Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 18: Governing Without Teeth: Mutiny; Failures of Supply; a French Force Stalls (January to September 1780) - The Life of George Washington
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CHAPTER 18: Governing Without Teeth: Mutiny; Failures of Supply; a French Force Stalls (January to September 1780) - 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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Governing Without Teeth: Mutiny; Failures of Supply; a French Force Stalls (January to September 1780)
Distress in camp.—Requisitions on the States.—New scheme of finance.—Resolution to make up depreciation of pay.—Mutiny in the line of Connecticut.—General Knyphausen enters Jersey.—Sir Henry Clinton returns to New York.—Skirmish at Springfield.—Bank established at Philadelphia.—Contributions of the ladies.—Arrival of a French armament in Rhode Island.—Changes in the Quarter-Master’s department.—Naval superiority of the British.
1780While disasters thus crowded on each other in the South, the commander-in-chief was surrounded with difficulties which threatened calamities equally distressing. His earnest requisitions for men to supply the places of those whose terms of service had expired, were not complied with; and the soldiers who remained could scarcely be preserved from perishing with cold and hunger, or dispersing and living on plunder.
General Greene and Colonel Wadsworth, who had been placed at the head of the Quarter-Master and Commissary department, possessed distinguished merit. Yet, during the campaign, the rations were frequently reduced; and, on coming into winter quarters, the exhausted magazines furnished neither meat nor flour.
The rapid depreciation of the currency, ascribed truly to the quantity in circulation, induced Congress, among other expedients, to withhold from the public agents the money necessary for public purposes, and thus oblige them to purchase on credit. The difference between the value of money at the time of contract and of payment, being soon perceived, had its influence on contracts; and the failure of the government to provide funds to meet the demands, destroyed the credit of public agents. Towards the close of the year 1779, they found it impracticable to obtain supplies for the subsistence of the army. Early in January, notice was given by the Commissary that it was absolutely impossible longer to supply the army, as he was without money and had totally exhausted his credit.
To relieve the immediate and pressing wants of his soldiers, the commander-in-chief was under the necessity of requiring from each county in Jersey, a supply of provisions proportioned to its resources, to be forwarded to the camp in six days. Though the country had been much exhausted, the supplies required were instantly furnished.
Congress had solemnly resolved to limit the emission of bills on credit of the continent, to two hundred millions of dollars. This emission was completed, and the money expended in November 1779.
The requisitions on the states for money not being fully complied with, it became necessary to devise other means for the prosecution of the war. So early as December 1779, Congress had determined to change the mode of supplying the army from purchases to requisitions of specific articles on the several states. This subject was under deliberation till the 25th of February, when sundry resolutions were passed apportioning on the states their respective quotas. To induce a compliance with these requisitions, a resolution was also passed, declaring “that any state which shall have taken the necessary measures for furnishing its quota, and have given notice thereof to Congress, shall be authorized to prohibit any continental Quarter-Master or Commissary from purchasing within its limits.”
These resolutions received the anxious attention of the commander-in-chief, who communicated to Congress, with sincere regret, the serious defects he perceived in their arrangements.
In addition to the radical objection felt by all men of experience to the abandonment of the national and the adoption of the state system for the conduct of the war, and of that to the obvious inadequacy of all the estimates to the demand, the total omission to provide means for supplying occasional deficiencies from the resources of any particular state, and the principle which enabled any state complying with the requisition to prohibit continental agents from purchasing within its territory, appeared to him to present insurmountable obstacles to the new scheme, which must inevitably produce its failure.
The legislature of New Jersey, in which the largest division of the army was stationed, adopted means for complying with the requisition, and not only passed an act prohibiting the purchase of provisions within its jurisdiction by the continental staff, but refused to authorize its own agents to provide for any emergency however pressing.
These suggestions, however, with others less material, did not change the plan of Congress. A disposition in its members, growing inevitably out of the organization of the government, to yield implicitly to the supposed will of their respective states, had discovered itself at an early period, and had strengthened with time.
Whatever might be the future operation of this system, it was unavoidably suspended. The legislatures of the respective states to whom it was to be submitted, were not, all of them, in session; and were to meet at different times through the ensuing spring. Meanwhile, bills to the amount of £200,000 sterling, payable six months after sight, were drawn on ministers, who were empowered to negotiate loans in Europe.1
Accompanying these requisitions was a new scheme of finance, which was a second essay2 to substitute credit for money.
The several states were required to continue to bring into the continental treasury, monthly, from February to April inclusive, their quotas of fifteen millions of dollars. The bills were to be destroyed, and others, not to exceed one dollar for every twenty paid into the treasury, were to be emitted.
These bills were to be redeemable in six years, and were to bear an interest of five per centum per annum, to be paid at the time of their redemption, in specie, or, at the election of the holder, annually, in bills of exchange drawn by the United States on their commissioner in Europe, at four shillings and six-pence sterling for each dollar.
The operation of this scheme, too, depended on the sanction of the several states, and was necessarily suspended.
The value of the proposed currency would depend, it was believed, on arresting all future emissions of paper by the states, and on inducing them to call in that which was already in circulation. The exertions of Congress to produce these results did not succeed.
The distresses of the army for food soon returned. The supplies of forage, too, had failed, and a great proportion of the horses had perished. The Quartermaster-General, possessing neither funds nor credit to purchase others, was unable to transport provisions from the distant magazines into camp. The commander-in-chief was again reduced to the painful necessity of calling on the patriotism of private citizens, under the penalty of military impressment.3
To the want of food, other distressing privations were added, which increased the irksomeness of the service. From the depreciation of the money, the pay of an officer had become merely nominal, and would no longer supply the smallest of his wants.
Under these complicated embarrassments, it required all that enthusiastic patriotism which originally brought them into the field, and all the influence of the commander-in-chief, whom they almost adored, to retain in the service men who felt themselves neglected, and who believed themselves to be objects of the jealousy of their country, rather than of its gratitude.
Among the privates, causes of disgust grew out of the very composition of the army, which increased the dissatisfaction produced by their multiplied wants.
The first efforts made to enlist troops for the war had, in some degree, succeeded. While these were obliged to continue in service without compensation, the vacant ranks were filled by men who were to serve for a few months, and who received for that short time bounties which appeared to soldiers not well acquainted with the real state of depreciation to be immense. They could not fail to repine4 at engagements which deprived them of advantages they saw in possession of others. Many were induced to contest those engagements, many to desert, and all felt with the more poignant indignation, those distressing failures in the commissary department which so frequently recurred.
To relieve this gloomy state of things by infusing into it a ray of hope for the future, a resolution was passed declaring that Congress would make good the deficiency of their original pay, which had been occasioned by depreciation; and that the money, or other articles heretofore received, should be considered as advanced on account.
This resolution was published in general orders, and had considerable influence, but not sufficient to remove the various causes of dissatisfaction which were continually multiplying.
This long course of suffering had unavoidably produced some relaxation of discipline, and had gradually soured the minds of the soldiers to such a degree that their discontents broke out into mutiny.
On the 25th of May, two regiments belonging to Connecticut, paraded under arms, with a declared resolution to return home, or to obtain subsistence at the point of the bayonet. By great exertions on the part of the officers, aided by the appearance of a neighboring brigade of Pennsylvania, the leaders were secured,5 and the mutineers brought back to their duty.
The discontents of the army, and the complaints excited in the country by frequent requisitions on the people, had induced an opinion in New York that the American soldiers were ready to desert their standards, and the people of New Jersey to change their government. To countenance6 these dispositions, General Knyphausen7 landed in the night of the 6th of June at Elizabethtown Point, at the head of five thousand men, and marched towards Springfield. The militia assembled with alacrity, and aided the small patrolling parties of continental troops in harassing him on his march to the Connecticut Farms, a distance of five or six miles, where a halt was made. In a spirit of revenge, more in the character of Tryon who was with him, than of the general who commanded, this settlement was reduced to ashes.
From the Farms, Knyphausen proceeded to Springfield. The Jersey brigade, and the militia of the adjacent country, showing a determination to defend that place, he halted in its neighborhood, and remained on his ground till night.
General Washington put his army in motion early in the same morning that Knyphausen marched from Elizabethtown Point, and advanced to the Short Hills, in the rear of Springfield, as the British encamped near that place. Dispositions were made for anJune 8 engagement next day; but Knyphausen retired in the night to the place of disembarkment. General Washington continued on the hills near Springfield, too weak to hazard an engagement but on ground chosen by himself. His continental troops did not exceed three thousand men.
June 18While Knyphausen remained at Elizabethtown, Sir Henry Clinton returned from the conquest of South Carolina; and the design of acting offensively in the Jerseys was resumed. To divide the American force, demonstrations were made of an intention to seize West Point. Greene8 was left at Springfield, with two brigades, and the Jersey militia; while General Washington proceeded slowly towards Pompton, watching the movements of his enemy. He had not marched farther than Rockaway, eleven miles beyond Morristown, when the British army advanced towards Springfield in great force. He immediately detached a brigade to hang on their right flank, and returned with the residue of his army five or six miles, in order to be in a situation to support Greene.
Early in the morning of the 23d, the British army moved rapidly in two columns towards Springfield. Every possible exertion to check their march was made by Major Lee and Colonel Dayton, who severally commanded a party detached on each road for the purpose, while General Greene concentrated his little army at Springfield. Scarcely had he made his dispositions when the British front appeared, and a cannonade commenced between their van and the American artillery, which defended a bridge over Rahway, guarded by Colonel Angel with two hundred men. Major Lee, supported by Colonel Ogden, was directed to defend a bridge on the Vauxhall road, along which the right column of the enemy advanced. The residue of the American troops were drawn up on high ground in the rear of the town.
Both bridges were attacked nearly at the same time, and defended with persevering gallantry for about half an hour. When overpowered by numbers, these advanced parties retired in good order, and brought off their wounded. The English then took possession of the town and reduced it to ashes.
The obstinate resistance which had been encountered, the strength of Greene’s position, and the firm countenance maintained by his troops, all contributed to deter Sir Henry Clinton from a farther prosecution of his original plan. He retired that afternoon to Elizabethtown; and in the following night passed over to Staten Island. It is probable that the caution manifested during this expedition is to be ascribed, too, in some degree, to the intelligence that a French fleet and army were daily expected on the coast.
The Marquis de Lafayette had been well received at the court of Versailles, and had employed all his influence in impressing on the cabinet, the importance and policy of granting succours to the United States. Having succeeded in this favorite object, and finding no probability of active employment in Europe, he obtained permission to return to America, and arrived late in April at Boston, whence he proceeded to head quarters, and thence to the seat of government, with the information that his Most Christian Majesty had consented to employ a considerable land and naval armament in the United States for the ensuing campaign. On receiving this intelligence, Congress required the states, from New Hampshire to Virginia inclusive, to pay into the continental treasury within thirty days, ten millions of dollars, part of their quotas which became due on the first of March; and drew specie bills on Messrs. Franklin and Jay to the amount of fifty thousand dollars.
The defects which had been suggested in the requisition system were corrected, and the several state legislatures, from New Hampshire to Virginia inclusive, were requested to invest the executives with powers sufficiently ample to comply with such applications as might be made to them by the committee in camp. Letters equally stimulating were written by that committee, and by the commander-in-chief.
The state legislatures, generally, passed the laws which were required, but the energy displayed in their passage was not maintained in their execution. The Assemblies, following the example of Congress, apportioned on the several counties or towns within the state, the quota to be furnished by each, and these were again subdivided into classes, each of which was to furnish a man by contributions or taxes imposed on itself.
These operations were slow and unproductive.
The merchants, and other citizens of Philadelphia, with a zeal guided by that sound discretion which turns expenditure to the best account, established a bank with a capital of £315,000 in specie, the principal of which was to supply the army with provisions and rum. The members of this bank were to receive no emolument. They required only that Congress should pledge the faith of the Union to reimburse the costs and charges of the transaction, and should aid its execution so far as might be in their power.
The ladies of Philadelphia, too, gave a splendid instance of patriotism by large donations for the immediate relief of the suffering army, and this example was extensively followed. But it is not by the contributions of the generous that a war can or ought to be maintained. The purse of the nation alone can supply the expenditures of a nation. The sufferings of the army continued to be extreme, and attest its patriotism. One heroic effort, however it may dazzle the mind, is an exertion most men are capable of making; but continued patient suffering, and unremitting perseverance in a service promising no personal emolument, and exposing the officer unceasingly, not only to wants of every kind, but to those circumstances of humiliation which seem to degrade him in the eyes of others, demonstrate a fortitude of mind, a strength of virtue, and a firmness of principle, which ought never to be forgotten.
As the several legislative acts for bringing the army into the field, did not pass till June and July, General Washington remained uninformed of the force on which he might rely, and was consequently unable to prepare any certain plan of operations.
This suspense was the more embarrassing, as, in the event of an attempt on New York, it was of the utmost importance that the French fleet should, on its arrival, take possession of the harbor, which was then weakly defended. But this measure, if followed by a failure to furnish the requisite support, would not only be ineffectual, but might sacrifice the fleet itself.
Should the attempt on New York be unadvisable, other objects presented themselves against which the allied arms might be directed with advantage. To avoid the disgrace and danger of attempting what could not be effected, and the reproach as well as injury of neglecting any attainable object, equally required a correct knowledge of the measures which would be taken by the states. The commander-in-chief stated his embarrassments on this interesting subject with great strength to Congress.
The tardy proceedings of the states were not less perplexing to that body than to their General. They had assured the minister of his Most Christian Majesty, in the preceding January, that the United States could rely confidently on bringing into the field for the next campaign, an army of twenty-five thousand men, with such aids of militia as would render it competent to any enterprise against the posts occupied by the British in the United States; and that ample supplies of provisions for the combined armies should be laid up in magazines.
The French Minister addressed Congress on this subject, and Congress renewed their urgent requisitions on the states.
On the 13th of July, while the result of the measures adopted by the several states remained uncertain, the French fleet entered the harbor of Newport, soon after which letters were received from the Count de Rochambeau, and the Chevalier de Ternay, the General and Admiral, transmitting to General Washington an account of their arrival, of their strength, their expectations, and their orders.9
The troops designed to serve in the United States had assembled at Brest; but the transports of that place having been chiefly employed for an armament destined for the West Indies, and the ports from which it was intended to draw others being blockaded, only the first division consisting of five thousand men had sailed; but letters from France contained assurances that the second might soon be expected.
Late as was the arrival of the French troops, they found the Americans unprepared for active operations. Not even at that time were the numbers ascertained which would be furnished by the states. Yet it was necessary to communicate a plan of the campaign to the Count de Rochambeau.
The season was already so far advanced that preparations for the operations contemplated eventually on the arrival of the second division of the French fleet, must be immediately made, or there would not be time to execute the design against New York. Such a state of things so ill comported with the engagements of Congress and the interests of the nation, that, trusting to the measures already taken, General Washington determined to hazard much rather than forego the advantages to be derived from the aids afforded by France.
A decisive naval superiority was, however, considered as the basis of any enterprise to be undertaken by the allied armies. This naval superiority being assumed, the outlines of the plan for an attempt on New York were drawn, and committed to the Marquis de Lafayette, who was authorized to explain the situation of the American army, and the views of the General, to the Count de Rochambeau. It was to be considered as an indispensable preliminary that the fleet and army of France should continue their aid until the enterprise should succeed or be abandoned by mutual consent.
The Chevalier de Ternay did not long maintain his superiority at sea. Three days after he reached Newport, Admiral Graves10 arrived with six ships of the line, and transferred it to the British. The hostile fleet proceeded to Rhode Island and cruised off the harbor.
As the commanders of the allied forces still cherished the hope of acquiring a superiority at sea, the design on New York was only suspended. In this crisis of affairs, a derangement took place in a most important department, which threatened to disconcert the whole plan of operations, though every other circumstance should prove favorable.
The reciprocal disgusts and complaints produced by the immense expenditures of the Quartermaster’s Department, and the inadequacy of the funds with which it was supplied, had determined Congress to make still another radical change in the system. This subject had been taken up early in the winter; but the report of the committee was not made until March, nor finally decided on, until the middle of July.
This interesting subject engaged the anxious attention of the commander-in-chief. While the army lay in winter quarters, the Quartermaster-General, at his request, repaired to Philadelphia, for the purpose of giving Congress all the information that he possessed. His proposition was, to withdraw the direct management of the department from the civil government, and to place it under the control of the person who should be at its head, subject to the direction of the commander-in-chief.
The views of Congress were entirely opposed to this proposition. While the subject was suspended, it was taken up by the committee of co-operation, at head quarters,11 and a system digested12 by the combined talents and experience of Generals Washington, Schuyler, and Greene, which was recommended to the government. To give the more weight to his opinion, General Greene offered to discharge the duties assigned to him, without other extra emolument than his family expenses. This plan was unacceptable to Congress. A system was at length completed by that body, which General Greene believed to be incapable of execution; and, therefore, determined to withdraw from a station in which he despaired of being useful.
Apprehending the worst consequences from his resignation, at so critical a moment, General Washington pressed him to suspend this decisive step, until the effect of an application from himself and from the committee of co-operation should be known. Their representations were of no avail. The resolution to make this bold experiment was unalterable. General Greene’s resignation was received, and Colonel Pickering13 was appointed to succeed him. A more judicious selection could not have been made: but there was a defect of means, for which neither talents nor exertions could compensate.
In the commissary department, the same distress was experienced. General Washington was reduced to the necessity of emptying the magazines at West Point, and of foraging on a people, whose means of subsisting themselves were already nearly exhausted by the armies on both sides. So great were the embarrassments produced by the difficulty of procuring subsistence, that although the second division of the French fleet was daily expected, he found it necessary to countermand the orders under which the militia were marching to camp.
Such was the state of preparation for the campaign, when intelligence was brought, by the Alliance frigate, that the port of Brest was blockaded. In the hope, however, that the combined fleets of France and Spain would be able to raise the blockade, General Washington adhered to his purpose respecting New York. The details of a plan of co-operation continued to be the subject of a correspondence with the Count de Rochambeau and the Chevalier de Ternay; and at length, a personal interview was agreed upon, to take place on the 21st of September, at Hartford, in Connecticut.
In this interview, ulterior eventual measures, as well as a detailed arrangement for acting against New York, were the subjects of consideration. No one of the plans, however, then concocted, was carried into execution. They depended on aSept. 13, 1780 superiority at sea, which was rendered hopeless by the arrival of Admiral Rodney,14 at New York, with eleven ships of the line and four frigates.
[1. ]Benjamin Franklin, American Minister to France; John Jay, American Minister to Spain; and Henry Laurens and John Adams, successive American Ministers to Holland, sought loans from these governments; the Congress was beginning to abandon the paper money it had issued (Continental dollar bills) by admitting that supplies could only be obtained by payment in specie, and the new bills would be backed by these hard-money loans obtained in Europe. The sign £ denotes the British pound; sterling means English coin or money, and is shorthand for pounds sterling.
[2. ]Attempt, endeavor; also, experiment or trial.
[3. ]If sufficient supplies were not provided voluntarily by private citizens, the army would seize (impress) what it needed.
[4. ]To fret, be discontented.
[5. ]Literally, held fast; detained, seized, arrested.
[6. ]Support, patronize, encourage.
[7. ]Baron Wilhelm von Knyphausen (1716–1800), German Lieutenant General, Commander in Chief of Hessian mercenaries in America, 1777 to 1782.
[8. ]Nathanael Greene (1742–86) of Rhode Island, Major General in the Continental army; he reluctantly took the post of Quartermaster General of the Army early in 1778 at Washington’s behest, although he insisted that he still be permitted to take command in the field (as he did at Monmouth, New Jersey, and Newport, Rhode Island, later in 1778).
[9. ]Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau (1725–1807), Lieutenant General (ultimately Marshall) in the French army, Commander of the French expeditionary force of 1780; Charles Louis d’Arsac, Chevalier de Ternay (1722–80), Admiral in the French navy, commander of the French naval force in the 1780 campaign.
[10. ]Thomas Graves (1725?–1802), Admiral in the British navy, second in command of British naval forces in America, under Admiral Arbuthnot.
[11. ]From April 13 to August 11, 1780, Major General Philip J. Schuyler of New York chaired a committee at Washington’s headquarters to assist him in reorganizing the army’s staff departments and to work out a scheme for effective cooperation with the French expeditionary forces.
[12. ]To reduce a subject to a scheme or plan.
[13. ]Timothy Pickering (1745–1829) of Massachusetts, from 1777 Washington’s Adjutant General and member of Congress’s Board of War; Quartermaster General from 1780 to 1785; later U.S. Secretary of War and Secretary of State in Washington’s second administration (continuing in the latter post under Adams), then both U.S. Senator and Representative from Massachusetts.
[14. ]George Brydges Rodney (1719–92), Admiral in the British navy; in 1780 commander of the British fleet in the West Indies.