Friday, July 1
1776 and Washington’s Crossing
On January 1 of 1777, Robert Morris wrote to George Washington, “The year 1776 is over. I am heartily glad of it and hope you nor America will ever be plagued with such another.” History has a way of recasting difficulties as triumphs. It is a perspective that only makes sense if there is a transcendence beyond the moment. We live in an age that too often assumes that the pronouncements of the evening news or the findings of the latest poll are the final judgment of truth and reality. Robert Morris showed both a recognition of the miseries of 1776 and the expectation that both America and George Washington would go on to better things.
We celebrate the year 1776. We remember one event of that year—the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The year of 1776 was filled with a number of great events from the War for Independence, including the siege of Boston, the capture and removal of the guns from Fort Ticonderoga, defeat of the American raid on Canada, the defense and loss of New York City, the retreat across New Jersey, and Washington’s victories at Trenton and Princeton.
That year began with the focus on the siege and subsequent evacuation of Boston. This was an American victory of sorts. Boston carried lots of psychological weight for the Patriot cause. The British army was basically bottlenecked there. The British capture of Breed’s Hill (the battle better known Bunker’s Hill) was a tactical victory for the crown’s cause. But this victory was quite costly in the lives taken to acquire that height. It gave the American army a sense of satisfaction at having extracted such a price for real estate. From the British viewpoint, it interjected a sense of caution in General Howe, causing him to refrain from further efforts to break out of Boston.
This caution was heightened when the Americans occupied Dorchester Heights, overlooking Boston proper, and trained the newly acquired field guns on the British positions. For the British, evacuating Boston was simply a change of tactical emphasis. The British army and navy continued to amass strength in both numbers and resolve. The wiser course of action was to shift military operations—after a short interlude—to New York. From there the British could use both land and sea to better direct the war efforts toward New England to the north and toward the middle colonies of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
The struggle for New York tilted the balance of events strongly in favor of the British. Basically, General Washington was outfought, outthought, and outmanned. The capture of Long Island and later the capture of Fort Washington and even later the miserable retreat across New Jersey should have ended a short chapter in English colonial rule over North America. Washington and Jefferson and others should have been relegated to footnote status and obscurity, as well as infamy.
Several factors prevented this denouement from coming to a completion. First, Washington began conducting his most often practiced and successful military maneuver—a retreat. This is not as simple as it sounds. A retreat puts an army in a spread out, vulnerable situation. Communications, supplies, and ability to respond to an attack are all hindered. In terms of morale, it can be even more devastating: Only losers retreat. Yet Washington’s retreat from Long Island was successful. A second factor that made it successful was beyond Washington’s control.
David McCullough writes, “Incredibly, yet again, circumstances—fate, luck, Providence, the hand of God, as would be said so often—intervened. Just at daybreak a heavy fog settled over the whole of Brooklyn, concealing everything no less than had the night. It was a fog so thick, remembered a soldier, that one ‘could scarcely discern a man at six yards distance.’”
Nine thousand American soldiers escaped across the river during the night and during the morning fog without the loss of a single life. After the troops were safely delivered, the fog lifted, revealing the enemy presence on the shore left behind. Throughout the war, the weather did not always so favor the Patriot cause, but from a historical perspective, we can nudge McCullough’s speculation toward certainty: This was the Providential hand of God.
God uses means and God uses men. George Washington was one such man used of God. Washington’s personal faith and doctrine are disputable. He has been alternately described as an evangelical Christian believer and as a Deist. He was certainly a theist and a man of conviction about God’s governance of the universe and moral order. His theological restraint may have been an indication of a lack of personal faith in Christ or it may have been a characteristic of the times. Even today, many political leaders are guarded in their use of religious language. Whatever the status of Washington’s soul, he was certainly gifted by God and used by God in the events of 1776.
Washington is an amazing case study in the category of leaders. He excelled and ultimately succeeded both as a military and political leader. Because of this, he exceeds such men of greater battlefield gifts as Napoleon, Robert E. Lee, U.S. Grant, and Hannibal. Washington never lacked personal bravery and devotion to the cause. But as a military tactician, as a strategist, as an on-the-battlefield commander, Washington’s abilities seemed limited. He lost far more battles than he won; he retreated more than he advanced; he commanded men who more closely resembled rabble than armies; his military background and training were limited; and even some of his victories seem more like random lottery winnings than calculated strategic military calculations.
His greatest gift was perseverance. He said, “Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages.” He was helped by having some very capable commanders serving under him. These included men like Nathaniel Greene and Henry Knox. Likewise he was hindered by a few who fancied themselves his superiors and who did not hesitate to convey such sentiments. One in particular was General Charles Lee. As Washington retreated across New Jersey, Lee insubordinately moseyed along on his own with his contingent of soldiers. He was content to let circumstances destroy Washington and advance his own career.
Here the British stepped in and, in effect, won the war for America: They captured Lee at a tavern. Washington’s response was careful and guarded, but inwardly he must have been delighted. The British were thrilled at any rate, for they ranked General Lee above Washington in their estimation.
Washington held an army together that lacking almost every ingredient of a successful military unit. It is said that an army moves on its stomach, yet the Continental army was malnourished and constantly in need of food. Pay was sporadic; the homeplaces were often nearby and as luring as the sirens of ancient myth; the cause seemed lost; and the middle colonies were increasingly coming under the sway and flags of the British army. On paper, Washington’s army numbered around 18,000 or a little more than half that of the British. But those numbers belied the true situation. Desertions and illness claimed many of the soldiers. In reality, Washington retreated across the Delaware River with only about 3,000 men. And many of these were nearing the end of their enlistments.
On the south shores of the Delaware River, the Patriot cause survived thanks to Washington’s command and initiative. From here he launched his famous crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas night, leading to his attack on the Hessian command stationed at Trenton. The crossing was slow, dangerous, miserably cold, and risky. Two of the columns that were to participate in the attack were turned back by delays and weather. The march to Trenton was likewise slow and miserably cold. The attack began sometime after daybreak rather than before as Washington had hoped for. The resulting victory was much greater than he had imagined.
In this short battle, Washington’s troops killed twenty-one enemy soldiers, wounded ninety more, and captured approximately nine hundred more. On the American side, the actual casualties in battle were four wounded and none killed. From this initial victory, Washington went on to conduct a spirited defense against a British counterattack. Once again, Washington showed his skill in retreating from the battlefield in the night, leaving the British poised against mere vacated campfires. But rather than simply retreating from battle, he swung his army north of Trenton where he surprised another British unit at Princeton, winning another victory and netting an additional three hundred prisoners. Only then did Washington take his victorious army back across the Delaware River.
In this particular campaign, Washington dominated the enemy in a manner worthy of such military greats as Hannibal or Stonewall Jackson. Up to this point, his success had consisted of avoiding total defeat and somehow holding his ragged troops together through thin and thinner. But in this case, Washington’s offensive kept his army moving swiftly as a sword, keeping the British forces unbalanced at a time when the war was all but won by the British.
The winter of the American soldiers’ discontent turned into the means of victory for the American cause. David Hackett Fischer writes, “Americans have known many dark days, from the starving times in the early settlements to the attack on the World Trade Center. These were the testing times and the pivotal moments of our history. It was that way in 1776, after the decision for independence and the military disasters in New York. In early December, British commanders believed that they were very close to ending the rebellion, and American leaders feared that they may be right. Then came a reversal of fortune, and three months later the mood changed on both sides. By the spring of 1777, many British officers had concluded that they could never win the war. At the same time, Americans recovered from their despair and were confident that they would not be defeated. That double transformation was truly a turning point in the war.”
This story of America’s struggle for independence and its triumphs in the face of incredible adversities should never grow dull or dim in the American mind. Our school children should be taught this story repeatedly. Adults need the story as much as children. The ever-present prophets of defeat and ‘nattering nabobs of negativism’ (to use the late Spiro Agnew’s only memorable phrase) can best be countered by recalling our own history. Whether coming from the morally hollowed-out eastern liberal establishment, the cynical and anti-American wings of the media, or even from overly pessimistic conservatives and defeat-oriented Christians, we need to be rescued from such by the perspective of history the year 1776 gives us.
David McCullough’s new book 1776 and David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing overlap in their coverage of the glorious days of our country’s beginnings. Both books are excellent and well-written accounts of those times. Both writers have previous works that are related to these topics. McCullough’s biography of John Adams is a landmark example of excellent historical writing and of a great, though somewhat overshadowed, Founding Father. Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride gives a fuller account of a story that goes beyond Longfellow’s poem. He also aptly deals with the greater issues and events, political and theological, which led to the war.
Christian influences in the war are highlighted in both McCullough’s and Fischer’s recent works. For example, Fischer points out that “the hard core of the Revolutionary movement in New Jersey consisted of English speaking Calvinists.” He goes on to reference a comment by Lutheran minister Nicholas Collins who said, “By God there will never be any peace till the Whigs and Presbyterians are cut off.” McCullough cites the British General James Grant as saying, “If a good bleeding can bring those Bible-faced Yankees to their senses, the fever of independency should soon abate.” No doubt General Grant recognized the connection between the theology found in the Continental Army and the issue of independence.
Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a member of the Continental Congress, and a physician who set up a field hospital for the American army, spoke quite brilliantly when he said, “Our republics cannot exist long in prosperity. We require adversity and appear to possess most of the republican spirit when most depressed.” The history of our country bears out the truth of Rush’s statement. Times like 1776 or September 11, 2001 demonstrate that depressed times and events make for the most glorious history and successes of our republic. The glory and success, of course, have to be seen from a historical perspective.