From Triumph to Catastrophe
On July 2, 1775, a rainy Sunday, George Washington, the newly appointed commander in chief of the American army, arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The next day the weather lifted, and skies were sunny as he inspected troops to the sound of trilling fifes and beating drums. He wore a blue coat faced in a buff-colored wool that matched his vest and breeches. Decorated with shining gold buttons and gilt epaulets, the uniform was part of "the pride and pomp of war" that Washington knew inspired men at arms. It added to the calm, assured demeanor that was key to his leadership, and the men he inspected on that July day were cheered. "It seemed as if the spirit of conquest breathed through the whole army," one of his generals wrote.
Washington was an expert at conveying confidence to others, even when he had grave doubts, as he did when he inspected the American troops that Congress had appointed him to command. His army was a motley collection of farmers, mechanics, students, and shopkeepers. They had no uniforms, no standard weapons, and were woefully lacking in military discipline and organization. At Cambridge, Washington began to attend to the multitude of details that would form them into a real army, issuing orders that dealt with everything from keeping track of the number of troops to forbidding gambling.
On February 16, 1776, he convened his war council in a Georgian mansion on Brattle Street that served as his headquarters. He was ready to undertake the task for which he had come to Massachusetts: driving the British out of Boston. For more than a year they had occupied the city, and for many months American forces had been keeping them under siege. Congress had instructed Washington to seek approval from generals in his war council before major action, and he proposed an assault on Boston, which the council immediately rejected as too dangerous. Washington, thoroughly disgruntled, agreed to a plan to fortify Dorchester Heights, an elevation overlooking Boston and its harbor, with guns that a tall, brawny twenty-five-year-old named Henry Knox had recently hauled from Fort Ticonderoga. A sustained bombardment from the heights, everyone agreed, had a good chance of bringing the redcoats out.
Because troops ascending Dorchester Heights would be vulnerable to enemy fire, Washington used diversions. He placed heavy ordnance at Lamb's Dam, Cobble Hill, and Lechmere Point, all distant from the heights, and ordered bombardments on the nights of March second and third. On the night of March 4, while the boom and flash of cannon captured British attention, three hundred oxcarts weighed down with preassembled barricades moved up the hills, wheels muffled by straw. Teamsters whispered. Three thousand soldiers followed, concealed from British eyes by a fog over Boston Harbor. By the time the troops reached the top, they had broken through the haze into moonlight so clear that they made quick work of constructing fortifications. By dawn, they had built several imposing structures and emplaced ordnance that Henry Knox had dragged from northern New York on the Dorchester hills.
The next morning, General William Howe, in command of the British army, saw full-blown fortifications threatening his men and ships. "The rebels have done more in one night than my whole army would have done in months," he was heard to say, and by 8:00 p.m. he and his war council had decided to evacuate the city. On March 17, British ships lifted sail and dropped down the harbor. On March 27 they stood out to sea.
Washington confessed to a friend that he could "scarce forbear lamenting" the British withdrawal. His men had been ready for a battle. But the bloodless victory more than pleased his fellow Americans. The Massachusetts Assembly rushed to laud him and Congress resolved to strike a gold medal in his honor. John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, took rhetorical flight, telling Washington, "The Annals of America will record your title to a conspicuous place in the temple of fame."
Washington was the hero, the man of the hour, and he looked the part. More than six feet tall, he was muscular yet moved with grace, particularly on horseback. Thomas Jefferson called him "the best horseman of his age." He was also a superb dancer and "very gallant," according to Judge Francis T. Brooke, who noted that Washington always paid particular attention to "the most beautiful and attractive ladies at the balls."
Washington's combination of powerful physique and gentlemanly manner was most impressive. When Abigail Adams met him, she scolded her husband, John, for not preparing her adequately. "I thought the one half was not told me."
In addition, Washington was wealthy. As the son of a second marriage, he'd had few prospects as a youngster, but after his father died when Washington was eleven and his beloved half brother Lawrence and Lawrence's daughter and widow died when he was in his twenties, he inherited the Mount Vernon estate. He also married wealth in the person of Martha Custis, the five-foot-tall, kind, and capable widow whom he wed in 1759.
Years later, John Adams, a more cynical soul than his wife, made a list of what he called Washington's "talents." First was "a handsome face," second, "a tall stature," third, "an elegant form," fourth, "graceful attitudes and movements," and fifth, "a large, imposing fortune." Adams's point that much of what propelled Washington ahead in the world was not earned but given is a fair one, but it should be observed that many a tall, fine-looking rich man has rested on his gifts rather than using them to advance the cause of freedom.
In Washington's mind, his gifts and achievements did not make up for what he called his "defective education." In the years before he came into his fortune, his family did not have the means for him to acquire classical knowledge, as his older half brothers had. He grew adept at geometry, a skill crucial for his work as a surveyor, and although he did not study Latin, he became familiar, likely through popular translations, with Rome's history and heroes.
Washington learned the ways of the gentleman not only by observing men such as his brother Lawrence, but also by studying etiquette. He copied The Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, maxims that provided guidelines for a young man striving to be part of Virginia's ruling class: Be respectful of others; be in command of facial expressions, hand gestures, and posture; be in control of emotions. The last was a particular challenge for Washington, who from youth onward was given to notable outbursts of temper.
The 110th rule of Civility and Decent Behaviour may have impressed Washington most. "Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience," it read. Throughout Washington's life, people commented on his ongoing effort to do what was right, to strip himself of bias and partiality and act with "disinterestedness." Even critics who came to believe that Washington was ruining the Republic had to acknowledge that he tried to act from honest motives, or as Washington himself put it, with a "consciousness of upright intentions."
The praise and admiration that came Washington's way after Boston, pleasing though they were, did nothing to solve the deep problems that plagued his army. But whatever progress he made would not last. Army enlistments, which were for one year, expired at the end of 1776. A short-term army was exactly what Congress and most of the country wanted. A permanent arrangement was deemed a threat to liberty, an "armed monster," as one orator put it. But for Washington, short enlistments meant disbanding one army and recruiting another in the middle of war, creating chaos and inhibiting the development of an effective force. "The reflection upon my situation and that of this army produces many an uneasy hour when all around me are wrapped in sleep," Washington wrote while in Boston. In April, as he marched his men to New York, he had to know there were many sleepless nights ahead.
By mid-August, so many British ships had gathered off Staten Island that it looked as though a forest had sprung up in the Lower Bay. The masts of more than a hundred ships were an awesome and discouraging sight. The British armada had arrived, bringing an army of more than thirty thousand, including nearly nine thousand German mercenaries, to put down the American rebellion. The American army numbered around twenty thousand men, but among them, according to Washington biographer Douglas Southall Freeman, were “no more than ten thousand effectives.”
Washington was sure that the British would try to seize New York City, on the southern tip of Manhattan Island, but he could not be certain that was where the first attack would come. He dispersed his forces to cover other points, including Long Island, where the critical location was Brooklyn Heights, a palisade overlooking the East River. Washington dispatched about a third of his men to the heights and set them to digging ditches and strengthening fortifications.
Starting the morning of August 22, the British put twenty thousand troops ashore at Long Island's Gravesend Bay. By the twenty-third they were within three miles of American lines on Brooklyn Heights, and on the twenty-seventh they dealt the patriots a mighty blow. Washington had ordered three thousand of the army's best men positioned outside the fortifications. While fire from Hessian mercenaries provided a distraction, General Henry Clinton, Howe's second-in-command, took ten thousand men through a lightly guarded pass, turned the left flank of the Americans positioned forward, and attacked from behind while Hessians charged from the front. Terrified Americans scrambled to escape. Some made it to safety within the fortifications, but many were captured and many killed by bayonets. Philip Fithian, a chaplain watching from behind the ramparts, described the dreadful scene: "O doleful! doleful! doleful!-Blood! Carnage! Fire! . . . Many, many we fear are lost. . . . Such a dreadful din my ears never before heard!-And the distressed wounded came crying into the lines."
Washington organized a masterful night retreat from Brooklyn Heights across the East River to Manhattan that saved 9,500 patriot troops, but as many as a thousand more, Washington reported to Congress, had been killed or taken prisoner. The rest were disheartened, their minds filled "with apprehension and despair." Large numbers of militia "have gone off," he wrote from New York City, deserting "in some instances almost by whole regiments."
John Adams, chairman of the congressional Board of War, offered a cold-eyed assessment. "In general, our generals were outgeneraled," he wrote to Abigail.
The Battle of Brooklyn Heights changed Washington for a time. He had come into the war eager for bold and open fighting. Now, in a war council with his generals, he indicated that he wanted no more of putting Òyoung troops . . . against their superiors both in numbers and discipline,Ó and the council discussed a Òwar of posts,Ó which meant defending strong positions and not engaging the enemy unless there was clear advantage. It was an approach that Washington may have first known as a Fabian strategy, after the Roman general Fabius Maximus, who had used it effectively against Hannibal, although he had to endure the Òcontempt and calumnyÓ of the public and Roman officials for supposed timidity, which was hardly the reputation that a warrior would wish. It had, however, preserved FabiusÕs army, which was no small accomplishment as Washington viewed matters through the lens of September 1776.
But what did a defensive strategy mean for New York City? Should he defend it or abandon it? he asked Congress in a letter. He offered opinions on both sides until by the end his letter was so clotted with contradiction that historians have offered dramatically different interpretations of what Washington meant.
The war council's decision was as muddled as Washington's letter: nine thousand men stationed at the north end of the island, where a rocky plateau known as Harlem Heights would provide a strong post; five thousand men to be left in the city; and several thousand others at various points. If, as Washington had said
in his letter to Congress, his entire army would be hard put to defend the city, five thousand men-a third of the army-were surely doomed to fail.
Fortunately the generals of the war council had second thoughts. Major General Nathanael Greene, sure that the army should evacuate, was a force behind the collective change of mind, and a congressional resolution declaring that the decision whether to stay or go was entirely up to Washington eased the way. On September 14, Washington wrote to the Congress that his war council had "not only determined a removal of the army prudent but absolutely necessary."
The battered army began withdrawing to the north just as Lieutenant James Monroe arrived from the south. Together with his roommate at William and Mary, John Francis Mercer, he had left college to enlist in the 3rd Virginia Infantry, and after “rapid marches” of four hundred miles, he arrived with his regiment on the heights near the Harlem River. Wearing fringed hunting shirts, Monroe and other officers of the 3rd Virginia were warmly welcomed, as were the more than six hundred men they led. Their high spirits were infectious, and their obvious training a source of confidence.
But they were far from the fighting when the attack came. Instead of landing near Harlem Heights, as Washington had expected, the British came ashore some five miles to the south. On September 15, a clear, bright Sunday, Connecticut militia guarding Kip's Bay saw dozens upon dozens of flatboats packed with British troops heading toward them. The red-uniformed regulars on the transports "appeared like a large clover field in full bloom," a fifteen-year-old private named Joseph Plumb Martin observed. Then came a blistering cannonade from British warships in the East River, and Martin thought his head would "go with the sound." He and the rest of his unit abandoned their shallow trenches and ran, allowing British troops and blue-clad Hessians to splash ashore and form up unopposed.
Washington and his aides galloped up as Massachusetts militia and Connecticut Continentals arrived. He shouted directions: "Take the walls! Take the cornfield!" But when sixty British grenadiers appeared, the patriot reinforcements panicked and were soon "flying in every direction and in the greatest confusion," as Washington described it. In a fury, he rode among them, even striking officers to try to preserve order, but all to no effect. "Are these the men with which I am to defend America?" he roared, throwing his hat to the ground.
Washington usually succeeded in keeping his temper under control, but the panic at Kip's Bay brought it out-and a dark mood with it. After the flight of the troops, only Washington and a few aides were left on the field. It was time to withdraw, but as the British approached ever closer, Washington remained in place. Finally, an aide seized the reins of his horse and moved the commander in chief to safety. As Major General Nathanael Greene, who was very close to Washington, analyzed it, Washington had been courting destruction, putting himself in harm's way in order to be harmed. He was "so vexed at the infamous conduct of his troops," wrote Greene, "that he sought death rather than life."