Chasing George – Washington’s Crossing Part One

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Hawthorne said that history is biography.  True, but it is also geography.  Buddhists read all of the Buddha’s saying and read biographical texts, but they also often feel the need to travel to the Bodhi Tree in order to see the spot where he attained enlightenment.  This doesn’t make a lot of sense, logically speaking.  After all, the point is that you don’t need anything to gain enlightenment, and that you can do it anywhere.  Finding the spot where the Buddha came to this realization is answering a basic human need, to get closer to an event and achieve time-travel by seeing the actual places and looking at the actual objects that played a role.  Reading about history feeds the intellect, but experiencing it feeds the senses.  The entire purpose of Bow Tie Tours is to use everything at our disposal to help you to feel history, rather than to just know it.

John Adams said that the real revolution happened in the hearts and minds of the American people before a shot was fired.  As Stephen Covey put it, every invention or action happens twice – first in your mind during the planning stage, then in reality during the action stage.  If the revolution had occurred prior to 1775, we still had to go through the burdensome and often tragic experience if convincing the British that this revolution had indeed occurred.  When you try to make a great change there is usually somebody trying to stop it, and the American Revolution was no exception.  The British had no intention of allowing the Colonies to be “free” without putting up a fight.  This, to them, would mark the beginning of the end of the British Empire.  Bow Tie Tours now offers a series of premier battlefield tours, which include Washington’s Crossing/Trenton, the Battle of Brandywine, Valley Forge, and the Battle of Monmouth.  If you are interested in really coming to an understanding of the American Revolution by attending some or all of these tours, give us a call at 610-642-2410, or take a look at our website.

In the meantime, let us return to 1776.  The war between the British and the American colonies has been going on since April of 1775.  The British Army is the best trained and best equipped army in the world.  King George III has been moved to anger over the colonial actions, most specifically and most recently the Boston Tea Party and the drafting of an impudent Declaration of Independence.  There are 30,000 British troops in America by June of 1776.  Beyond that, England has contracted for 17,000 Hessian troops from the Prince of Hesse Cassel.

There could hardly be a greater disparity between armies.  Congress, fearful of a standing army’s ability to hijack the revolution, has authorized the raising of regiments only for limited periods of time.  Very few of these men had any military experience and officers were either appointed by congress or the states, or elected by their militia units; neither of these processes proved to be effective.  Many of these officers, said Washington, were “not worth the bread they ate.”   The British had no standardized weaponry and no standardized clothing.  There was no established quartermaster, no network of vendors enabled to supply the army.  The army was, in modern terms, faking it until they make it.  And it was becoming increasingly questionable whether they would ever indeed make it.  The rebels had no standardized weaponry and no standardized clothing.  There was no established quartermaster and no network of vendors were in existence to supply the army.

The most glaring defect came from the Congress’s inability to raise funds.  Their options were to print money or borrow money.  Printing it was easier than borrowing it – there were not a lot of foreign entities willing to put money into such a risky venture – but the printing of more Congressional money was of limited value.

At the start, it had looked like things might work out.  It was a ragtag group of farmers and merchants who had not only stood up to the British of Lexington (or at least been willing to shoot at them from behind) and ultimately vanquished them.  (Well, they left, didn’t they?)  In those heady days of March, 1776, all good things looked possible as the Bostonians watched the British sail away from Boston, defeated by the actions of a fat bookseller who had managed to bring cannons all the way from Saratoga, where Washington saw to it that they were placed on hills most likely to give the British difficulties.  Maybe they could defeat the British after all.  Who needed regular armies, or money, or uniforms.  The Americans would pull it off with heart, grit, and determination.

Well, maybe not.  March of 1776 had been great, but the perceived good fortunes of the American army did not last long.  Since that time there had been numerous trials, tribulations, hardships, and defeats.  Demoralizing defeats, the kind of defeats that made you question fundamental things, such as the foundation of the army and, more importantly, its General.  Was Washington the right guy?

As much as Bunker Hill had provided hope and optimism, so too did the Battle of Long Island turn into a sodden wake-up-call.  Unsure of British plans, Washington had divided his army to defend both New York and Long Island, and then divided it again to confront the British at Brooklyn Heights.  England’s General Howe planned what would become his signature action when he used the Hessians to demonstrate and hold the colonials on the American right while sending British regulars around the left flank.  Howe  had personally witnessed the horrors of a frontal assault at the Battle of Bunker Hill (a mistaken title for a battle that actually involved the nearby Breed’s Hill) where all twelve of his staff officers were killed or wounded.  From that point on he would avoid frontal attacks whenever possible.

Since General Sullivan’s force had failed to guard the road around their left flanks, the British moved to the American rear virtually unimpeded.  Rebels were forced to retreat through a swamp where many drowned.  General Sullivan and Stirling were both captured along with 1000 others; 310 were estimated killed.

Washington and his army seemed trapped on Long Island.  With the help of Colonel John Glover’s Marblehead Mariners, they were able to escape in a dramatic amphibious attack.  However, as Winston Churchill would later say after a similarly dramatic escape at Dunkirk, “Wars are not won on evacuations.”

If the Battle of Long Island was distressing, the British attack at Kip’s Bay was even more disturbing.  While it was only a skirmish involving little losses, the Connecticut militia, which was required to defend the shallow trenches, had fled in a manner Washington would describe as “disgraceful and disorderly.”

Next was the Battle of White Plains, in which Howe once again used the same type of flanking activity that had been successful at Long Island.  General Washington perceived that his men stationed at Fort Washington were in danger of being captured, but instead of ordering General Greene to withdraw the troops from the front, he made orders that were vague and discretionary, perhaps in the hope that Greene would himself order the withdrawals and suffer the political ramifications from congress.  Instead, Greene chose to stay, and the results were disastrous, with 2818 Americans surrendered and 53 men killed.

The more important loss here was in the confidence that had so far been accorded Washington.  The New York campaign told a bleak story – 4,400 men captured, 500 men killed, 3698 men left, either due to expiring enlistments or desertions.  Where was the country and the Congress to place its faith?  The soldiers had all too often acted like untrained rabble running from the first hint of danger and the generals – Washington first and foremost – had sometimes come across as rank amateurs.  John Adams would memorably put it this way in a letter to his wife, Abigail:  “In general, our Generals were out generalled on Long Island.”

(We will continue the story of Washington’s Crossing the Delaware this week.  By the way, special thanks to Wilson Dorward, our expert on military aspects of the Revolutionary War.  Much of these articles owe thanks to the research he did on our Washington Crossing the Delaware Tour, although any mistakes are my own.)  DC

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