortable few months gambling, dining, and entertaining the ladies of New York. But, like Washington, Howe did not have an easy time with his troops. Although they were disciplined, professional soldiers, they were restless from lack of activity and anxious to engage the despised American soldiers in battle. One of Howe's officers, Francis Rawdon-Hastings (known as Lord Rawdon), summed up the situation in a letter to a friend in England. Rawdon's letter, excerpted in Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris's Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants and reprinted in part here, was dated August 5, 1776:

The fair nymphs of this isle are in [big trouble], as the fresh meat our men have got here [supplied by New York farmers] has made them… riotous…. Some of the Hessians [German soldiers] have arrived andlong [want] much to have a brush with the rebels, of whom they have a most despicable [low and hateful] opinion. They are good troops but… nothing equal to ours. I imagine that we shall very soon come to action, and I do not doubt but the consequence will be fatal to the rebels. An army composed as theirs is cannot bear the frown of adversity [cannot survive hardship].

British reinforcements continued to flow in, and by August 12, 1776, William Howe had about 33,000 soldiers at Staten Island. His brother, Richard Howe, supported him with 10 "ships of the line" (ships large enough to contain 74 or more guns), 20 frigates (high-speed warships) with a total of 1,200 guns, hundreds of smaller ships, and 10,000 seaman. The Howes, at the head of the largest force England had ever sent overseas, were ready to test the strength of the American army, whom they outnumbered by about two to one. William Howe planned to invade Long Island later in the month.

Howe takes New York City

By August 19, Washington had been able to collect 23,000 soldiers, who were more or less trained for duty and

were strung out all along the waterways around New York City. They were poorly armed and equipped and unsupported by navy, cavalry (soldiers on horseback), or artillery (soldiers who operate weapons such as cannons that throw projectiles [bombs] across the field of battle). Hundreds of soldiers were afflicted with the diseases that plagued army camps throughout the war.

Washington knew from the size of the British force confronting him that Great Britain now took the Americans very seriously. A dreadful phase of the war was about to begin. Washington was short of trained men and experienced officers; some were sick, and some were defending other parts of the country. William Howe believed that if Washington were a gentleman, he would surrender at once. A British general would never engage in a battle unless he were reasonably sure he could win. Washington had little hope for a victory. Historians continue to argue over his decision to try to defend New York. One theory is that Washington and Congress felt it would reflect poorly on the American cause to simply hand the city over to the British without a fight.

Preparations for the attack on New York began the third week of August. In the middle of a torrential rainstorm, 20,000 of Howe's troops crossed the narrow channel from Staten Island to Long Island. There they joined in battle with Washington's 12,000 troops, ferried over from New York City. The next day, as the fighting raged, Washington wrote to Congress:

I trust, through divine favor and our own exertions [the British] will be disappointed in their [objectives], and, at all events, any advantages they may gain will cost them very dear. If our troops will behave well … they will have to wade through much blood and slaughter … and at best be possessed of a melancholy and mournful victory. May the sacredness of our cause inspire our soldier[s] with sentiments of heroism. (Washington in J. T. Flexner, George Washington in the American Revolution, p. 106)

By August 27, 1776, the outcome of the Battle of Long Island had been decided: America's forces were soundly beaten. The British then pursued the Americans across the East River to Manhattan, where Washington held out against them for two months, despite horrible living conditions and the constant, menacing threat of Howe's superior forces.

Washington calls out the submarine

Trapped in Manhattan, Washington's men were dejected by their humiliating defeat on Long Island. Supplies were low, the weather was terrible (wet tents, blankets, and clothing were draped everywhere), the men were tired, and they had lost confidence in their leaders. With bitterness, they began to desert, taking their weapons with them. According to Captain Alexander Graydon of Philadelphia, as quoted in Wheeler's Voices of 1776: "A greater loss than themselves was that of the arms and ammunition they took away with them….It was found necessary to post a guard … to stop the fugitives; and … upon one of them being arrested with a number of notions [odds and ends] in a bag, there was found among them a cannon ball which, he said, he was taking home to his mother for the purpose of pounding mustard [seeds]."

The British troops on Long Island and the American troops on Manhattan entertained themselves by looting and vandalizing abandoned homes, orchards, and vegetable gardens. Washington ordered a roll call three times a day to try and stop the mayhem. He watched British warships sail up and down the rivers on both sides of Manhattan Island and contemplated his next move. Then, he decided to call upon a young man by the name of David Bushnell.

Bushnell was a perfect example of a quality called "Yankee ingenuity." That was a term used by admiring American backwoodsmen and plantation dwellers to describe traveling New England peddlers who made and sold clever gadgets. As a student at Yale University (in Connecticut) from 1771 to 1775, the young Bushnell had demonstrated to his unbeliev ing instructors that gunpowder could be exploded underwater. By the time Washington called upon him in 1776, Bushnell had managed to put together a working submarine. His American Turtle, so-called because it resembled two joined turtle shells, was sent to attack the British ship Cerberus. The attack failed when the Turtle's operator could not overcome technical difficulties and make his weapon explode. The public laughed back then, but modern versions of Bushnell's submarine are now standard naval weapons. (The U.S. Army recognized Bushnell's talent, though, and he went on to enjoy a distinguished career with the military.)

The British capture New York

On September 8, 1776, Washington wrote to Congress from his headquarters in New York: "It is now extremely obvious, from all Intelligence [spies' reports; see box titled "Spies in the Revolution"], that having landed their whole Army on Long-Island, (except about 4,000 on Staten-Island) [the British] mean to enclose us on the Island of New-York." Facing an army of superior numbers and greater discipline than his own, Washington recommended that New York be abandoned to the British. On September 14, Congress replied that Washington should not "remain in that city a moment longer than he shall think it proper."

On September 15, before Washington could evacuate it, Howe attacked Manhattan. As his troops swarmed ashore, cannons were discharged from the ships that carried them. The American rebels deserted the town in a great, confused rush. Washington tried to rally his troops, riding his horse back and forth among them and threatening them with sword and pistol. In disgust, he is said to have thrown down his hat and cried: "Are these the men with which I am to defend America?"

Shortly after midnight on September 20, 1776, as Washington and his men were retreating northward and the British were settling down in Manhattan, a fire broke out in the city. Before citizens and British soldiers could put out the flames, 493 houses were destroyed. The British claimed Washington's troops had set the fire, but this has never been proven. New York City would serve as headquarters for the British army for the rest of the Revolutionary War.

Early October found the American navy fighting a losing battle against the superior British fleet on Lake Champlain (a lake that separates New York from Vermont and extends into Canada). Then, the British under Howe attacked the American ground troops at White Plains, New York, on October 28,1776. It had taken Howe two months from the time he took Long Island to drive Washington up to White Plains—a distance of less than thirty miles. Many historians suggest that Howe hesitated too often and failed to take the offensive when he should have. If he had moved faster and with more firmness during the New York campaign, he may well have destroyed the American army and won the war. Instead, the fighting would drag on for five more years.

Washington retreats across New Jersey

Washington stationed men at forts in New York and New Jersey while he retreated westward across New Jersey

with the main body of the army. This meant that his army, small to begin with, was now divided. The result of this division was tragedy. A group under the command of young General Nathanael Greene (1742–1786) made a last New York stand at Manhattan's Fort Washington on November 16, 1776, and 2,800 American troops were taken prisoner. This was one of the costliest battles of the entire war, and it dealt the American cause a staggering blow.

British and German soldiers then pursued Greene and his remaining troops across the Hudson River to Fort Lee, New Jersey. The British took the fort on November 20. Greene and his men fled "like scared rabbits," according to one British officer, to join Washington at Hackensack. From there, the American army began a retreat southward through New Jersey, all the while pursued by British troops under Major General Charles Cornwallis (1738–1805). The pattern of American retreats reflected Washington's concerns about losing his army. To Washington, "The army was the Revolution," asserted Albert Marrin in The War for Independence: The Story of the American Revolution. "He would never risk the army's destruction, for fear of destroying the Revolution along with it." It was during the engagements in New Jersey that Cornwallis made his often-quoted remark that he would capture Washington like a hunter "bags" a fox.

Judge Thomas Jones (1731–1792) wrote the only history of the American Revolution from the point of view of a Loyalist who was there. In it—as excerpted in Wheeler's Voices of 1776—he described the state of the American army in November 1776: "[They were] half-starved, half-clothed, half-armed, discontented, ungovernable, undisciplined wretches." A poor army they might be, but they were all Washington had. Unfortunately, their terms of duty were due to expire at the end of December.

Crossing the Delaware

The Continental army's retreat took a westward turn toward the Delaware River, which forms the border between New Jersey and Pennsylvania. "Cornwallis snapped at [Washington's] heels," commented Dolan in The American Revolution. "To delay the Britisher's wagons and artillery, the Americans burned every bridge they crossed and sent one tree after another toppling across the roadway with their axes." In early December, Washington finally crossed the Delaware into Pennsylvania. With him were 2,000 troops, all that remained of his original force of about 20,000 men. Soldiers had deserted by the thousands after the string of humiliating losses in New York. With his reputation severely damaged by the fall of New York, Washington managed to pick up only a few new volunteers in New Jersey, and he did not expect a good turnout in Pennsylvania, either. He faced the darkest hour of the Revolutionary War up to that time, although things would get worse. The American

general summed up the circumstances in a letter to his brother Lund: "[Y]our imagination can scarce extend to a situation more distressing than mine…. I think the game is pretty near up."

As Washington was crossing the Delaware, Howe stationed men at several posts from New York City to Trenton and Bordentown, New Jersey. Then, on December 13, Howe announced that he was finished making war for the winter season—a common practice among professional soldiers of the period. Howe planned to move on to Philadelphia in the spring of 1777. According to military historian T. Harry Williams in The History of American Wars from 1745 to 1918, if Howe had moved on immediately, "he undoubtedly could have taken Philadelphia, the largest city in [eighteenth-century] America and, as the seat of Congress, the capital. He might also have taken the little American army or at least dispersed [scattered] it, and the blow possibly would have destroyed the rebel will to continue the war. He was satisfied, however, with what he had accomplished."

Meanwhile, 1,500 Hessian soldiers under the command of fifty-five-year-old Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall (pronounced YO-hahn GOTT-leeb RAWL; 1720–1776) settled in for the winter at Trenton, a village of about a hundred scattered houses at the falls of the Delaware River. Rall was a loud, hard-drinking man who spoke no English and held American soldiers in low regard. (He referred to them contemptibly as "nothing but a lot of farmers.") Rall's attitude carried over to his men, who had so little regard for American soldiers and their attack power that they built no fortifications. They were confident that even such an ungentlemanly bunch as the Americans would not engage in battle during the Christmas season.

Washington's desperate move

At this point in time—in December 1776— Washington was truly a desperate man. Even though the war for independence seemed on the verge of collapse, he needed to convince the American people that the revolutionary cause was still alive. He also needed to rally his dejected army, or he could not count on anyone signing up again for service. Just when the situation looked completely hopeless, Thomas Paine—the author of Common Sense (see Chapter 3: Literature and the Arts in the Revolutionary Era)—sent a famous and inspiring message to Washington's miserable men: "These are the times that try men's souls," he wrote in his newest pamphlet. "The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph."

By the end of December, Washington had reinforcements, including the men who had served under General Lee. (Charles Lee, an English-born major general in the Continental army, was captured by the British on December 13 while on his way to join Washington. A harsh critic of Washington, Lee would later try unsuccessfully to help the British win the war. He was dismissed from the American army in 1780.) Washington's troop strength was now up to 6,000. On December 25, 1776, in freezing sleet and rain, he led a force of 2,400 men back across the Delaware River north of Philadelphia. They marched to Trenton and surrounded the town as the 1,500 Hessians lay sleeping off the ill effects of their Christmas celebrations. Colonel Henry Knox described the taking of Trenton in a letter to his wife dated December 28, 1776:

The floating ice in the river made the labor almost incredible….The night was cold and stormy; it hailed with great violence; the troops marched with the most profound silence and good order…. The stormcontinued with great violence, but was in our backs, and consequently in the faces of our enemy. About half a mile from the town was [a party of soldiers guarding Trenton]. These we forced, and entered the town with them pell-mell [in disorder and confusion]; and here succeeded a scene of war of which I had often conceived, but never saw before.

The hurry, fright and confusion of the enemy was [not] unlike that which will be when the last trump[et] shall sound [signaling the end of the world]. [At last] they were driven through the town into an open plain…. [T]he poor fellows … saw themselves completely surrounded…. The Hessians lost part of the cannon in the town … andwere obliged to surrender upon the spot…. The number of prisonerswas above 1,200 including officers—all Hessians [other sources claim between 920 and 1,000 men surrendered]. There were few killed or wounded on either side [perhaps 25 killed, 90 wounded]…. Providence[God] seemed to have smiled upon every part of this enterprise.

Rall was killed in the conflict. Among those captured was a twenty-five-piece band. The band went with the other prisoners to Philadelphia, and when that city celebrated the first anniversary of independence seven months later, the German band provided the music. Washington called the victory "a glorious day for our country."

Patriot morale restored; Washington proclaimed a hero

On January 3, 1777, Washington followed up his stunning success at Trenton by taking Princeton, New Jersey. He

then retired for the winter at Morristown, New Jersey. The British enemy had been pushed out of most parts of the state. Howe would soon resign as commander in chief of British forces in America, complaining that the British government had failed to send him enough reinforcements.

Washington remained in Morristown for almost five months. On March 14, 1777, he reported to Congress that he had fewer than 3,000 men, and they were suffering the rav aging effects of starvation and smallpox.

Elsewhere, a new spirit of optimism was unfolding. As news spread of Washington's achievements at Trenton and Princeton, his reputation was restored. Nicholas Cresswell, an Englishman traveling in America (see Chapter 7: Assembling an Army [1775–1776]), was in Leesburg, Virginia, when he heard the news. He recorded in his diary: "Six weeks ago [my host] was lamenting the unhappy situation of the Americans and pitying the wretched condition of their much-beloved General, supposing his [lack] of skill and experience in military matters had brought them all to the brink of destruction. In short, all was gone, all was lost. But now," Cresswell con cluded, "the scale is turned and Washington's name is [praised] to the clouds."

Washington's triumph was also noted in Europe. As quoted in Robert Leckie's, George Washington's War, King Fred erick the Great of Prussia (a former state in Germany), a brillient soldier, exclaimed: "The achievements of Washington and his little band of compatriots … were the most brilliant of any recorded in the history of military achievements." Even more gratifying was the reaction of France. Unwilling to join the American side while Washington was losing, with Washington a hero, the French attitude changed. Slowly, the French began supplying America with weapons. French troops would follow.

Stirred into a patriotic fervor by the words of Thomas Paine and Washington's victories, America rallied anew to the cause of independence. New recruits signed up for the Continental army, and by summer Washington's forces numbered 9,000.

For More Information


Boyd, Julian P. The Declaration of Independence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1945.

Diamant, Lincoln. Yankee Doodle Days: Exploring the American Revolution. Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain, 1996.

Martin, Joseph Plumb. Yankee Doodle Boy: A Young Soldier's Adventures in the American Revolution Told by Himself. Reprinted. New York: Holiday House, 1995.

Web Sites

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Montross, Lynn. The Reluctant Rebels: The Story of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789. New York: Harper & Bros., 1950.

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Stryker, William S. The Battles of Trenton and Princeton. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1898.

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The Crossing. An A&E Network and Columbia Tri Star Television Production. Screenplay by Howard Fast, based on his novel of the same name; starring Jeff Daniels as George Washington. Broadcast premiere on A&E (Arts & Entertainment cable television network), January 10, 2000.

The Declaration of Independence: No Turning Back

The Declaration of Independence was read to a gathering of people in New York on July 9, 1776. The enthusiastic crowd of patriots who heard it reacted by tearing down the lead statue of King George III that stood in Bowling Green, New York (a green is a grassy gathering place). According to one estimate, the lead was later turned into 42,000 bullets for use by patriot soldiers.

Although the Declaration of Independence is regarded as a sacred document of American history, its original purpose was highly practical. Members of Congress believed that foreign countries would be unwilling to offer much-needed military assistance if America engaged in a civil war (a war between regions of the same nation). A war between two independent nations, however, would be an entirely different matter. Although there had been no official declaration of war by July of 1776, the world's first truly political war had begun. France and Spain—Great Britain's longtime enemies—could freely offer their assistance to the now independent United States of America.

Which Is the Real Date of Independence

Richard Henry Lee's famous resolution—"That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States"—sparked considerable controversy in Congress. On July 2, 1776, the resolution was passed; those in favor of a break with England had finally changed the minds of those who were opposed to it. As far as Congress was concerned, this was the most important event in the month of July. As John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, on July 3: "Yesterday, the greatest question was decided which ever was debated in America, and a greater, perhaps, never was nor will be decided among men."

It is interesting to note, however, that the United States does not celebrate the passage of Lee's resolution as a date of historic importance. Rather, July 4— the day Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence was adopted—is commemorated as a national holiday known as Independence Day.

Spies in the Revolution

One of George Washington's first large expenditures after he was made commander in chief of the Continental army in the summer of 1775 was for someone "to go into the town of Boston to establish secret correspondence." (This cost him $333.33.) Thus did Washington set up his own "secret service." Washington's spies mingled with British soldiers and reported back from taverns and coffeehouses, providing him with intelligence about what was going on in Boston. He learned that Boston had no fresh food; that milk cows were being slaughtered for beef because there was nothing to feed them; and that fuel was scarce. From this information, Washington deduced that the British must be planning either to sail away from Boston or give up the fight. (Actually, William Howe was just waiting for reinforcements from England.)

As Washington sat in New York in the fall of 1776, wondering what the enemy was up to, he ordered spies sent to Long Island. One of the first to volunteer was twenty-four-year-old Nathan Hale. Disguised as a schoolteacher (his former occupation), Hale penetrated the enemy camp and gathered the information Washington wanted, but he was captured during the trip back to his own camp. Howe ordered Hale hanged without a trial. And so he was, on September 22, 1776. His last words were, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."

Spies sometimes carried messages inside of hollow, silver bullets, which they could swallow if they were captured. The "Silver Bullet Trick" was a special favorite of British spies. The most famous British spy was Major John André (1750–1780), who played an important part in getting the American traitor Benedict Arnold (1741–1801; formerly a distinguished officer in the Continental army and a close ally of General Washington) to go over to the British side. Like Nathan Hale, André was captured and hanged. Also like Hale, André was mourned by both sides because of the brave way he accepted his fate.

"There was a great deal of plundering…"

To the disgust of colonial citizens, as British and Hessian soldiers marched through New York and New Jersey in 1776–1777, they shot prisoners and ransacked villages and towns. It was said that they burned houses, cut down fruit trees, killed sheep, plundered and stole, and molested young girls and women. Eventually, the Continental Congress appointed a committee to investigate the charges. As reprinted in Frank Moore's Diary of the American Revolution, Congress reported in part: "[T]he whole track of the British army is marked with desolation and a wanton destruction of property….[P]risoners, instead of that humane treatment which those taken by the United States experienced, were in general treated with the greatest barbarity…. [T]hecommittee had authentic information of many instances of the most indecent treatment … of married and single women…" The committee concluded: "The cry of barbarity and cruelty is but too well founded … [and] filled this whole continent with resentment and horror."

Johannes Reuber (pronounced yo-HANN-iss ROO-ber) was one of the Hessians taken prisoner at Trenton, New Jersey, in 1776 and marched to Philadelphia. (See subhead in this chapter titled "Washington's desperate move.") Reuber recorded in his diary interesting details about George Washington's treatment of Hessian prisoners. The following quote was excerpted by William H. Dwyer in The Day Is Ours!:

General Washington of the Americans made a proclamation and it was posted all over the city: the Hessians were without blame and had been forced into this war. The Hessians had not come of their own free will. They should not be regarded as enemies but as friends of the American people and should be treated as such. Because General Washington had full authority and he gave his honest word, it became better for us [we were treated better]. All day long, Americans big and little, rich and poor, came to the barracks and brought food to us and treated us with kindness and humanity.

It is interesting to note that 5,000 of the nearly 30,000 German soldiers who came to America deserted their posts in the British army; many received permission at the end of the war to remain in America.

British Parliament eventually conducted an inquiry into the plunder of New York and New Jersey by British forces. A witness named General James Robertson seemed to blame the German soldiers for most of the misconduct. According to Charles Francis Adams in a Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings article, Robertson responded in part: "There was a great deal of plundering…. I saw some men hanged, by Sir William Howe's orders, for plundering; and I have heard that after Mr. Washington took the Hessians at Trenton, he restored to the inhabitants [of Trenton] twenty-one waggon-loads of plunder he had found among their baggage…."

But it was not just the British and Hessians who were guilty of looting and plundering. American soldiers took their turn as well. New Jersey citizens were so appalled at the disgraceful behavior of Washington's deserting soldiers in the winter of 1776–1777 that thousands flocked to British camps to swear allegiance to the king. In George Washington and the American Revolution Burke Davis noted that "about five thousand New Jersey civilians trooped into British camps to take an oath of allegiance."

Congress Flees to Baltimore

After driving the American army out of New York, the British were "so proud and sure of success," according to George Washington, that they decided to push on to Philadelphia, home base of the Continental Congress. "I have positive information that this is a fact," wrote Washington to General Charles Lee. "Should they now really risk this undertaking then there is a great probability that they will pay dearly for it for I shall continue to retreat before them so as to lull them into security." At this point, Washington did not know that Howe did not plan such a move until spring.

When members of Congress heard that a unit of the British army was in Trenton, New Jersey (thirty-five miles away), they decided it would be wise to relocate to Baltimore, Maryland, a distance of about 110 miles from Philadelphia. They made the move on December 12, 1776. According to delegate General Oliver Wolcott (1726–1797), the relocation was necessary because "it was judged that the Council of America ought not to sit in a place liable to be interrupted by the rude disorder of arms."

During this upheaval, Washington complained that Congress, always too slow to act, would be even slower if they were farther away. He predicted that in ten more days, his army would no longer exist unless something drastic were done. Congress adopted a resolution after they "maturely considered the present crisis" and gave Washington broad powers to raise a new army.

Only about two dozen members of Congress showed up in Baltimore. (Congress remained in Baltimore for three months, until after Washington defeated the British in New Jersey.) Historians have criticized Congress for its actions during the war years, especially during the crisis of December 1776, when they seemed to be fleeing from Philadelphia to save their own skins. In their panic, they left the whole burden of defending America to one man—George Washington. But historian Lynn Montross defended the Continental Congress. Montross pointed out the tremendous personal sacrifices made by members of Congress throughout the war. They faced death by hanging if the war for independence were lost. Montross wrote: "Before the war ended, more than half of the members were fated to have their property looted or destroyed. Others were to be imprisoned or driven into hiding by man hunts, and even their families would not escape persecution." Furthermore, "the statistics of the Continental Congress show a record of military service which has probably never been bettered by any other [governing body] of history. Of the 342 men elected during the fifteen years, 134 bore arms in either the militia or the Continental army. One was killed in action, twelve seriously wounded, and twenty-three taken prisoners in combat. When it is recalled that a majority of the delegates had passed the age of 40, the valor of Congress needs no apologies."

Primary source for the excerpt from Washington's letter to General Charles Lee, which Lee never received, and which was found in some papers in Germany: William S. Stryker, The Battles of Trenton and Princeton. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1898, pp. 326–27. Primary source for the excerpt from Wolcott's letter to his wife: Henry P. Johnston, The Campaign of 1776 around New York and Brooklyn…. Brooklyn: Long Island Historical Society, 1878, pp. 147–48.

Treatment of Sick and Wounded Soldiers

Smallpox killed more soldiers during the American Revolution than did enemy soldiers. John Adams once remarked: "Disease has destroyed ten men for us where the sword of the enemy has killed one." George Washington's army faced its first major bout with smallpox while in Morristown during the winter of 1777. Smallpox causes fever, vomiting, skin eruptions, and sometimes death, and it is easily passed to others. The disease spread so rapidly that Washington was forced to turn Morristown homes into hospital rooms. There (according to Burke Davis in George Washington and the American Revolution) he conducted what was probably the first mass inoculation against smallpox in American history. Inoculation for smallpox involved injecting the disease virus into the body to cause a minor form of the disease so that a person could build up protection against it.

Both British and American soldiers had a deep-seated fear of hospitals. In fact, it was widely believed that the battlefield was a less dangerous place than an eighteenth-century hospital. Revolutionaryera hospitals were usually set up as needed in churches, town halls, or schoolhouses. They were always overcrowded, unsanitary, and short of medical supplies. The wounded were usually laid upon filthy piles of straw, bloodied by the soldiers who had already died on them.

Medical knowledge was scant, and surgeons were often ill-trained—or even untrained. Painkilling medication was unknown, so surgeons who operated on wounded soldiers usually gave their patients lead musket balls to bite or chew. (A musket was a type of shoulder gun; the balls were like bullets.) The balls kept the patient from crying out or biting his tongue when the painful surgery began. "Biting the bullet" today still means enduring suffering in silence.

Townspeople did not welcome hospitals set up near them. Patients were often forced to leave as soon as they could walk. Even worse than these makeshift hospitals were British prison hospitals, where sick American prisoners of war were allowed to starve to death. Worst of all were British prison ships, where up to 500 American prisoners of war might be held on rotten, leaking vessels meant to hold no more than 100 people. Robert Leckie vividly described the situation facing Americans on board a typical British prison ship:

Fed four moldy biscuits and a bit of rancid butter daily, with an occasional bit of meat and a canteen of water … [they lay] below decks in their own filth or squeezed together gasping in the foul, fetid air, half naked and often delirious, ravished by smallpox or attacked by ghoulish guards wielding cutlasses [curved swords]. Their nights [were] made hideous by the piteous crying and groaning of the stricken, their days darkened by despair, freezing in winter in unheated holds and suffocating in summer in the airless dark. [T]hey died at the rate of four or five a day. Indeed, a quick death was their only hope, unless they chose to escape by serving King George.

In 1780 Philip Freneau (1752–1832) published his poem "The British Prison Ship." Freneau, called the poet of American independence and the father of American poetry, was a wealthy man who built and commanded a privateer, the Aurora. Privateers were privately owned ships that were authorized by Congress to attack and capture enemy vessels. They made up a large part of America's makeshift "navy" during the Revolutionary War. Freneau's ship was captured by the British in 1780, and he was imprisoned aboard the Scorpion. His health suffered from the ill treatment he received, and he was transferred to a British hospital ship, the Hunter. His poem recounts his terrible experiences on both ships. Freneau described the meat served to prisoners aboard the Hunter as "carrion [dead and rotting flesh] torn from hungry crows" with "vermin vile [disgusting maggots] on every joint."

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A Ragtag Force Enters the Revolution (1776–1777)

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