« PreviousContinue »
his own men through, and also cocked and snapped his pistols at them. His attendants caught the bridle of his horse, and with some difficulty led him from the field. *
In the lines which the Americans left on this occasion were found some hostile implements, such as the common consent of nations has declared unworthy of civilised or Christian warfare. The common men, it seems, or the inferior officers, had used them without the sanction of their chiefs. On this subject General Howe wrote as follows to General Washington ; for by this time, notwithstanding the punctilio of rank, a correspondence had arisen between them for the exchange of prisoners. “ My aide-de-camp will present to you a ball cut and “ fixed to the end of a nail, taken from a number of the
same kind found in the encampment quitted by your
troops on the 15th. I do not make any comment upon “ such unwarrantable and malicious practices, being well “ assured the contrivance has not come to your know
ledge.” Washington promptly replied: “The ball you
mention, delivered to me by your aide-de-camp, was the “ first of the kind I erer saw or heard of. You may de
pend upon it the contrivance is highly abhorred by me, “and every measure shall be taken to prevent so wicked “ and infamous a practice being adopted in this army.” †
It is to be observed that during several previous days. the Americans had been preparing to evacuate New York. “ Had the landing of the enemy been delayed one day
longer, we should have left them the city” writes the Adjutant-General to his wife. Accordingly, on the 15th, the advancing British columns quietly took possession of the place; while General Putnam, with some three or four thousand of the insurgents, withdrew au their approach. It might have been easy (this the American annalists acknowledge) to have cut him off in his retreat along the North River; but that opportunity, as several both before and since, was lost upon General Howe. At New York, the British found themselves
* Compare Sparks's Washington, vol. iv. p. 94., with Gordon's History, vol. ii. p. 327.
† Sparks's Washington, vol. iv. p. 107.
hailed as friends and deliverers by no small portion of the inhabitants. The most arbitrary violence had for some time past been practised against them. In many other places it was deemed sufficient to exclude the suspected Tory from the benefits of human society — to sign an engagement, solemnly renouncing all ties of business or of friendship with him.* But at New York a great nurnber of persons were suddenly arrested and sent to distant places of confinement, not for any crime imputed or alleged, but solely because, from the general tenor of their lives or their opinions, they were supposed to be unfriendly to the popular cause. Their offence, in short, was one for which the language of England scarcely atfords a name, nor its history a precedent; it is best described in the Frenchmen's phrase, during their first Revolutionary period — SOUPÇONNÉ D'ÊTRE SUSPECT !
Whatever joy the loyalists remaining in New York may have felt at the sight of the King's troops was not long unalloyed. A few nights afterwards, the city was fired in several places at once; matches and other combustibles having been prepared and skilfully disposed. General Howe reports to Lord George Germaine that many of the incendiaries were detected in the fact, and some killed upon the spot by the infuriated troops. Notwithstanding every exertion on the part of the British chiefs, full one quarter of the city was thus consumed. It was believed by many persons that this conflagration might be traced to a secret order from American headquarters; but, considering the recent decision of Congress, and the personal character of Washington, the suspicion, though certainly natural, was as certainly unfounded.
The ill-conduct of the Americans, chiefly Connecticut men, on the 15th, was in some measure retrieved next day by another division, chiefly from Maryland and Virginia, which showed much gallantry in a little skirmish; and though the affair was slight, it gave more confidence to the remaining troops. Washington had now taken up his position on the heights of Haerlem, with lines across New York Island, which at that place is only a mile broad.
* See one of these forms of Ostracism in the American Archives, vol. ii. p. 1678.
Cloge in his rear was the fort to which his countrymen had given his name; on the opposite side of the North or Hudson River was Fort Lee; and further behind him his communication with the main-land of New York over a narrow strait was secured by some works at Kingsbridge. His position was in truth a strong one, but less tenable from the utter want of discipline among his troops. The difference of conduct in the field between the men of the South and the men of the North had given a fresh edge to the old provincial jealousies. An officer at that time present with their army declares that even the Pennsylvania and New England troops would as soon fight each other as the enemy.* Still more poignant are the complaints of Washington on “ the infamous practice of plundering. For," he adds, “under the idea of Tory property, or property that
may fall into the hands of the enemy, no man is secure “ in his effects and scarcely in his person. In order to “ get at them we have several instances of people being
frightened out of their houses, under pretence of those “ houses being ordered to be burnt, and this is done with
a view of seizing the goods. Nay, in order that the
villany may be more effectually concealed, some houses “ have actually been burnt to cover the theft. I have, “ with some others, used my utmost endeavours to stop “this horrid practice; but under the present lust after
plunder and want of laws to punish offenders, I might “ almost as well attempt to move Mount Atlas.” †
The Adjutant-General, writing in equal confidence, is not less explicit. Where,” says he, “so thorough a
levelling spirit predominates, either no discipline can “ be established, or he who attempts it must become odious “and detestable. It is impossible for any one to have an “ idea of the complete equality which exists between the “ officers and men who compose the greater part of our
troops. You may form some notion of it when I tell
you that yesterday morning a Captain of Horse, who “ attends the General, from Connecticut, was seen shaving
of his men on the parade near the house!” I * See this extract as given in Gordon's Hist. Amer. Rev. vol. ii.
† To the President of Congress, Sept. 24. 1776. I J. Reed to Mrs. Reed, Oct. 11. 1776.
In this disorganised state of the soldiery it became a service of danger to aim at their correction or control. The same officer who beheld the shaving scene says in another letter that in the skirmish of the 16th, “ the
greatest escape I had was from one of our own rascals “ who was running away. Upon my driving him back, “he presented his piece and snapped it at me about a rod “ distance. I seized a musket from another soldier, and
snapped at him. He has since been tried, and is under “ sentence of death, but I believe I must beg him off, as “after I found I could not get the gun off, I wounded “ him on the head, and cut off his thumb with my “hanger."*
This deplorable condition of the American troops was in great part owing to their system of short enlistments. During the last twelve months Washington had addressed to Congress the most urgent and most repeated representations against that system, but had found their theoretical jealousy of a standing army stronger than his warnings or their own experience. There was also, as a leading patriot complains, a disinclination in the gentlemen at Philadelphia to part with the smallest particle of their power.f It was not till the loss of New York was close impending that a better policy prevailed. Then, though not without strenuous opposition, it was resolved to form the army anew into eighty-eight battalions, to be enlisted as soon as possible, and to serve during the war. A certain number of battalions was assigned to each State as its quota; each State to appoint the officers as high as Colonels. To encourage enlistments a bounty of twenty dollars and one hundred acres of land was offered to each non-commissioned officer and soldier. But no sooner had these Resolves been passed than the Congress, by an error not uncommon in all popular assemblies, relaxed in their attention to the subject, as though a vote were sufficient for its own fulfilment. It became necessary for Washington to remind them gravely; that “there is a material “ difference between voting battalions and raising men.” I
* Life and Correspondence of Reed, vol. i. p. 238.
† Letter of Benjamin Harrison to Washington, July 21. 1775, as printed in the American Archives.
I To the President of Congress, October 4. 1776.
Moreover the nomination of officers by the several States gave rise to another train of evils. A few weeks later Washington unbosoms himself as follows to his brother : -“ All the year I have been pressing Congress to delay
no time in engaging men upon such terms as would “ insure success. telling them that the longer it was
delayed the more difficult it would prove. But the
measure was not commenced till it was too late to be “ effected; and then in such a manner as to bid adieu to every hope of getting an army from which
any services are to be expected; the different States, without regard " to the qualifications of an officer, quarrelling about the
appointments, and nominating such as are not fit to be “shoe-blacks, from the local attachments of this or that “ Member of the Assembly. I am wearied almost to death “ with the retrograde motion of things.
This unprosperous state of their affairs inclined the Congress more and more to the quest of foreign aid. With that view they resolved at this period to appoint three commissioners, or secret envoys, at the Court of France. Dr. Franklin, notwithstanding his great age, was unanimously chosen. When the choice was first announced to him, he answered modestly, “I am old, and
good for nothing; but, as the drapers say of their fag“ends of cloth, you may have me for what you please.” Yet the appointment of any such mission at all was against his own judgment. Only a few months afterwards we find him write as follows: 66 I have never yet “changed the opinion I gave in Congress, that a virgin “ State should preserve the virgin character, and not go “ about suitoring for alliances, but wait with decent dig
nity for the applications of others. I was overruled,
perhaps for the best.” † While Franklin was thus embarked in a new sphere, Silas Deane was continued at the post which he already filled. It would seem, however, that this gentleman was by no means most valued where he was best known, since his own State of Connecticut was the only one out of the thirteen that refused to vote
* Writings, vol. iv. p. 184.