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THE CIVIL WAR IN THE EMPIRE, 1776-1778

In the war which now began, the military situation was such that neither side could look forward to an easy victory. Great Britain outweighed the colonies in population by three or four to one, and in every element of military strength to a much greater degree. There was a standing army, an ample sufficiency of professional officers, the most powerful navy in the world, the full machinery of financial administration, abundant credit, and wealthy manufacturing and agricultural classes which has already shown their power to carry the burdens of a world contest without flinching. With a powerful party Ministry endowed with full discretion in the ordering of military affairs, there was little danger of divided councils or of inability to secure responsible direction. North, Sandwich at the Admiralty, Barrington as Secretary at War, Germaine as Secretary for the Colonies, could command the active support of the King, the Parliament, and, it appeared, of the people.

On the other hand, it was necessary to carry on war at 3,000 miles distance from the base of supplies, and to feed and clothe the armies entirely from home. The cost was certain to be extremely heavy, and the practical difficulties of management arising from the distance were sure to be great, unless a competent commander were to be given complete authority in the colonies. Then, too, the problem was not one of conquering cities or single strategic points, or of defeating a rival state, but of so thoroughly beating down resistance as to lead the Americans to abandon their revolution and submit to the extinction of their new-formed confederation. Armies must operate inland from a seacoast where landing was easy in hundreds of places, but where almost every step took them into a rough country, ill-provided with roads and lacking in easily collected supplies. In spite of all advantages of military power, the problem before the British government was one calling for the highest forms of military capacity, and this, by an unexplained ill-fortune, was conspicuously lacking. Not a British general who commanded in America failed to show fighting ability and tactical sense, but not one of them possessed the kind of genius which grasps the true military ends of any campaign and ignores minor points for the sake of winning decisive advantages. Perhaps it would be unjust to apply to the British forces in this war the designation won in 1774 “armies of lions led by asses”; but the analogy is at least suggested.

Still more serious was the fact that the North Ministry was chosen mainly on the basis of the willingness of its members to execute the King’s orders and use their influence and parliamentary power and connections in his behalf. North himself, able as a parliamentarian, was irresolute in policy, ignorant of war, and careless in administration; Weymouth and Suffolk, the Secretaries, were of slight ability; Lord George Germaine, Secretary for the Colonies, was arrogant, careless, and lacking in military insight; Barrington, Secretary at War, possessed administrative ability, but was without personal weight in the cabinet; Sandwich at the Admiralty was grossly inefficient. There was not a single member of the Cabinet fitted to carry on war, or able to influence George iii. For such a body of men to undertake to direct the operations in America at the distance of 3,000 miles was a worse blunder than it would have been to commit the conduct of the war to any one of the generals in the field, however commonplace his abilities.

On the side of the colonists, the problem of fighting the full power of England was apparently a desperate one. The militia, with superior numbers, had chased the British from Concord, and had made a stubborn defence at Bunker Hill; but the British were about to move with overwhelming strength. To raise, equip, clothe, and feed armies was the task of a strong administration, and there was nothing of the kind in America. The ex-colonists not only had never known efficient administration; they had fought against any and all administration for generations, and their leaders had won their fame as opponents of all executive power. To thunder against royal oppression won applause, but indicated no ability at raising money and organizing such things as commissariat, artillery, or a navy; and it may be said of such men as Samuel Adams, Robert Morris, Roger Sherman, John Rutledge, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson that their administrative training was as far below that of their enemies in the North Ministry as their political capacity was, in general, superior.

The Continental Congress, moreover, which assumed responsibility for the army, could only recommend measures to the States, and call upon them to furnish troops and money. In contrast to the States, which derived their powers unquestionably from the voters within their boundaries and could command their obedience, the Congress had no legal or constitutional basis, and was nothing more than the meeting place of delegates from voluntary allies. Such military authority as it exercised rested entirely upon the general agreement of the States. National government, in short, did not exist. Still more serious was the fact that there were very few trained officers in America. The American military leaders, such as Washington, Greene, Wayne, Sullivan, were distinctly inferior in soldiership to their antagonists, although Washington and Greene developed greater strategic ability after many blunders. It was only through sundry military adventurers, some English such as Montgomery, Gates, Lee, Conway, others European such as De Kalb, Steuben, Pulaski that something of the military art could be acquired.

Most serious of all, there were no troops in America who comprehended the nature of military discipline. The conception of obedience to orders, of military duty, of the absolute necessity of holding steady, was beyond the range of most Americans. They regarded war as something to be carried on in their own neighbourhoods, and resisted obstinately being drawn outside their own States. They refused to enlist for longer than a few months, since they felt it imperative to return to look after their farms. They had little regard for men from different districts, distrusted commanders from any State but their own, and had no loyalty of any description to the Continental Congress. They were, in short, still colonists, such as generations of training had made them; very angry with Great Britain, infuriated at Tories, and glad to be independent, but unable to realize the meaning of it all even under the terrible stress of war.

Under the circumstances, the task of the men to whose lot it fell to lead the American forces was such as to tax to the utmost not only their military skill, but their ability to control, inspire, and persuade the most refractory and unreliable of material. When to this were added the facts that the colonies were almost wholly lacking in manufactures except of the most rudimentary sort, that they had little capital except in the form of land, buildings, vessels, and crops, and that whatever revenue they had been in the habit of deriving from commerce was liable to be destroyed by the British naval supremacy, it is easily seen that the disadvantages of the home country were actually counterbalanced by the still more crushing disadvantages of the revolting colonies.

In the summer of 1776, the British advanced from two quarters. In the north, as soon as navigation opened, men-of-war sailed up the St. Lawrence and brought reinforcements to Quebec. The relics of the American force, unable to maintain themselves in Canada, abandoned their conquests without a blow, and retreated into the Lake Champlain region, there intending to hold the forts at Crown Point and Ticonderoga. Col. Guy Carleton, the new commander, was soon able to move southward with overwhelming numbers; but, after reaching the northern end of Lake Champlain, he found that body of water commanded by a small squadron of gunboats under Benedict Arnold, and, deeming it impossible to advance, delayed all summer in order to construct a rival fleet. Meanwhile, all operations came to a standstill in that region. Eleven thousand men, chiefly regular troops, were thus kept inactive for months.

The principal British force gathered at Halifax, and sailed directly against New York. It was there joined by the remains of a naval expedition which had endeavoured in June, 1776, to capture Charleston, South Carolina, but had suffered severely in an attempt to bombard Fort Moultrie and been compelled to withdraw. This success, which raised the spirits of the rebels, was, however, the last they were to enjoy for many months. The main British expedition was expected to overpower all colonial resistance, for it comprised a fleet of men-of-war, and an army of no less than 81,000 men, including German mercenaries, fully equipped, drilled, and provisioned. The admiral in command, Lord Howe, a Whig, was authorized to issue pardons in return for submission, and evidently expected the mere presence of so powerful an armament to cause the collapse of all resistance. His brother, Sir William Howe, who commanded the army, was a good officer in actual fighting, but a man of little energy or activity, and unwilling, apparently, to cause the revolted colonies any more suffering than was necessary. He was, moreover, quite without military insight of the larger kind, failing to recognize the peculiar character of the war upon which he was entering and acting, when pushing on a campaign, precisely as though he were operating against a European army in west Germany.

In spite of all deficiencies, it seemed as though Howe could not fail to crush the undisciplined collection of 17,000 militia and minute men with which Washington endeavoured to meet him at New York. Controlling the harbour and the rivers with his fleet, he could move anywhere and direct superior numbers against any American position. The first blow, struck after futile efforts at negotiation, was aimed at an American force which held Brooklyn Heights on Long Island. About 20,000 British and Hessian troops were landed on August 22; and five days later they outflanked and crushed a body of Americans placed to obstruct their advance. There remained the American intrenchments, which were weak and ill-defended; but Howe refused to attack, probably with memories of Bunker Hill in his mind. Washington managed, owing to favourable rainy weather, to remove his beaten force by night on August 29, but only the inaction of Howe enabled them to escape capture.

There followed a delay of two weeks, during which Admiral Howe tried to secure an interview with American leaders, in hopes of inducing the rebels to submit; but, finding Franklin, Adams and Rutledge commissioners named by Congress immovably committed to independence, he was compelled to renew hostilities. There ensued a slow campaign in which General Howe easily forced Washington to evacuate New York, to retreat northward, and after various skirmishes to withdraw over the Hudson River into New Jersey. At no time did Washington risk a general engagement; at no time did he inflict any significant loss upon his antagonist or hinder his advance. The militia were, in fact, almost useless in the open field, and only dared linger before the oncoming redcoats when intrenched or when behind walls and fences. Many of them from New England grew discouraged and homesick, and left the moment their short enlistments expired; so that without any serious battles Washington’s so-called army dwindled week by week. On November 16, a severe loss was incurred through the effort of General Greene to hold Fort Washington, which commanded the Hudson River from the heights at the northern end of Manhattan Island. This stronghold, besieged by Howe, made a fair defence, but was taken by storm, and the whole garrison captured. The American army then, in two detachments under Washington and Lee respectively, was obliged to retreat across New Jersey, followed by the British under Cornwallis, until, by December 8, the remnant was at Philadelphia in a state of great discouragement and demoralization. The Continental Congress, fearing capture, fled to Baltimore and, moved to desperate measures, passed a resolution, giving Washington for six months unlimited authority to raise recruits, appoint and dismiss officers, impress provisions, and arrest loyalists. Howe felt that the rebellion was at an end. On November 30 he issued a proclamation offering pardon to all who would take the oath of allegiance within sixty days; and farmers in New Jersey took it by hundreds, securing in return a certificate of loyalty. The rebels’ cause seemed lost. But at the moment when, if ever, it was worth while to push pursuit to the uttermost, with the prospect of reducing three colonies and breaking up all show of resistance, Howe, satisfied with his campaign, began to prepare winter quarters.

To the northward, a similar fatality seemed to prevent full British success. During the summer, General Guy Carleton waited at the northern end of Lake Champlain while his carpenters built gunboats. Month after month went by until, on October 11, the British vessels engaged Arnold’s inferior flotilla. Two days of hot fighting with musketry and cannon resulted in the destruction of the American squadron, so that the way seemed clear for Carleton to advance; but the season was late, the difficulties of getting provisions from Canada seemed excessive, and on November 2 the British withdrew. Here again only extreme caution and slowness permitted the colonial army to hold its ground. Yet it seemed doubtful whether the American cause might not collapse even without further pressure, for the “armies” were almost gone by sheer disintegration. General Schuyler had a scanty 3,000 near Lake Champlain; Washington could not muster over 6,000 at Philadelphia, and these were on the points of going home. The attempt to carry on the war by voluntary militia fighting was a visible failure.

At this stage, the darkest hour, Washington, who had never dared to risk a battle, took the bold step of re-crossing the Delaware with part of his half-starved and shivering troops, and captured nearly all of a Hessian encampment at Trenton on December 25. Further, he drew on Cornwallis to advance against him, skirmished successfully on January 2, and then, moving by a night march to the British rear, defeated a regiment at Princeton. Cornwallis, with 7,000 men, was out-generalled by Washington in this affair, which was the first really aggressive blow struck by the Americans. The result was to lead Howe to abandon the effort to hold all of New Jersey; while Washington was able to post his men in winter quarters at Morristown, where he could watch every British move. This masterly little campaign, carried on under every disadvantage, made Washington’s fame secure, and undoubtedly saved the American revolution from breaking down. It revived the fighting spirit, encouraged the Congress and the people, and created a faith in Washington on the part of the soldiers and farmers which was destined to grow steadily into love and veneration. With no particular military insight beyond common sense and the comprehension of military virtues, he was a man of iron will, extreme personal courage, and a patience and tenacity which had no limit.

Congress now showed that its members realized in part the military lesson, for it authorized a standing regular army, and gave Washington power to establish it and appoint lower officers. It was a hard task to induce any Americans to enlist in such an organization; but little by little there were collected “Continental troops” who did not rush back to their family duties at the end of three months, but stayed and grew in discipline and steadiness. Yet Washington could never count on more than a few thousand such; Americans in general simply would not fight except under pressure of invasion and in defence of their homes.

During 1776-7, the revolted communities assumed something of the appearance of settled governments. The States replaced their revolutionary conventions with constitutions closely modelled upon their provincial institutions, but with elective governors, and, to safeguard liberty, full control over legislation, taxation, and most offices placed in the hands of the legislatures. Executive power was confined mainly to military matters. The Continental Congress continued to act as a grand committee of safety, framing recommendations and requests to the States, and issuing paper money on the credit of its constituents. Military administration proved a task beyond the capacity of the new governments, even for such diminutive armies as those which guarded the northern frontier and New Jersey, and the forces suffered from lack of food, covering, and powder. The country had few sources of supplies and wretched roads.

In 1777, when spring opened, the British armies slowly prepared to push matters to a definite conclusion. The North Cabinet, especially Lord George Germaine, had no single coherent plan of operations beyond continuing the lines laid down in 1776. It was early planned to have the Canadian force march southward and join Howe, collecting supplies and gathering recruits as it traversed New York. Howe was told that he was expected to co-operate, but was not prevented from substituting a plan of his own which involved capturing Philadelphia, the chief American town and, as the seat of the Continental Congress, the “rebel capital.” Germaine merely intimated that Howe ought to make such speedy work as to return in time to meet the Canadian force, but did not give him any positive order, so Howe considered his plan approved. In leisurely fashion he tried twice to march across New Jersey in June; but, although he had 17,000 to Washington’s 8,000, he would not risk leaving the latter in his rear and withdrew. He next determined to move by water, and began the sea journey on July 5. This process occupied not less than six weeks, since he first tried to sail up the Delaware, only to withdraw from before the American forts; and it was not until August 22 that he finally landed his men at the head of Chesapeake Bay.

Meanwhile, General Burgoyne, a man of fashion as well as an officer, had begun his march southward from Lake Champlain with 7,500 men and some Indian allies, forced the Americans to evacuate Fort Ticonderoga without a blow, and chased the garrison to the southward and eastward. Pushing forward in spite of blocked roads and burned bridges, he reached the Hudson River on August 1 without mishap, and there halted to collect provisions and await reinforcements from Tories and from a converging expedition under St. Leger, which was to join him by way of Lake Ontario and the Mohawk Valley. Up to this time the American defence had been futile. It seemed as though nothing could stop Burgoyne’s advance. Congress now appointed a new general, Gates, to whom Washington sent General Morgan with some of his best troops. While Burgoyne waited, the militia of New England began collecting, and presently, on August 15 and 16, two detachments of the British sent to seize stores at Bennington were surrounded and captured. St. Leger, unable to manage his Indian allies, or force the surrender of the American Fort Stanwix, was obliged, on August 22, to retreat. Burgoyne, with diminishing numbers and no hope of reinforcement, found himself confronted by rapidly growing swarms of enemies. At the moment when his need of co-operation from Howe became acute, the latter general was two hundred miles away in Pennsylvania.

Under the circumstances, the two campaigns worked themselves out to independent conclusions. In Pennsylvania, Washington boldly marched his summer army with its nucleous of veterans out to meet the British, and challenged a battle along the banks of the Brandywine creek. On September 11, Howe, with 18,000 men, methodically attacked Washington, who had not over 11,000, sent a flanking column around his right wing, and after a stiff resistance pushed the Americans from the field. There was no pursuit; and four days later Washington was prevented only by bad weather from risking another fight. He did not feel able to prevent Howe from entering Philadelphia on September 27; but on October 3, taking advantage of a division of the British army, he assumed the offensive at Germantown and brought his unsteady forces into action, only to suffer another defeat. With this Washington was forced to abandon operations in the field and to go into winter quarters at Valley Forge, not far from the city; while Howe besieged and on November 2 took the American forts on the Delaware. The British campaign was successful; Philadelphia was theirs, and they had won every engagement. But nothing shows more clearly Washington’s ability as a fighter and leader than his stubborn contest against odds in this summer.

Meanwhile, the Northern campaign came to its conclusion. By September, Gates, the new commander, found himself at the head of nearly 20,000 men, and Burgoyne’s case grew desperate. He made two efforts to break through to the southward, at Freeman’s Farm, and again at Bemis Heights, but was met by superior numbers and overwhelmed, in spite of the gallantry of his troops. Forced back to Saratoga on the Hudson River, he was surrounded and at length compelled to surrender, on October 17. Sir Henry Clinton, who commanded the British garrison of New York in Howe’s absence, sent a small expedition up the Hudson; but it did not penetrate nearer than sixty miles from the spot where Burgoyne stood at bay, and it achieved nothing more than a raid. So the northern British force, sent to perform an impossible task, was destroyed solely because neither Howe nor his superiors realized the necessity of providing for certain co-operation from the southward. The prisoners, according to the terms of the surrender, were to be returned to England; but Congress, owing in part to some complaints of Burgoyne, chose to violate the agreement, and the captive British and Hessians were retained. Burgoyne himself returned to England, burning with anger against Howe and the North Ministry.

The winter of 1777-8 found the two British armies comfortably housed in New York and Philadelphia, and Washington, with his handful of miserably equipped men, presenting the skeleton of an army at Valley Forge. Congress, now manned by less able leaders than at first, was almost won over to displacing the unsuccessful commander by Gates, the victor of Saratoga; and it did go so far as to commit the administration of the army to a cabal of Gates’s friends, who carried on a campaign of depreciation and backbiting against Washington. But the whole unworthy plot broke down under a few vigorous words from the latter, the would-be rival quailing before the Virginian’s personal authority. He was not a safe man to bait. The military headship remained securely with the one general capable of holding things together.

In the winter of 1778, however, a new element entered the game, namely, the possibility of French intervention. From the outbreak of the Revolution, very many Americans saw that their former deadly enemy, France, would be likely to prove an ally against England; and as early as 1776 American emissaries began to sound the court of Versailles. In March, 1776, Silas Deane was regularly commissioned by the Continental Congress, and in the autumn he was followed by no less a person than Benjamin Franklin. It was the duty of these men to get whatever aid they could, especially to seek an alliance. The young king, Louis XVI, was not a man of any independent statecraft; but his ministers, above all Vergennes, in charge of foreign affairs, were anxious to secure revenge upon England for the damage done by Pitt, and the tone of the French court was emphatically warlike. The financial weakness of the French government, destined shortly to pave the way for the Revolution, was clearly visible to Turgot, the Minister of Finances, and he with a few others protested against the expense of a foreign war; but Vergennes carried the day.

As early as the summer of 1776, French arms and munitions were being secretly supplied, while the Foreign Minister solemnly assured the watchful Lord Stormont, the English Ambassador, of his government’s perfect neutrality. Thousands of muskets, hundreds of cannon, and quantities of clothes were thus shipped, and sums of money were also turned over to Franklin. Beaumarchais, the playwright and adventurer, acted with gusto the part of intermediary; and the lords and ladies of the French court, amusing themselves with “philosophy” and speculative liberalism, made a pet of the witty and sagacious Franklin. His popularity actually rivalled that of Voltaire when the latter, in 1778, returned to see Paris and die. But not until the colonies had proved that they could meet the English in battle with some prospect of success would the French commit themselves openly; and during 1776 and 1777 the tide ran too steadily against the insurgents. Finally, in December, when the anxieties of Franklin and his associates were almost unendurable, the news of Burgoyne’s surrender was brought to Paris. The turning-point was reached. Vergennes immediately led the French King to make two treaties, one for commercial reciprocity, the other a treaty of military alliance, recognizing the independence of the United States, and pledging the countries to make no separate peace. In the spring of 1778 the news reached America; and the war now entered upon a second stage.

There can be little doubt that under abler commanders the British armies might have crushed out all armed resistance in the middle colonies. In spite of all drawbacks, the trained British soldiers and officers were so superior in the field to the American levies on every occasion where the forces were not overwhelmingly unequal that it is impossible for any but the most bigoted American partisan to deny this possibility. Had there been a blockade, so that French and Dutch goods would have been excluded; had General Howe possessed the faintest spark of energy in following up his successes; had the North Cabinet not failed to compel Howe to co-operate with Burgoyne, the condition of things in 1778 might well have been so serious for the colonists’ cause that Vergennes would have felt a French intervention to be fruitless. In that case, it is hard to see how the rebellion could have failed to be crushed in the next year. As it was, the Americans, by luck and by the tenacity of Washington and a few other leaders, had won the first victory.