Washington was never supplied with sufficient means, even with the assistance of the French fleets and troops, to strike one blow at the English in New York.
Continuing How the American Revolutionary War Ended,
our selection from War of American Independence by John M. Ludlow published in 1876. The selection is presented in 6 easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in How the American Revolutionary War Ended.
Like politicians, like people. There was no doubt a brilliant display of patriotic ardor at the first flying to arms of the colonists. Lexington and Bunker Hill were actions decidedly creditable to their raw troops. The expedition to Canada, foolhardy though it proved, was pursued up to a certain point with real heroism. But with it the heroic period of the war — individual instances excepted — may be said to have closed. There seems little reason to doubt that the Revolution would never have been commenced if it had been expected to cost so tough a struggle. “A false estimate of the power and perseverance of our enemies,” wrote James Duane to Washington, “was friendly to the present revolution, and inspired that confidence of success in all ranks of people which was necessary to unite them in so arduous a cause.”
As early as November, 1775, Washington wrote, speaking of military arrangements, “Such a dearth of public spirit, and such want of virtue, such stock-jobbing and fertility in all the low arts to obtain advantages of one kind or another, I never saw before, and pray God’s mercy that I may never be witness to again.” Such “a mercenary spirit” pervaded the whole of the troops, that he should not have been “at all surprised at any disaster.”
At the same date, besides desertions of thirty or forty soldiers at a time, he speaks of the practice of plundering as so rife that “no man is secure in his effects, and scarcely in his person.” People “were frightened out of their houses under pretense of those houses being ordered to be burnt, with a view of seizing the goods”; and to conceal the villainy more effectually some houses were actually burnt down. On February 28, 1777, “the scandalous loss, waste, and private appropriation of public arms during the last campaign” had been “beyond all conception.” Officers drew “large sums under pretense of paying their men,” and appropriated them. In one case an officer led his men to robbery, offered resistance to a brigade-major who ordered him to return the goods, and was only with difficulty cashiered.
“Can we carry on the war much longer?” Washington asks in 1778 — after the treaty with France and the appearance of a French fleet off the coast. “Certainly not, unless some measures can be devised and speedily executed to restore the credit of our currency, restrain extortion, and punish forestallers.” A few days later, “To make and extort money in every shape that can be devised, and at the same time to decry its value, seem to have become a mere business and an epidemical disease.” On December 30, 1778, “speculation, peculation, and an insatiable thirst for riches seem to have got the better of every other consideration, and almost of every order of men; party disputes and personal quarrels are the great business of the day; whilst the momentous concerns of an empire, a great and accumulating debt, ruined finances, depreciated money, and want of credit, which in its consequences is the want of everything, are but secondary considerations.”
After a first loan had been obtained from France and spent, a further one was granted in 1782. So utterly unpatriotic and selfish was known to be the temper of the people that the loan had to be kept secret, in order not to diminish such efforts as might be made by the Americans themselves. On July 10th, of that year, with New York and Charlestown still in British hands, Washington writes: “That spirit of freedom which at the commencement of this contest would have gladly sacrificed everything to the attainment of its object, has long since subsided, and every selfish passion has taken its place.” But indeed the mere fact that from the date of the battle of Monmouth (July 28, 1778), Washington was never supplied with sufficient means, even with the assistance of the French fleets and troops, to strike one blow at the English in New York — though these were but sparingly reinforced during the period — shows an absence of public spirit, one might almost say of national shame, scarcely conceivable, and in singular contrast with the terrible earnestness exhibited on both sides some eighty years later in the Secession War.
Why, then, must we ask on the other side, did England fail at last? The English were prone to attribute their ill-success to the incompetency of their generals. Lord North, with his quaint humor, would say, “I do not know whether our generals will frighten the enemy, but I know they frighten me whenever I think of them.” When in 1778, Lord Carlisle came out as commissioner, in a letter speaking of the great scale of all things in America, he says: “We have nothing on a great scale with us but our blunders, our misconduct, our ruin, our losses, our disgraces and misfortunes.” Pitt, in a speech of 1781, aptly described the war as having been, on the part of England, “a series of ineffective victories or severe defeats.” No doubt it is difficult to account for Gage’s early blunders; for Howe’s repeated failure to follow up his own success or profit by his enemy’s weakness; and Cornwallis’ movement, justly censured by Sir Henry Clinton, in transferring the bulk of his army from the far south to Virginia, within marching distance of Washington, opened the way to that crowning disaster at Yorktown, without which it is by no means impossible that Georgia and the Carolinas might have remained British.
But no allowance for bad generalship can account for the failure of the British. Washington and Greene appear to have been the only two American generals of marked ability, though they unquestionably derived great advantage from the talents of their foreign allies, Lafayette, Pulaski, Steuben, Rochambeau — and Washington was more than once out-maneuvered. Gates evidently owed his one signal triumph to enormous superiority of numbers on his own ground, and was as signally defeated, under circumstances infinitely less creditable to him than those of Burgoyne’s surrender. Lee’s vaunted abilities came to nothing.
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