The American revolution (Part III) Show notes
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The third and final part of the American Revolution series wraps up everything discussed so far. This episode presents information in a way that helps to enlighten anyone with the importance and the lasting impact of the revolution in creating the America we know today.
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In this third episode of the series the action picks up right where part two left off just before the battle of New York was to begin and George Washington would be pulled to the brink of disaster only to find a way to persevere...
The Battle of New York
If the battle of Dorchester Heights was Washington's first display of brilliance as a commander in chief, the Battle of New York and the ensuing winter at Valley Forge certainly would knock his pride down a few pegs. This was the largest battle fought for the duration of the entire war and easily Washington's worst display of strategic leadership while simultaneously shows one of the most miraculous strategic military maneuvers attempted to this day.
After a successful siege against the British in Boston, Washington sent his army to New York City ready to defend the critical port city knowing the British already had an advantage in their Navy occupying the New York harbor and surrounding waters. There were several critical disadvantages that the Continental Army faced in New York that they didn't have to contend with during the Boston campaign.
To begin, there were still citizens in the city, in Boston it was largely empty. Relatively speaking, the city of New York was brimming with people, and those people were largely loyal to the British Crown. Washington had ample intelligence for the Boston campaign; here he was left desperately wanting.
Washington's Historic Crossing of the Delaware River
General Washington had been considering some sort of bold move since arriving in Pennsylvania. With the arrival of Sullivan's and Gates' forces and the influx of militia companies, he felt the time was finally right for some sort of action. He first considered an attack on the southernmost British positions near Mount Holly, where a militia force had gathered. He sent his adjutant, Joseph Reed, to meet with Samuel Griffin, the militia commander. Reed arrived in Mount Holly on December 22, found Griffin to be ill, and his men in relatively poor condition, but willing to make some sort of diversion. (This they did with the Battle of Iron Works Hill the next day, drawing the Hessians at Bordentown far enough south that they would be unable to come to the assistance of the Trenton garrison.) The intelligence gathered by Reed and others led Washington to abandon the idea of attacking at Mount Holly, preferring instead to target the Trenton garrison. He announced this decision to his staff on December 23, saying the attack would take place just before daybreak on December 26.
Washington's final plan was for three crossings, with his troops, the largest contingent, to lead the attack on Trenton. A second column under Lieutenant Colonel John Cadwalader was to cross at Dunk's Ferry, near Bristol, Pennsylvania, and create a diversion to the south. A third column under Brigadier General James Ewing was to cross at Trenton Ferry and hold the bridge across the Assunpink Creek, just south of Trenton, in order to prevent the enemy's escape by that route. Once Trenton was secure, the combined army would move against the British posts in Princeton and New Brunswick. A fourth crossing, by men provided by General Israel Putnam to assist Cadwalader, was dropped after Putnam indicated he did not have enough men fit for the operation.
Preparations for the attack began on December 23. On December 24, the boats used to bring the army across the Delaware from New Jersey were brought down from Malta Island near New Hope. They were hidden behind Taylor Island at McKonkey's Ferry, Washington's planned crossing site; security was tightened at the crossing. A final planning meeting took place that day, with all of the general officers present. General orders were issued by Washington on December 25 outlining plans for the operation.
The morale of the Patriot forces was boosted on December 19 when a new pamphlet titled The American Crisis written by Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense, was published.
These are the times that try men's souls; the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.
Within a day of its publication in Philadelphia, General Washington ordered it to be read to all of his troops. It encouraged the soldiers and improved their tolerance of their difficult conditions.
On the morning of December 25, Washington ordered his army to prepare three days' food, and issued orders that every soldier be outfitted with fresh flints for their muskets. He was also somewhat worried by intelligence reports that the British were planning their own crossing once the Delaware was frozen over. At 4 pm Washington's army turned out for its evening parade, where the troops were issued ammunition, and even the officers and musicians were ordered to carry muskets. They were told that they were departing on a secret mission. Marching eight abreast in close formations, and ordered to be as quiet as possible, they left the camp for McKonkey's Ferry. Washington's plan required the crossing to begin as soon as it was dark enough to conceal their movements on the river, but most of the troops did not reach the crossing point until about 6 pm, about ninety minutes after sunset. The weather got progressively worse, turning from drizzle to rain to sleet and snow. "It blew a hurricane," recalled one soldier.
Washington had given charge of the crossing logistics to his chief of artillery, the portly Henry Knox. In addition to the crossing of large numbers of troops (most of whom could not swim), he had to safely transport horses and eighteen pieces of artillery over the river. Knox wrote that the crossing was accomplished "with almost infinite difficulty", and that its most significant danger was "floating ice in the river". One observer noted that the whole operation might well have failed "but for the stentorian lungs of Colonel Knox". Ice had formed in the river due to the Little Ice Age.
Washington was among the first of the troops to cross, going with Virginia troops led by General Adam Stephen. These troops formed a sentry line around the landing area in New Jersey, with strict instructions that no one was to pass through. The password was "Victory or Death". The rest of the army crossed without significant incident, although a few men, including Delaware's Colonel John Haslet, fell into the water.
The amount of ice on the river prevented the artillery from finishing the crossing until 3 am on December 26. The troops were not ready to march until 4 am. The two other crossings fared less well. The treacherous weather and ice jams on the river stopped General Ewing from even attempting a crossing below Trenton. Colonel Cadwalader crossed a significant portion of his men to New Jersey, but when he found that he could not get his artillery across the river he recalled his men from New Jersey. When he received word about Washington's victory, he crossed his men over again but retreated when he found out that Washington had not stayed in New Jersey.
On the morning of December 26, as soon as the army was ready, Washington ordered it split into two columns, one under the command of himself and General Greene, the second under General Sullivan. The Sullivan column would take River Road from Bear Tavern to Trenton while Washington's column would follow Pennington Road, a parallel route that lay a few miles inland from the river. Only three Americans were killed and six wounded, while 22 Hessians were killed with 98 wounded. The Americans captured 1,000 prisoners and seized muskets, powder, and artillery.
This was the basis for the turn of the entire Revolutionary War and the founding of our country. What follows is a bitter, bitter winter for the American Regular army, they hunker down at Valley Forge where thousands died. But because of the renewed confidence they had in their leader, George Washington, they stayed by his side and shared his vision of the war. They were able to overcome.
A Long, Bitter Winter
Washington and his troops had to retreat away to Valley Forge, the locale for the most horrific winter an army has had to endure in history. The American public and Congress began to criticize Washington for his inability to advance the war effort, because of the terrible conditions of the army during the winter of 1777. The army was undernourished and poorly clothed, living in crowded, damp quarters, and ravaged by sickness and disease. Typhoid, typhus, smallpox, dysentery, and pneumonia were among the numerous diseases that thrived in the camp during that winter. These diseases contributed to the death of 2,500 soldiers by the end of the winter, along with malnutrition and exposure to the freezing temperatures and snow.
Governor Morris of New York later stated that the Continentals were a "skeleton of an army...in a naked, starving condition, out of health, out of spirits."
Soldiers deserted in "astonishing great numbers" as hardships at camp overcame their motivation and dedication to fight. General James Mitchell Varnum warned that the desperate lack of supplies would "force the army to mutiny."
Washington himself was aware of an increasing impatience and criticism of his leadership. A few soldiers wanted to replace him with General Horatio Gates, who had won a decisive victory in the Battles of Saratoga. Some members of the Continental Congress complained that Washington had left the surrounding countryside unprotected by moving into the isolated area of Valley Forge. Washington replied furiously:
I can assure those Gentlemen that it is a much easier and less distressing thing to draw remonstrances in a comfortable room by a good fire side than to occupy a cold bleak hill and sleep under frost and Snow without Clothes or Blankets; however, although they seem to have little feeling for the naked, and distressed Soldier, I feel superabundantly for them, and from my Soul pity those miseries, [which], it is neither in my power to relieve or prevent.
Washington could not have launched any campaigns during the hardship at Valley Forge, yet anti-Washington movements still arose, led by Brigadier General Thomas Conway. These soldiers worked "behind the curtains" to degrade Washington's reputation in hopes that this would enable Horatio Gates to replace him as the commander of the Continental Army. This scheme is known today as the Conway Cabal.
Washington was aware of them, and addressed them by saying:
Whenever the public gets dissatisfied with my service... I shall quit the helm... and retire to a private life.
This silenced his main critics and easily renewed his authority as the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army; his authority was never critically challenged for the rest of the decade.
As far as I'm concerned, this is one of the most incredible things about any American in our country's history. That Washington was able to not only silence his critics, but to put forth the notion that once the general public no longer wants him at the helm he will quit and retire to a private life. If we had more of that attitude in our present political climate this country would be a much, much better place.
Kierner, Cynthia A. Revolutionary America, 1750-1815: sources and interpretation. Upper Saddle River (N.J.): Prentice Hall, 2003.
McCullough, David G. 1776. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2006.
Fischer, David Hackett. Washingtons Crossing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Chernow, Ron. Washington: A life. New York: Penguin Books, 2010.