Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter 7: The Army and Independence Maintained (January to July 1777) - The Life of George Washington
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chapter 7: The Army and Independence Maintained (January to July 1777) - John Marshall, The Life of George Washington 
The Life of George Washington. Special Edition for Schools, ed. Robert Faulkner and Paul Carrese (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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The Army and Independence Maintained (January to July 1777)
American army inoculated.—State of the army.—Destruction of stores at Peekskill.—at Danbury.—Expedition to Sagg Harbor.—Camp formed at Middle Brook.—British move out to Somerset Court-House.—Return to Amboy.—Attempt to cut off the retreat of the American army at Middle Brook.—Lord Cornwallis skirmishes with Lord Sterling.—General Prescot surprised and taken.—The British army embarks.
Jan. 1777The effect of the proclamation published by Lord and General Howe, on taking possession of Jersey, was in a great degree counteracted by the conduct of the invading army. The hope that security was attainable by submission was soon dissipated. The inhabitants were treated rather as conquered rebels than returning friends. Whatever may have been the exertions of the General to restrain his soldiers, they indulged in every species of licentiousness. The loyalists as well as those who had been active in the American cause, were the victims of this indiscriminating spirit of rapine and violence. A sense of personal wrongs produced a temper which national considerations had been too weak to excite; and, when the battles of Trenton and Princeton relieved the people from the fears inspired by the presence of their invaders, the great body of the people flew to arms. Small parties of militia scoured the country, and were collecting in such numbers as to threaten the weaker British posts with the fate which had befallen Trenton and Princeton.
To guard against this spirit, the British General found it expedient to abandon the positions taken for the purpose of recovering the country, and to confine himself to New Brunswick and Amboy.
The militia and volunteers who came in aid of the small remnant of continental troops, enabled General Washington to take different positions near the lines of the enemy, to harass him perpetually, restrain his foraging parties,1 and produce considerable distress in his camp.
In the midst of these operations, he came to the hazardous resolution of freeing himself and his troops from the fear of a calamity which had proved more fatal than the sword of the enemy.
The small-pox had found its way into both the northern and middle army, and had impaired the strength of both to an alarming degree. To avoid the return of this evil, the General determined to inoculate all the soldiers in the American service. This determination was carried into execution, and an army, exempt from the fear of a calamity which had, at all times, endangered the most important operations, was prepared for the next campaign. The example was followed through the country, and this alarming disease ceased to be the terror of America.
As the British army was divided between New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island, General Washington cherished hopes of being enabled to strike a decisive blow against some one of its divisions during the winter. The state sovereignties, which possessed all the real energies of government, were incessantly urged to fill their regiments and to bring their quotas into the field; but the inherent defects of the American system rendered it impracticable to collect a force competent to those vigorous operations which had been anticipated. Some of the State Assemblies did not even complete the appointment of officers till the spring. After these arrangements were made, the difficulty of enlisting men was unexpectedly great. The immense hardships to which the naked soldiers had been exposed; the mortality resulting from those hardships, and probably from an injudicious arrangement of the hospital department which proved to be the tomb of the sick, had excited extensive disgust to the service, and a consequent unwillingness to engage in it. A letter of the 4th of March, addressed to Congress, states that the whole effective force in Jersey fit for duty, was less than three thousand, of whom not quite one thousand were regulars. Still a war of skirmishes was kept up through the winter. The British foraging parties were often attacked to advantage; and these small successes, magnified by the press into victories, served to increase the confidence of the American soldiers in themselves, and to animate the people. Hopes were even entertained that, from the scarcity of forage, neither the British cavalry nor draft horses would be fit for service when the campaign should open.
As the season for active operations approached, fresh difficulties, growing out of the organization of the American system, disclosed themselves. Every state being exposed to invasion, the attention of each was directed to itself. The spirit incident to every league was displayed in repeated attempts to give to the military force such various directions as would leave it unable to effect any great object, or to obstruct any one plan the enemy might form. The patriotism of the day, however, and the unexampled confidence placed in the commander-in-chief, prevented the mischiefs this spirit is well calculated to generate. His representations made their proper impression, and the intention of retaining continental troops for local defence was reluctantly abandoned. The plan of raising additional regular corps, to be exclusively under state authority, was substituted for the yeomanry2 of the country, as a more effectual and convenient mode of protecting the coasts from insult.
During the winter, General Howe kept his troops in their quarters. As the season for active operations approached, his first attention was directed to the destruction of the scanty supplies prepared by the Americans for the ensuing campaign. Peekskill on the Hudson, about fifty miles above New York, was generally the residence of the commander in the Highlands, and was used as a place of deposit for stores to be distributed into the neighboring posts.
Colonel Bird was detached up the river against this place, at the head of five hundred men, under convoy of a frigate and some smaller vessels. After completely destroying the magazines and barracks, he returned to New York.
An expedition was also projected against Danbury, a village on the western frontier of Connecticut, in which military stores to a considerable amount had been deposited. Governor Tryon, Major-General of the provinces in the British service, assisted by Brigadiers Agnew and Sir William Irskine, proceeded on this enterprise at the head of two thousand men.
On the 25th of April, the troops landed between Fairfield and Norwalk, and reached Danbury about two the next day. The village, with the magazines it contained, were consumed by fire, and early in the morning of the succeeding day, Tryon commenced his line of march towards his ships. The militia, however, had been alarmed, and assembled in considerable bodies to obstruct his retreat. General Wooster, who had resigned his commission in the continental army, and been appointed Major-General of the militia,3 fell into his rear with about three hundred men, while Arnold and Sullivan, then casually in Connecticut, gained his front at Ridgefield. Wooster attacked his rear with great gallantry, about eleven in the morning, but his troops were repulsed, and he was himself mortally wounded. Tryon proceeded on his march to Ridgefield, where he found Arnold already entrenched on a strong piece of ground. A warm skirmish ensued which continued nearly an hour, when Arnold was driven from the field. At break of day next morning, after setting fire to Ridgefield, the British resumed their line of march. About eleven in the forenoon they were again met by Arnold whose numbers were increased to a thousand men, among whom were some continental soldiers. A continued skirmishing was kept up till five in the afternoon, when the British formed on a hill near their ships. The Americans attacked with great intrepidity, but were repulsed; and Tryon, availing himself of this respite, re-embarked his troops and returned to New York.
The loss of the British amounted to one hundred and seventy men. That of the Americans was stated at one hundred; but among these was General Wooster, lieutenant-Colonel Gould, and another field-officer, killed; and Colonel Lamb wounded.
This enterprise was not long afterwards successfully retaliated. The British had collected a considerable quantity of provisions and forage at Sagg Harbor, on the eastern end of Long Island. Believing this place to be completely secured by the vessels that were continually traversing the Sound, General Howe had confided its protection to a schooner4 carrying twelve guns, and a company of infantry.
May 1777General Parsons, who commanded a few recruits at New Haven, formed the design of surprising this party, which was entrusted to Lieutenant-Colonel Meigs. He crossed the Sound with one hundred and seventy men under convoy of two armed sloops, and landed near Southhold, whence the boats were conveyed across the land, about fifteen miles, into a bay where the troops re-embarked. Crossing the bay, they landed at two in the morning, four miles from Sagg Harbor, which place was completely surprised, and carried with charged bayonets. At the same time another division of the detachment secured the armed schooner, which, with the stores, were consumed by fire.
The object of his expedition being effected without the loss of a man, Colonel Meigs returned with his prisoners, “having transported his men by land and water ninety miles in twenty-five hours.” Congress directed a sword to be presented to him, and passed a resolution expressing their high sense of his merit.
The exertions made during the winter by the commander-in-chief to raise a powerful army for the ensuing campaign had not been successful; but that steady and persevering courage which had supported himself and the American cause through the gloomy scenes of the preceding year, did not desert him. Supposing that Burgoyne,5 would either attempt to seize Ticonderoga, and join General Howe on the Hudson, or would transport his troops by water to New York, whence the combined army would proceed to Philadelphia, he adopted his arrangements to meet and counteract either plan of operations. With a view to the three great points, Ticonderoga, the Highlands of New York, and Philadelphia, the troops of New England and New York were divided between Ticonderoga and Peekskill, while those from Jersey to North Carolina inclusive, were directed to assemble at a camp to be formed in Jersey. The more southern troops remained in that weak part of the Union.
As the recruits were collected, the camp at Morristown was broken up, and the army assembled, on the 28th of May, at Middlebrook, just behind a connected ridge of commanding heights, north of the road leading to Philadelphia, and about ten miles from Brunswick. These heights afforded a full view of any movements which might be made by the enemy. On the 20th of May, the total of the army in Jersey, excluding cavalry and artillery, amounted to only eight thousand three hundred and seventy-eight men, of whom upwards of two thousand were sick. More than half these were recruits, who had never looked an enemy in the face.
General Washington, anticipating a movement by land towards Philadelphia, had taken the precaution to give orders for assembling an army of militia strengthened by a few continental troops, on the western bank of the Delaware, to be commanded by General Arnold, who was then in Philadelphia employed in the settlement of his accounts.
The first object of the campaign on the part of General Howe, was Philadelphia. He intended to march through Jersey; and to cross the Delaware on a portable bridge constructed in the winter for that purpose. If the Americans could be brought to an action on equal ground, victory was inevitable. Should Washington decline an engagement, and be again pressed over the Delaware, the object would be as certainly obtained. But it would be dangerous to attack him in his lines at Middlebrook; for although his camp might be forced, victory would probably be attended with such loss as to disable the victor from reaping its fruits.
An attempt to cross the Delaware in the face of an army collected on its western bank, while that commanded by General Washington in person remained unbroken on his flank and rear, was an experiment of equal hazard. It comported with the cautious temper of Sir William Howe to devise some other plan to which he might resort, should he be unable to seduce the American General from his advantageous position.
The two great bays of Delaware and Chesapeake suggested the alternative of proceeding by water, should he be unable to manoeuvre General Washington out of his present encampment.
On the 12th of June, General Howe assembled the main body of his army at Brunswick, and gave strong indications of an intention to reach Philadelphia by land.
General Washington, believing this to be his design, posted a select corps of riflemen under Colonel Morgan, a partisan6 of distinguished merit, at Vanvichton’s bridge on the Raritan, to watch the left flank of the British army, and seize every occasion to harass it.
June 1777Early in the morning of the 14th, Sir William Howe, leaving two thousand men in Brunswick, advanced in two columns towards the Delaware, which reached Somerset Court-House and Middlebrook about the same time.
On receiving intelligence that his enemy was in motion, General Washington formed his army to great advantage on the heights in front of his camp. The troops remained in order of battle during the day; and, in the night, slept on the ground to be defended. The Jersey militia took the field in great numbers, and joined General Sullivan, who had retired from Princeton behind the Lowland hills towards Flemingtown, where an army of some respectability was forming, which could co-operate with that under the immediate inspection of the commander-in-chief.
The settled purpose of General Washington was to defend his camp, but not to hazard an action on other ground. That of General Howe seems to have been, by acting on his anxiety for Philadelphia, to seduce him from his strong ground, and tempt him to approach the Delaware in the hope of defending its passage. The motives which restrained Howe from marching through Jersey, leaving the American army in full force in his rear, determined Washington to allow him to proceed to the Delaware should such be his intention. In that event, he purposed to maintain the high strong grounds north of the road to be taken by his enemy, and to watch for any opportunity which might be used to advantage.
Finding the American army could not be drawn from its strong position, General Howe determined to withdraw from Jersey, and to embark his army for the Chesapeake or the Delaware. On the night of the 19th, he returned to Brunswick, and on the 22d to Amboy, from which place, the heavy baggage and a few troops passed into Staten Island on the bridge which had been designed for the Delaware.
On the march to Amboy, some sharp skirmishing took place with Morgan’s corps; but the retreat was conducted with such circumspection, that no important advantage could be gained.
In order to cover and co-operate with his light parties, General Washington advanced six or seven miles to Quibbletown, on the road to Amboy; and Lord Sterling’s division was pushed still further to Metucking meeting-house.
In the hope of bringing on an engagement, General Howe, on the night of the 26th, recalled his troops from Staten Island, and, early the next morning, made a rapid movement in two columns: the right, commanded by Lord Cornwallis, took the route by Woodbridge to the Scotch plains; and the left, led by Sir William Howe in person, marched by Metucking meeting-house. The left was to attack the left flank of the Americans at Quibbletown, while Lord Cornwallis should gain the heights on the left of the camp at Middlebrook.
At Woodbridge, the right column fell in with an American party of observation, which gave notice of this movement. General Washington, comprehending his danger, put the army in motion, and regained the camp at Middlebrook. Lord Cornwallis fell in with Lord Sterling, and a sharp skirmish ensued, in which the Americans lost three field-pieces and a few men; after which they retreated to the hills about the Scotch plains. Perceiving the passes in the mountains to be guarded, and the object of this skilful manoeuvre to be unattainable, the British general returned to Amboy, and crossed over to Staten Island.
General Washington was again left to conjecture the plan of the campaign. Intelligence had been received of the appearance of Burgoyne on Lake Champlain, and that Ticonderoga was threatened. This strengthened the opinion, that the design of Howe must be to seize the passes in the mountains on the Hudson, secure the command of that river, and effect a junction between the two armies. Without abandoning his camp at Middlebrook, he made dispositions to repel any sudden attack on the posts in the Highlands.
While the General anxiously watched the motions of his adversary, an agreeable piece of intelligence was received from New England. The command of the British troops in Rhode Island had devolved on General Prescot. Thinking himself perfectly secure, he indulged himself in convenient quarters, rather distant from camp, and was remiss with respect to guards. Information of this negligence was communicated, and a plan was formed to surprise him. This spirited enterprize was executed with courage and address7 by Colonel Barton, of the Rhode Island militia.
On the night of the 10th of July, he embarked on board four whale-boats, at Warwick neck, with a party of about forty men, including Captains Adams and Philips. After proceeding about ten miles by water unobserved, he landed about midway between Newport and Bristol ferry, and, marching a mile to the quarters of Prescot, seized the sentinel at the door, and one of his aids. The General himself was taken out of bed, and conveyed to a place of safety.
The success of this intrepid enterprize diffused the more joy, because it was supposed to secure the liberation of General Lee.
Congress expressed a high sense of this gallant action, and presented Colonel Barton with a sword.
At last, the embarkation of the British army was completed; and the fleet put to sea.
[1. ]Troops seeking supplies, specifically food for horses and cattle, but also provisions generally.
[2. ]Men who own and work small farms, the mainstay of state militias, in contrast to regular, continental—professional—soldiers.
[3. ]David Wooster (1711–77) of Connecticut, Colonel of a Connecticut Provincial regiment in the French and Indian War, in 1775 Major General in the Connecticut militia, then Brigadier General in the Continental army; in 1776 recalled by Congress from Canada, then reappointed by Connecticut to his militia rank.
[4. ]A large sailing ship of two or more masts; in particular, an American vessel with fore and aft sails (rigged without wooden spars).
[5. ]John Burgoyne (1722–92), British Major General; he later presided over the surrender of his army after the battles at Saratoga, New York, in 1777, a turning point in the war (see chapter 10).
[6. ]One of (or the commander of) a small band of independent fighters engaged in harassing the enemy.
[7. ]Skill, dexterity.