A Celebration of Women Writers

"Part VI, Chapter 56." by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall (1876-)
From: This country of ours; the story of the United States by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall (1876-) New York, George H. Doran company, 1917.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom


CHAPTER 56
THE DARKEST HOUR–TRENTON AND PRINCETON

IN many places the news of the Declaration of Independence and the news of the victory at Charleston came at the same time, and gave a double cause for rejoicing. It was the last good news which was to come for many a long day. Indeed for months misfortune followed misfortune, until it almost seemed as if the Declaration of Independence had been the rash and useless action some had held it to be.

 

By the end of June General Howe sailed southward from Halifax, and landed on Staten Island southwest of New York, to await the arrival from England of his brother, Admiral Howe. On July 12th, just eight days after the declaration of independence, Admiral Howe arrived with strong reinforcements of ships and men. But before he began to fight he tried to come to terms with the rebel colonies, and for a second time free pardon was offered to all who would submit and own British rule once more. But the Americans were in no mood to submit, and had no wish for "pardon."

Admiral Howe arrives

"No doubt," said one, "we all need pardon from heaven, but the American who needs pardon from his Britannic Majesty is yet to be found."

 

So instead of submitting they made ready to fight. The British also prepared to fight, and the force of the next blow fell upon New York. There were now more than thirty thousand British troops gathered here. It was the largest army which had ever been sent out of England, and King George had never a doubt that this great force, backed by his unconquerable navy, would soon bring the ten or twenty thousand ragged, half starved rebels to their knees.

 

He little knew the men or the man with whom he had to deal. The army was indeed ragged and undisciplined. But as the great Napoleon said later, "In war the man is everything." And Washington was soon to show the world what could be done by brave undisciplined men whose hearts were behind their muskets.

 

As soon as Washington had gained possession of Boston he left an old general with a small force to guard it, and transported the main body of his army to New York, feeling sure that the next attack would be made there.

 

Brooklyn Heights on Long Island commanded New York, very much in the same way as Bunker Hill and Dorchester Heights commanded Boston, and Washington knew he must keep possession of those heights, if New York was not to be given up without a blow being struck. He did not want to give it up without striking a blow, for he feared the effect on the spirits of the country. So he send General Putnam with about eight thousand men to occupy the Heights.

 

In doing this Washington placed his army in a very dangerous position, for the East River was large enough to allow British war ships to sail up it and thus cut his army in two. But he could do nothing else, for if the enemy got possession of the Heights the town was at his mercy.

 

Howe was not slow to see this, and, having carefully and secretly made his plans, he attacked the forces on Brooklyn Heights in the early morning of August 27th in front, and flank, and rear, all at once.

Battle of Brooklyn Heights

One division of the Americans was nearly wiped out, many being killed and the rest being taken prisoner. A little band of Marylanders put up a fine but hopeless fight for nearly four hours, the remnant of them at length taking refuge in the fortifications. To make the defeat a disaster for the colonists Howe had but to storm these fortifications. But he refused to do so. Enough had been done for one day, he said. Bunker Hill had taught the British to beware of storming heights. A siege would be less costly, thought Howe.

 

Within the fortifications the colonists were in a miserable plight. They had little shelter, the rain fell in torrents, and a cold northeast wind chilled them to the bone. They had nothing to eat except dry biscuit and raw pork. They were hungry and weary, wet and cold. Yet one of their miseries was a blessing. For as long as the northeast wind blew Howe could not bring his ships up the East River and cut communications between Long Island and New York. For in those days, it must be remembered, there were no steamers, and sailing vessels had to depend on wind and tide.

 

Washington, however, knew his danger. He knew that he must withdraw from Long Island. So secretly he gave orders that everything which could be found in the shape of a boat was to be brought to Brooklyn Ferry. They were soon gathered, and at eight o'clock in the evening, two days after the battle of Long Island, quickly and quietly the army was ferried across the wide river to the New York side. All night the rowers laboured, but the work was by no means finished when day dawned. The weather, however, still helped the colonists, for a thick fog settled over the river and hid what was going on from the British. Wounded, prisoners, cannon, stores, horses, were all ferried over, and when later in the day the British marched into the deserted camp they found not so much as a crust of bread.

Washington abandons Brooklyn Heights, 29th Aug.;

It was about six in the morning when the last boat put off, and in it was Washington, the last man to leave. For forty hours he had hardly been off his horse, and had never for a minute lain down to rest. He was unwearyingly watchful, and left nothing to chance, and this retreat is looked upon as one of the most masterly in all military history.

 

Having abandoned Brooklyn Washington knew that he could not hope to hold New York against an attack. But for a fortnight neither Admiral nor General Howe made any attack. Instead they talked once more of peace. It almost seemed as if Lord Howe were on the side of the Americans, as indeed he had always said he was, until he was ordered out to fight against them. "He is either a very slow officer, or else he is our very good friend," said one of them.

 

The fortnight which he now wasted gave Washington time to decide what it was best to do, and when at last the British began the attack on New York nearly all the stores and cannon had already been removed to Harlem Heights, about ten miles away at the north of Manhattan Island. All the troops, too, had gone except about four thousand under General Putnam, who stayed to keep order, and look after the removal of the last of the stores. When the attack came these were very nearly caught. For the regiment who ought to have guarded the landing place, and have kept the enemy from advancing until Putnam could retire, ran away as soon as they saw the red coats.

he removes to Harlem

New York attacked

In vain their officers tried to rally them; panic had seized them, and they fled like frightened sheep. In the confusion Washington rode up. He was a man of fiery temper, and now when he saw his men show such a lack of courage in the face of the enemy he lost all control. Dashing his hat upon the ground, and, drawing his sword, he bade them cease their cowardly retreat. But even Washington could not rally the fleeing men. Then his wrath and despair knew no bounds, and spurring his horse, he rode alone towards the enemy. Death, he felt, was better than such shame. But one of his officers, dashing after him, seized his bridle and turned him back to safety.

 

Meanwhile Putnam was making frantic efforts to gather his men and march them off to Harlem Heights. It was a day of violent heat, and as the men struggled on, laden with their baggage, their breath came short, and the perspiration trickled down their faces. Every moment they expected to be attacked in the rear.

 

But the attack did not come. For as Howe and his officers were passing the pleasant country house of Mrs. Robert Murray a servant came out to ask them to lunch. It was a tempting invitation on a hot day,–too tempting to be refused. So a halt was called, and while Howe and his officers enjoyed a pleasant meal, and listened to the talk of a clever, handsome lady, Putnam marched his panting men to safety.

A woman's strategy

Washington was greatly cast down at what he called the "disgraceful and dastardly" conduct of some of his troops that day. He knew that an attack on Harlem Heights must come, and come soon. But what would be the result? Would his men run away, or would they fight? "Experience, to my extreme affliction," he wrote sadly, "has convinced me that this is rather to be wished for than expected. However, I trust there are many who will act like men, and show themselves worthy of the blessings of freedom."

 

Washington had no real cause for fear. Next day the test came, and the Americans wiped out the memory of the day before. In wave after wave the British attacked, but again and again the colonists met them, and at last drove them to their trenches; and there was joy in the patriot camp.

Battle of Harlem Heights

Howe still pursued the war very slowly. After the battle of Harlem Heights he left Washington alone for nearly a month, during which time the colonists fortified their camp strongly. But the commander-in-chief soon became convinced that the place was little better than a trap, in which Howe might surround him, and force him to surrender with all his army. So he retreated northward to White Plains, and the British settled down in New York, which they held till the end of the war.

White Plains, 28th Feb., 1776

And now misfortunes fell thick and fast upon the patriots. They still held Fort Washington on Manhattan Island, and Fort Lee on the opposite side of the Hudson, the garrisons of which were under the command of General Greene. Washington now advised him to abandon the forts, but did not give him absolute orders to do so. It is probable that he would have taken his commander's advice had not Congress interfered and sent orders that Fort Washington was not to be given up, except as a last necessity. Greene, believing that it was possible to hold it, tried to obey Congress. But on the 16th of November, after a fierce fight against tremendous odds, the fort was surrounded, and all the defenders to the number of about three thousand were taken prisoner.

Fort Washington taken

The loss was a bitter blow to Washington, for the men taken prisoners were some of his best soldiers. Four days later Fort Lee was also taken, and although the garrison escaped they left behind them large stores of food, ammunition, baggage of all sorts, as well as cannon, which they could ill spare.

Fort Lee taken

Washington now resolved on a retreat towards Philadelphia, and gloom settled on the ragged little army of patriots. They were weary of retreats and defeats, and felt that their cause was already lost. Winter was fast coming on and many shouldered their arms and marched homeward. And so the once buoyant enthusiastic army melted away to a hungry and dispirited troop of little more than four thousand.

Retreat through New Jersey begins

General Lee had at this time but lately returned from his triumphs in South Carolina, and he was more boastful and arrogant than ever. After Washington he was second in command, but he had no doubt in his own mind that he ought to be first. Now he was not slow to let others know what he thought. And while Washington, noble and upright gentleman as he was, trusted Lee as a friend, and believed in him as a soldier, Lee schemed to supplant him.

 

Washington had left Lee at North Castle with seven thousand men. Now he sent him orders to join him at once, so that if he should have to fight a battle he could have at least some sort of army to fight with. But Lee pretended to misunderstand. He made excuses for delay, he argued, and lied, and stayed where he was. Perhaps he thought that it would be no bad thing if Washington should be defeated and captured. Then he would be commander-in-chief.

 

But it was Lee who was captured, not Washington. He had in a leisurely fashion at last begun to move, and on the march he spent a night at a wayside inn. The British, hearing of his whereabouts, surrounded the inn and took him prisoner. For more than a year he remained in their hands, a very comfortable captive, and his army, under General John Sullivan, marched to join Washington, who was still retreating southward through New Jersey before the overwhelming force of the British.

 

It was weary work retreating. But with masterly generalship, and untiring watchfulness, Washington avoided a battle, and slipped through the toils. As the pursued and pursuers neared Philadelphia something like panic laid hold of the city. All day long the rumble of wagons might be heard carrying women and children to places of safety. Congress was hurriedly removed to Baltimore; but hundreds of men seized their rifles and marched to join the army to fight for their country in its darkest hour.

 

But already the worst was over. Washington's army was now well reinforced. He had the recruits from Philadelphia, he had Lee's army, and he also had two thousand men sent him by Schuyler from the north. So he resolved to make a bold bid for fortune. He resolved to do or die. He gave as the password, "Victory or death," and in the dark of Christmas night, 1776, he and his men crossed the Delaware River above the town of Trenton, where the British lay, together with a large company of the Hessian troops who had been hired to fight the Americans. The river was full of floating ice, which made the crossing dangerous and slow. But through the darkness the men toiled on, fending off the ice blocks as best they could as they steered their boats through the drifting mass. At length, after ten hours' labour, they reached the other side without the loss of one man.

The tide turns

Trenton

It was four o'clock when the troops started off on their seven-mile march to Trenton over the snowy ground, the icy wind driving the sleet and snow in their faces. But by eight o'clock they had reached Trenton. The British were utterly taken by surprise, and almost at once the Hessians surrendered.

 

Having sent his prisoners, to the number of nearly a thousand, to the other side of the river, Washington took possession of the town. But he was not long allowed to remain there. For the British commander, Lord Cornwallis, marched to dislodge him with an army of eight thousand men.

 

Washington let him come, and on the 2nd of January, Cornwallis encamped before Trenton, determined next morning to give battle. He was sure of victory, and in great spirits. "At last we have run down the old fox, and we will bag him in the morning," he said.

 

But Washington was not to be so easily caught. The two armies were so near that the watchfires of the one could be plainly seen by the other. All night the American watchfires blazed, all night men could be heard working at the fortifications. But that was only a blind. In the darkness Washington and his army quietly slipped away to Princeton. There he fell upon the British reinforcements, who were marching to join Cornwallis at Trenton, and put them to flight.

Princeton

When day came Cornwallis was astonished to find the American camp empty. And when he heard the firing in the distance he knew what had happened, and hastily retreated to New York, while Washington drew off his victorious but weary men to Morristown in New Jersey. Here for the next few months they remained, resting after their labours, unmolested by the foe.

 

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Celebration of Women Writers.
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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom