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George Washington and an army of liberty

To celebrate David Hackett Fischer’s Pritzker Literary Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing, we’ve selected an excerpt from his Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington’s Crossing. Here, as in all of his writing, Fischer brings to life the early days of the American Revolution and the struggle Washington experienced in building a cohesive army with the thoughtful eye for detail and gripping analysis for which he’s known.

It was March 17, 1776, the mud season in New England. A Continental officer of high rank was guiding his horse through the potholed streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Those who knew horses noticed that he rode with the easy grace of a natural rider, and a complete mastery of himself. He sat “quiet,” as an equestrian would say, with his muscular legs extended on long leathers and toes pointed down in the stirrups, in the old-fashioned way. The animal and the man moved so fluently together that one observer was put in mind of a centaur. Another wrote that he was in- comparably “the best horseman of his age, and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback.”

He was a big man, immaculate in dress and of such charismatic presence that he filled the street even when he rode alone. A crowd gathered to watch him go by, as if he were a one-man parade. Children bowed and bobbed to him. Soldiers called him “Your Excellency,” a title rare in America. Gentlemen doffed their hats and spoke his name with deep respect: General Washington.

As he came closer, his features grew more distinct. In 1776, we would not have recognized him from the Stuart painting that we know too well. At the age of forty-two, he looked young, lean, and very fit—more so than we remember him. He had the sunburned, storm-beaten face of a man who lived much of his life in the open. His hair was a light hazel-brown, thinning around the temples. Beneath a high forehead, a broad Roman nose bore a few small scars of smallpox. People remembered his soft blue-gray eyes, set very wide apart and deep in their sockets. The lines around his eyes gave an unexpected hint of laughter. A Cambridge lady remarked on his “appearance of good humor.” A Hessian observed that a “slight smile in his expression when he spoke inspired affection and respect.” Many were impressed by his air of composure and surprised by his modesty.

George Washington by Charles Wilson Peale, 1776. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
George Washington by Charles Wilson Peale, 1776. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

He had been living in Cambridge for eight months and was a familiar sight in the town, but much about him seemed alien to New England. Riding at his side on most occasions in the war was his closest companion, a tall African slave in an exotic turban and long riding coat, also a superb horseman. Often his aides were with him, mostly young officers from southern Maryland and northern Virginia who shared the easy manners and bearing of Chesapeake gentlemen.

It was Sunday afternoon, March 17, 1776, and George Washington had been to church, as was his custom. At his headquarters the countersign was “Saint Patrick” in honor of the day, but nobody was bothering with countersigns, for that morning the shaky discipline of the Revolutionary army had collapsed in scenes of jubilation. American troops had at last succeeded in driving the British army from Boston, after a long siege of eleven months. The turning point had come a few days earlier when the Americans occupied Dorchester Heights overlooking the town. The British garrison organized a desperate assault to drive them away. As both sides braced for a bloody fight, a sudden storm struck Boston with such violence that the attack was called off on account of the weather. The Americans seized the advantage and greatly strengthened their position. On the night of March 16 they moved their heavy guns forward to Nook’s Hill, very close to Boston.

The next morning, March 17, British commanders in Boston awoke to the disagreeable sight of American batteries looming above them and decided that the town was untenable. While Yankee gunners held their fire, the British troops evacuated the town “with the greatest precipitation.” Altogether about nine thousand Regulars boarded transports in the harbor, along with 1,200 women and children of the army, 1,100 heartsick Tories, and thirty captive Whigs. The ships paused for a few anxious days in Nantasket Roads, while Americans worried that it might be a ruse. Then the ships stood out to sea, and the largest British army in America disappeared beyond the horizon.

When the British troops sailed away, many Americans thought that the war was over, and the hero of the hour was General Washington. Honors and congratulations poured in. Harvard College awarded him an honorary degree, “in recognition of his civic and military virtue.” In Dunstable, Massachusetts, the sixth daughter of Captain Bancroft was baptized Martha Dandridge, “the maiden name of his Excellency General Washington’s Lady.” The infant wore a gown of Continental buff and blue, with “a sprig of evergreen on its head, emblematic of his Excellency’s glory and provincial affection.”

As spring approached in 1776, Americans had many things to celebrate. Their Revolution had survived its first year with more success than anyone expected. The fighting had started at Lexington Green in a way that united most Americans in a common cause. Untrained militia, fighting bravely on their own turf, had dealt heavy blows to British Regulars and Loyalists on many American fields: at Concord and Lexington on April 19, 1775, Ticonderoga in May, Bunker Hill in June, Virginia’s Great Bridge in December, and Norfolk in January of 1776. North Carolinians had won another battle at Moore’s Creek Bridge in February, and the new Continental army had gained a major victory at Boston in March. Another stunning success would follow at South Carolina in June, when a British invasion fleet was shattered by a small palmetto fort in Charleston harbor.

In fourteen months of fighting the Americans won many victories and suffered only one major defeat, an epic disaster in Canada. By the spring of 1776, royal officials had been removed from power in every capital, and all but a few remnants of “ministerial troops” had left the thirteen colonies. Every province governed itself under congresses, conventions, committees of safety, and ancient charters. A Continental Congress in Philadelphia had assumed the functions of sovereignty. It recruited armies, issued money, made treaties with the Indians, and controlled the frontiers. European states were secretly supplying the colonies, and American privateers ranged the oceans. Commerce and industry were flourishing, despite a British attempt to shut them down.

In the spring of 1776, the goal of the American Congress was not yet independence but restoration of rights within the empire. They still called themselves the United Colonies and flew the Grand Union Flag, which combined thirteen American stripes with the British Union Jack. Many hoped that Parliament would come to its senses and allow self-government within the empire. More than a few thought that the evacuation of the British army from Boston would end a war that nobody wanted. The members of the Massachusetts General Court were thinking that way on March 28, 1776, when they thanked George Washington for his military services and wished that he might “in retirement, enjoy that Peace and Satisfaction of mind, which always attends the Good and Great.” The implication was that his military work was done.

Tories persisted in every state, but they were not thought to be a serious threat. Americans laughed about a Tory in Kinderhook, New York, who invaded a quilting frolic of young women and “began his aspersions on Congress.” He kept at it until they “stripped him naked to the waist, and instead of tar, covered him with molasses and for feathers took the downy tops of flags, which grow in the meadow and coated him well, and then let him go.” For the young women of Kinderhook, the Revolution itself had become a frolic.

In that happy mood, one might expect George Washington would have shared the general mood. Outwardly he did so, but in private letters his thoughts were deeply troubled. To his brother he confided on March 31, 1776, “No man perhaps since the first Institution of Armys ever commanded one under more difficult Circumstances than I have done. To enumerate the particulars would fill a volume—many of my difficulties and distresses were of so peculiar a cast that in order to conceal them from the enemy, I was obliged to conceal them from my friends, indeed from my own Army.”

Washington understood that every American success deepened the resolve of British leaders to break the colonial rebellion, as they had broken other rebellions in Scotland, Ireland, and England. He was sure that the Regulars would soon return, and he was very clear about their next move. As early as March 13, 1776, four days before the British left Boston, Washington advised Congress that the enemy would strike next at New York and warned that if they succeeded in “making a Lodgement,” it would not be easy to evict them.

The next day, while most of his troops were still engaged around Boston, George Washington began to shift his regiments to Manhattan. He informed Congress that when the last British troops left Boston he would “immediately repair to New York with the remainder of the army.” To save his men the exhaustion of marching on the “mirey roads” of New England, he ordered his staff to plan transport by sea.

The defense of New York was a daunting prospect. Since January, Washington and his officers had discussed the supreme difficulty of protecting an island city against a maritime enemy who commanded the waters around it. They knew the power of the Royal Navy and respected the professional skill of the British army. But Washington was more concerned about his own army than that of the enemy. The problem was not a shortage of men or munitions. Half a million free Americans were of military age. Most were ready to fight for their rights, and many were doing so. The great majority owned their own weapons, and Europeans were happy to supply whatever they lacked.

Washington’s dilemma was mainly about something else. He did not know how he could lead an amateur American army against highly skilled Regular troops. After a year in command, Washington wrote “licentiousness & every kind of disorder triumphantly reign.” The problem was compounded in his mind by the diversity of his army. He wrote, “The little discipline I have been labouring to establish in the army is in a manner done away by having such a mixture of troops.” They came from many parts of America. They joined in the common cause but understood it in very different ways. This great “mixture of troops” who were used to no control presented George Washington with a double dilemma. One part of his problem was about how to lead an army of free men. Another was about how to lead men in the common cause when they thought and acted differently from one another, and from their commander-in-chief.

Featured image: Washington Crossing the Delaware. Emanuel Leutze. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. […] echoing clearly through the crisp, clear winter night. On the river banks, the alarm sounds. The Hessian garrison at Trenton rouses to its posts. Washington’s troops are trapped crossing the […]

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