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"must attempt something on account of his reputation, “ for what has he done as yet with his great army?”
It seemed not improbable that the King's troops might attempt an invasion of the Jerseys, and a push for Philadelphia. To defend these districts, General Washington crossed the Hudson with his army, and took post at Hackinsac. Meanwhile, on the 16th, Fort Washington was assaulted and carried by the British. The defence was continued during only four or five hours, the garrison being driven from the outer works, and then surrendering. No less than 2800 of the American troops became prisoners of war on this occasion. To have left any garrison in that fort, after the evacuation of New York Island, was certainly a great fault of strategy; and Washington, long afterwards, with noble frankness, spoke of it as such. But, in fact, the post had been held contrary to his own wishes and opinions, and his error lay only in having yielded these to the inferior judgment of other officers, especially of General Greene.
Sir William Howe (for the knighthood of the Bath had been recently conferred upon him; and Carleton, in like manner, had become Sir Guy) followed up his last advantage. Six thousand men, led by Earl Cornwallis, were landed on the Jersey side. At their approach, the Americans withdrew in great haste from Fort Lee, leaving behind their artillery and stores. Washington himself had no other alternative than to give way with all speed as his enemy advanced. He fell back successively upon Brunswick, upon Princeton, upon Trenton, and at last to the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware. To all these places, one after the other, did Lord Cornwallis, though slowly and with little vigour, pursue him.
This fair province of the Jerseys, sometimes surnamed the Garden of America*, did not certainly, on this occasion, prove to be its bulwark. The scene is described as follows by one of their own historians, Dr. Ramsay: “ As the retreating Americans marched through the
country, scarcely one of the inhabitants joined them, “ while numbers were daily flocking to the Royal army
Les Jerseys . .
... on les appelle le jardin de l'Amerique.” (Voyages du Marquis de Chastellux, vol. i. p. 146.)
“ to make their peace and obtain protection. They saw
on the one side a numerous well-appointed and full-clad army, dazzling their eyes with the elegance of uniformity; on the other a few poor fellows who, from their
shabby clothing, were called ragamuffins, fleeing for “ their safety. Not only the common people changed “ sides in this gloomy state of public affairs, but some of “ the leading men in New Jersey and Pennsylvania " adopted the same expedient.”* It is to be observed that the two Howes had issued a joint proclamation, offering a pardon to all such as had opposed the King's authority who should within sixty days subscribe a declaration that they would remain in peaceable obedience to his Majesty. Such an offer might add to the effect of the British arms. Yet it seems scarcely just to the Americans to ascribe, with Dr. Ramsay, their change of sides to nothing beyond their change of fortune. May we not rather believe that a feeling of concern at the separation, hitherto suppressed in terror, was now first freely avowed that in New Jersey, and not in New Jersey alone, an active and bold minority had been able to overrule numbers much larger, but far more quiescent and complying?
Another remark, by the same historian, might, as history shows, be extended to other times and other countries besides his own. The men who had been the vainest braggarts, the loudest blusterers in behalf of Independence, were now the first to veer round or to slink away. This remark, which Dr. Ramsay makes only a few years afterwards, is fully confirmed by other documents of earlier date, but much later publication — by the secret correspondence of the time. Thus writes the Adjutant-General :-“Some of our Philadelphia gentle
men who came over on visits, upon the first cannon went “ off in a most violent hurry. Your noisy Sons of Liberty
are, I find, the quietest in the field.”+ Thus, again, Washington, with felicitous expression, points a paragraph at the “ chimney-corner heroes.” I
* History of the American Revolution, vol. i. p. 313.
At this period the effective force under Washington had dwindled to four thousand men. A separate division, of nearly equal strength, which he had entrusted to General Lee, was now, in like manner, slowly pursuing its march from the Hudson to the Delaware. Letter after letter – express after express - was sent by Washington to Lee, directing that officer to join him with all speed ; but Lee, ever self-willed and perverse, paid no attention to these orders. He was busied in writing letters to find fault with the Commander-in-chief, when one evening, with the ink scarcely dry upon his paper, he was surprised and made prisoner by a party of dragoons under Colonel Harcourt the same who in later life succeeded to the Harcourt Earldom, and the military rank of Field Marshal. Thus does Washington, in confidence, relate the transaction to his brother: -“ The captivity of “ General Lee is an additional misfortune, and the more “ vexations as it was by his own folly and imprudence, “ and without a view to effect any good, that he was “ taken.
As he went to lodge three miles out of his own camp, and within twenty of the enemy, a rascally Tory “ rode in the night to give notice of it to the enemy, who “ sent a party of Light Horse, that seized him and “ carried him off with every mark of triumph and indignity.”
The Congress at this juncture, like most other public assemblies, seemed but slightly affected by the dangers which as yet were not close upon them. On the 11th of December they passed some Resolutions contradicting, as false and malicious, a report that they intended to remove from Philadelphia. They declared that they had a higher opinion of the good people of these States than to suppose such a measure requisite, and that they would not leave the city of Philadelphia “ unless the last necessity shall “ direct it.” These Resolutions were transmitted by the President to Washington, with a request that he would publish them to the army in General Orders. Washington, in reply, excused himself from complying with that suggestion. In thus declining it, he showed
* Letter, December 18. 1776.
his usual sagacity and foresight. For, on the very next day after the first Resolutions the Congress underwent a sudden revulsion of opinion, and did not scruple to disperse in all haste, to meet again on the 20th of the same month, not at Philadelphia, but at Baltimore.
Under all these circumstances, Philadelphia would have fallen an easy prey to the British but for the exertions of Washington, who, on crossing the Delaware, took the utmost pains to collect all the boats upon the river, and remove them from the Jersey side. Moreover, it had formed no part of General Howe's expectations (as is plain from his own despatches) to carry the war beyond the Delaware, during this campaign. His recent successes induced him, though slowly, to extend his schemes. But instead of transporting or constructing boats, he resolved to wait until the winter ice should be formed the river; and meanwhile, remaining at New York, he allowed or directed Lord Cornwallis to “stand “ at ease,” dispersing his troops in quarters through the Jerseys. Thus was some respite obtained by the harassed and dispirited remnant of the American army. – Oh for one hour of Clive!
During this much needed interval .of leisure the American General gathered new strength. He was joined by levies from several quarters, by four regiments from the Northern army, and by the Philadelphia town and county Militia, which with great spirit had at once marched to his assistance. He could also for the future rely on the ready co-operation of the separate division, lately under Lee's command, and now under Sullivan's. Nevertheless his prospects, as against the British army's, whenever that should move, were most cheerless and forlorn. To his brother, writing on the 18th of December, he thus describes them :-“My dear Sir;- if every
nerve be not strained to recruit the new army with all possible expedition, I think the game is pretty nearly up. This is owing, in a great measure, to the insidious
arts of the enemy, and disaffection of the Colonies " above mentioned, but principally to the ruinous policy " of short enlistments, and placing too great a dependence
on the Militia, the evil consequences of which were
“ foretold fifteen months ago with a spirit almost "prophetic."
It so chanced, that at this very juncture Washington received a visit in his camp from Benedict Arnold, who, it is said, first suggested to him the idea of attempting to recross the Delaware and surprise some part of the King's troops. * But whoever may have the earliest devised this scheme, the merit of its details and execution belongs entirely to Washington. In front of him, at Trenton and at Bordentown, the barriers of the Jerseys, lay two bodies of Hessians, under Colonel Rahl and Count Donop. Both from their ignorance of the language, and from the hatred that the people bore them, these foreigners were least likely to obtain intelligence of his movements or designs. Moreover, by strange carelessness on the part of the British chiefs, the posts that were on this occasion the most exposed had been left the weakest manned, and undefended by a single entrenchment or redoubt. Under these circumstances Washington fixed on Trenton as the point of his attack. For the time he selected the night of Christmas, trusting that, after all the feasting and carousing of that day, the slumber of the Hessians might be soundest, and their discipline more than ever relaxed. Two days before he wrote to the Adjutant-General imparting his design. But he adds, “For Heaven's sake,
keep this to yourself, as the discovery of it may prove “ fatal to us, our numbers, sorry am I to say, being less " than I had any conception of; but necessity, dire ne
cessity, will, nay, must, justify my attack.” It was, indeed, felt by Washington, that while success might brighten his prospects, no failure could make them darker than they were already.
On Christmas Day, accordingly, the evening had no sooner set in than Washington commenced his embarkation. He took with him 2,400 men, and 20 pieces of artillery, and had expected by four the next morning to reach
* “From private information to Mr. Adolphus (Hist. vol. ii. p. 440.). The same idea appears to have occurred at nearly the same time to several persons. On the 22nd, Reed inquires of Washington ; “ Will it not be possible, my dear General, for your troops to make “ a diversion or something more, at or about Trenton ?”