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The United States of America: A History
Book 2: Chapter VII - At War


ENGLAND put forth as much strength as she deemed needful to subdue her rebellious colonists. She prepared a strong fleet and a strong army. She entered into contracts with some of the petty German princes to supply a certain number of soldiers. It was a matter of regular sale and purchase. England supplied money at a fixed rate. The Duke of Brunswick and some others supplied a stipulated number of men, who were to shed their blood in a quarrel of which they knew nothing. Even in a dark age these transactions were a scandal. Frederick of Prussia loudly expressed his contempt for both parties. When any of the hired men passed through any part of his territory he levied on them the toll usually charged for cattle—like which, he said, they had been sold.

So soon as the safety of Boston was secured, Washington moved with his army southwards to New York. Thither, in the month of June, came General Howe. Thither also came his brother, Lord Howe, with the forces which England had provided for this war. These reinforcements raised the British army to 25,000 men. Lord Howe brought with him a commission from King George to pacify the dissatisfied colonists. He invited them to lay down their arms, and he assured them of the King's pardon. His proposals were singularly inopportune. The Declaration of Independence had just been published. The Americans had determined to be free. They were not seeking to be forgiven, and they rejected with scorn Lord Howe's proposals. The sword must now decide between King George and his alienated subjects.
Lord Howe encamped his troops on Staten Island, a few miles from New York. His powerful fleet gave him undisputed command of the bay, and enabled him to choose his point of attack. The Americans expected that lie would land upon Long Island, and take possession of the heights near Brooklyn. He would then be separated from New York only by a narrow arm of the sea, and lie could with ease lay the city in ruins. Washington sent a strong force to hold the heights, and throw up intrenchments in front of Brooklyn. General Putnam was appointed to the command of this army. Staten Island lies full in view of Brooklyn. The white tents of the English army, and the formidable English ships lying at their anchorage, were watched by many anxious eyes. For the situation was known to be full of peril. Washington himself did not expect success in the coming fight, and hoped for nothing more than that the enemy's victory would cost him dear.

After a time it was seen that a movement was in progress among the English. One by one the tents disappeared. One by one the ships shook their canvas out to the wind, and moved across the bay. Then the Americans knew that their hour of trial was at hand.

1776 A.D.

Putnam marched his men out from their lines to meet the English. At daybreak the enemy made his appearance. The right wing of the American army was attacked, and troops were withdrawn from other points to resist what seemed the main attack. Meanwhile a strong English force made its way unseen round the American left, and established itself between the Americans and their intrenchments. This decided the fate of the battle. The Americans made a brave but vain defence. They were driven within their lines after sustaining heavy loss.

Lord Howe could easily have stormed the works, and taken or destroyed the American army. But his lordship felt that his enemy was in his power, and he wished to spare his soldiers the bloodshed which an assault would have caused. He was to reduce the enemy's works by regular siege. It was no part of Washington's intention to wait for the issue of these operations. During the night of the 29th he silently withdrew his broken troops, and landed them safely in New York. So skilfully was this movement executed, that the last boat had pushed off from the shore before the British discovered that their enemies had departed.

But now New York had to be abandoned. Washington's army was utterly demoralized by the defeat at Brooklyn. The men went home, in some instances, by entire regiments. Washington confessed to the President of Congress with deep concern that he had no confidence "in the generality of the troops." To fight the well-disciplined and victorious British with such men was worse than useless. He marched northwards, and took up a strong position at Haerlem, a village nine miles from New York. But the English ships, sweeping up the Hudson river, showed themselves on his flank and in his rear. The English army approached him in front. There was no choice but retreat. Washington crossed his soldiers over to the Jersey side of the river. The English followed him, after storming a fort in which nearly three thousand men had been left, the whole of whom were made prisoners.

The fortunes of the revolted colonies were now at the very lowest ebb. Washington had only 4000 men under his immediate command. They were in miserable condition—imperfectly armed, poorly fed and clothed, without blankets, or tents, or shoes. An English officer said of them, without extreme exaggeration, "In a whole regiment there is scarce one pair of breeches." This was the army which was to snatch a continent from the grasp of England! As they marched towards Philadelphia the people looked with derision upon their ragged defenders, and with fear upon the brilliant host of pursuers. Lord Howe renewed his offer of pardon to all who would submit. This time his lordship's offers commanded some attention. Many of the wealthier patriots took the oath, and made their peace with a Government whose authority there was no longer any hope of throwing off.

Washington made good his retreat to Philadelphia, so hotly pursued that his rear-guard, engaged in pulling down bridges, were often in sight of the British pioneers sent to build them up. When he crossed the Delaware he secured all the boats for a distance of seventy miles along the river-course. Lord Howe was brought to a pause, and he decided to wait upon the eastern bank till the river should be frozen.

Washington knew well the desperate odds against him. He expected to be driven from the Eastern States. It was his thought, in that case, to retire beyond the Alleghanies, and in the wilderness to maintain undying resistance to the English yoke. Meantime he strove like a brave strong man to win hack success to the patriot cause. It was only now that he was able to rid himself of the evil of short enlistments. Congress resolved that henceforth men should be enlisted to serve out the war.

Winter came, but Lord Howe remained inactive. He himself was in New York; his army was scattered about among the villages of New Jersey—fearing no evil from the despised Americans. All the time Washington was increasing the number of his troops, and improving their condition. But something was needed to chase away the gloom which paralyzed the country. Ten miles from Philadelphia was the village of Trenton, held by a considerable force of British and Hessians. At sunset on Christmas evening Washington marched out from Philadelphia, having prepared a surprise for the careless garrison of Trenton. The night was dark and tempestuous, and the weather was so intensely cold that two of the soldiers were frozen to death. The march of the barefooted host could be tracked by the blood-marks which they left upon the snow. At daybreak they burst upon the astonished Royalists. The Hessians had drunk deep on the previous day, and they were ill prepared to fight. Their commander was slain as he attempted to bring his men up to the enemy. After his fall the soldiers laid down their arms, and surrendered at discretion.

1777 A.D.

A week after this encounter three British regiments spent a night at Princeton, on their way to Trenton to retrieve the disaster which had there befallen their Hessian allies. Washington made another night march, attacked the Englishmen in the early morning, and after a stubborn resistance defeated them, inflicting severe loss.

These exploits, inconsiderable as they seem, raised incalculably the spirits of the American people. When triumphs like these were possible under circumstances so discouraging, there was no need to despair of the Commonwealth. Confidence in Washington had been somewhat shaken by the defeats which lie had sustained. Henceforth it was unbounded. Congress invested him with absolute military authority for a period of six months, and public opinion confirmed the trust. The infant Republic was delivered from its most imminent jeopardy by the apparently trivial successes of Trenton and Princeton.


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