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Washington and His Comrades: Chapter IV

Across the river at Fort Lee the helpless Washington watched this great disaster. He had need still to look out, for Fort Lee was itself doomed. On the nineteenth Lord Cornwallis with five thousand men crossed the river five miles above Fort Lee. General Greene barely escaped with the two thousand men in the fort, leaving behind one hundred and forty cannon, stores, tools, and even the men’s blankets. On the twentieth the British flag was floating over Fort Lee and Washington’s whole force was in rapid flight across New Jersey, hardly pausing until it had been ferried over the Delaware River into Pennsylvania.

Treachery, now linked to military disaster, made Washington’s position terrible. Charles Lee, Horatio Gates, and Richard Montgomery were three important officers of the regular British army who fought on the American side. Montgomery had been killed at Quebec; the defects of Gates were not yet conspicuous; and Lee was next to Washington the most trusted American general. The names Washington and Lee of the twin forts on opposite sides of the Hudson show how the two generals stood in the public mind. While disaster was overtaking Washington, Lee had seven thousand men at North Castle on the east bank of the Hudson, a few miles above Fort Washington, blocking Howe’s advance farther up the river. On the day after the fall of Fort Washington, Lee received positive orders to cross the Hudson at once. Three days later Fort Lee fell, and Washington repeated the order. Lee did not budge. He was safe where he was and could cross the river and get away into New Jersey when he liked. He seems deliberately to have left Washington to face complete disaster and thus prove his incompetence; then, as the undefeated general, he could take the chief command. There is no evidence that he had intrigued with Howe, but he thought that he could be the peacemaker between Great Britain and America, with untold possibilities of ambition in that role. He wrote of Washington at this time, to his friend Gates, as weak and “most damnably deficient.” Nemesis, however, overtook him. In the end he had to retreat across the Hudson to northern New Jersey. Here many of the people were Tories. Lee fell into a trap, was captured in bed at a tavern by a hard-riding party of British cavalry, and carried off a prisoner, obliged to bestride a horse in night gown and slippers. Not always does fate appear so just in her strokes.

In December, though the position of Washington was very bad, all was not lost. The chief aim of Howe was to secure the line of the Hudson and this he had not achieved. At Stony Point, which lies up the Hudson about fifty miles from New York, the river narrows and passes through what is almost a mountain gorge, easily defended. Here Washington had erected fortifications which made it at least difficult for a British force to pass up the river. Moreover in the highlands of northern New Jersey, with headquarters at Morristown, General Sullivan, recently exchanged, and General Gates now had Lee’s army and also the remnants of the force driven from Canada. But in retreating across New Jersey Washington had been forsaken by thousands of men, beguiled in part by the Tory population, discouraged by defeat, and in many cases with the right to go home, since their term of service had expired. All that remained of Washington’s army after the forces of Sullivan and Gates joined him across the Delaware in Pennsylvania, was about four thousand men.

Howe was determined to have Philadelphia as well as New York and could place some reliance on Tory help in Pennsylvania. He had pursued Washington to the Delaware and would have pushed on across that river had not his alert foe taken care that all the boats should be on the wrong shore. As it was, Howe occupied the left bank of the Delaware with his chief post at Trenton. If he made sure of New Jersey he could go on to Philadelphia when the river was frozen over or indeed when he liked. Even the Congress had fled to Baltimore. There were British successes in other quarters. Early in December Lord Howe took the fleet to Newport. Soon he controlled the whole of Rhode Island and checked the American privateers who had made it their base. The brothers issued proclamations offering protection to all who should within sixty days return to their British allegiance and many people of high standing in New York and New Jersey accepted the offer. Howe wrote home to England the glad news of victory. Philadelphia would probably fall before spring and it looked as if the war was really over.

In this darkest hour Washington struck a blow which changed the whole situation. We associate with him the thought of calm deliberation. Now, however, was he to show his strongest quality as a general to be audacity. At the Battle of the Marne, in 1914, the French General Foch sent the despatch: “My center is giving way; my right is retreating; the situation is excellent: I am attacking.” Washington’s position seemed as nearly hopeless and he, too, had need of some striking action. A campaign marked by his own blundering and by the treachery of a trusted general had ended in seeming ruin. Pennsylvania at his back and New Jersey before him across the Delaware were less than half loyal to the American cause and probably willing to accept peace on almost any terms. Never was a general in a position where greater risks must be taken for salvation. As Washington pondered what was going on among the British across the Delaware, a bold plan outlined itself in his mind. Howe, he knew, had gone to New York to celebrate a triumphant Christmas. His absence from the front was certain to involve slackness. It was Germans who held the line of the Delaware, some thirteen hundred of them under Colonel Rahl at Trenton, two thousand under Von Donop farther down the river at Bordentown; and with Germans perhaps more than any other people Christmas is a season of elaborate festivity. On this their first Christmas away from home many of the Germans would be likely to be off their guard either through homesickness or dissipation. They cared nothing for either side. There had been much plundering in New Jersey and discipline was relaxed.

Howe had been guilty of the folly of making strong the posts farthest from the enemy and weak those nearest to him. He had, indeed, ordered Rahl to throw up redoubts for the defense of Trenton, but this, as Washington well knew, had not been done for Rahl despised his enemy and spoke of the American army as already lost. Washington’s bold plan was to recross the Delaware and attack Trenton. There were to be three crossings. One was to be against Von Donop at Bordentown below Trenton, the second at Trenton itself. These two attacks were designed to prevent aid to Trenton. The third force with which Washington himself went was to cross the river some nine miles above the town.

George Washington
George Washington crossing the Delaware River.

Christmas Day, 1776, was dismally cold. There was a driving storm of sleet and the broad swollen stream of the Delaware, dotted with dark masses of floating ice, offered a chill prospect. To take an army with its guns across that threatening flood was indeed perilous. Gates and other generals declared that the scheme was too difficult to be carried out. Only one of the three forces crossed the river. Washington, with iron will, was not to be turned from his purpose. He had skilled boatmen from New England. The crossing took no less than ten hours and a great part of it was done in wintry darkness. When the army landed on the New Jersey shore it had a march of nine miles in sleet and rain in order to reach Trenton by daybreak. It is said that some of the men marched barefoot leaving tracks of blood in the snow. The arms of some were lost and those of others were wet and useless but Washington told them that they must depend the more on the bayonet. He attacked Trenton in broad daylight. There was a sharp fight. Rahl, the commander, and some seventy men, were killed and a thousand men surrendered.

Even now Washington’s position was dangerous. Von Donop, with two thousand men, lay only a few miles down the river. Had he marched at once on Trenton, as he should have done, the worn out little force of Washington might have met with disaster. What Von Donop did when the alarm reached him was to retreat as fast as he could to Princeton, a dozen miles to the rear towards New York, leaving behind his sick and all his heavy equipment. Meanwhile Washington, knowing his danger, had turned back across the Delaware with a prisoner for every two of his men. When, however, he saw what Von Donop had done he returned on the twenty-ninth to Trenton, sent out scouting parties, and roused the country so that in every bit of forest along the road to Princeton there were men, dead shots, to make difficult a British advance to retake Trenton.

General Charles Cornwallis by John Singleton Copley (wikipedia.org)

The reverse had brought consternation at New York. Lord Cornwallis was about to embark for England, the bearer of news of overwhelming victory. Now, instead, he was sent to drive back Washington. It was no easy task for Cornwallis to reach Trenton, for Washington’s scouting parties and a force of six hundred men under Greene were on the road to harass him. On the evening of the 2d of January, however, he reoccupied Trenton. This time Washington had not recrossed the Delaware but had retreated southward and was now entrenched on the southern bank of the little river Assanpink, which flows into the Delaware. Reinforcements were following Cornwallis. That night he sharply cannonaded Washington’s position and was as sharply answered. He intended to attack in force in the morning. To the skill and resource of Washington he paid the compliment of saying that at last he had run down the “Old Fox.”

Then followed a maneuver which, years after, Cornwallis, a generous foe, told Washington was one of the most surprising and brilliant in the history of war. There was another “old fox” in Europe, Frederick the Great, of Prussia, who knew war if ever man knew it, and he, too, from this movement ranked Washington among the great generals. The maneuver was simple enough. Instead of taking the obvious course of again retreating across the Delaware Washington decided to advance, to get in behind Cornwallis, to try to cut his communications, to threaten the British base of supply and then, if a superior force came up, to retreat into the highlands of New Jersey. There he could keep an unbroken line as far east as the Hudson, menace the British in New Jersey, and probably force them to withdraw to the safety of New York.

George Washington
George Washington at Valley Forge

All through the night of January 2, 1777, Washington’s camp fires burned brightly and the British outposts could hear the sound of voices and of the spade and pickaxe busy in throwing up entrenchments. The fires died down towards morning and the British awoke to find the enemy camp deserted. Washington had carried his whole army by a roundabout route to the Princeton road and now stood between Cornwallis and his base. There was some sharp fighting that day near Princeton. Washington had to defeat and get past the reinforcements coming to Cornwallis. He reached Princeton and then slipped away northward and made his headquarters at Morristown. He had achieved his purpose. The British with Washington entrenched on their flank were not safe in New Jersey. The only thing to do was to withdraw to New York. By his brilliant advance Washington recovered the whole of New Jersey with the exception of some minor positions near the sea. He had changed the face of the war. In London there was momentary rejoicing over Howe’s recent victories, but it was soon followed by distressing news of defeat. Through all the colonies ran inspiring tidings. There had been doubts whether, after all, Washington was the heaven-sent leader. Now both America and Europe learned to recognize his skill. He had won a reputation, though not yet had he saved a cause.

1 Trevelyan, “American Revolution”, Part II, vol. I (New Ed., vol. II), 261.