Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 24: Peace; Pacifying the Army; the Virtuous Moderation to Bid Farewell (December 1781 to December 1783) - The Life of George Washington
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CHAPTER 24: Peace; Pacifying the Army; the “Virtuous Moderation” to Bid Farewell (December 1781 to December 1783) - 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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Peace; Pacifying the Army; the “Virtuous Moderation” to Bid Farewell (December 1781 to December 1783)
Preparations for another campaign.—Proceedings in the Parliament of Great Britain.—Conciliatory conduct of General Carleton.—Transactions in the South.—Negotiations for peace.—Preliminary and eventual articles of peace between the United States and Great Britain.—Discontents of the American army.—Peace.—Mutiny of a part of the Pennsylvania line.—Evacuation of New York.—General Washington resigns his commission and retires to Mount Vernon.
Dec. 1781The splendid success of the allied arms in Virginia, and the great advantages obtained still further south, produced no disposition in General Washington to relax those exertions which might yet be necessary to secure the great object of the contest. He was detained in Philadelphia by the request of Congress, in order to aid the consultations of a committee appointed to report the requisitions to be made on the states for the establishment of the army. The secretaries of war, of finance, and of foreign affairs, also assisted at these deliberations; and the business was concluded with unusual celerity.
As a superiority at sea was indispensable to the success of offensive operations, the commander-in-chief pressed its importance on the minister of France, and commanding officers of the French troops, as well as on the Marquis de Lafayette who was about to return to his native country.
The first intelligence from Europe was not calculated to diminish the anxieties still felt in America by the enlightened friends of the revolution. The Parliament of Great Britain had reassembled in November. The speech from the throne breathed a settled purpose to continue the war; and the addresses of both houses, which were carried by large majorities, echoed the sentiment. The debates indicated a determination to maintain the posts then held in the United States, and to press the war vigorously against France and Spain. This development of the views of administration furnished additional motives to the American government for exerting all the faculties of the nation to expel the British garrisons from those posts; and the efforts of the commander-in-chief to produce those exertions were unremitting, but not successful. The state legislatures declared the inability of their constituents to pay taxes. Instead of filling the continental treasury, some were devising means to draw money from it; and some of those who passed bills imposing heavy taxes, directed that the demands of the state should be first satisfied, and that the residue only should be paid1782 to the continental receiver. At the commencement of the year, not a dollar remained in the treasury; and, although Congress had required the payment of two millions on the first of April, not more than twenty thousand dollars had reached the treasury. In July, when the second quarter annual payment of taxes ought to have been received, the minister of finance was informed by some of his agents that the collection of the revenue had been postponed by some of the states, so that the month of December would arrive before any money could come into their hands.
Fortunately for the United States, the temper of the British nation on the continuance of the war, did not accord with that of its sovereign. It had now become almost universally unpopular. Motions against the measures of administration respecting America were repeated by the opposition; and on every experiment the strength of the minority increased. At length, on the 27th of February, a resolution disapproving the further prosecution of offensive war against America was carried, and an address to the crown in conformity with it, was presented by the whole house. The answer of the King being deemed inexplicit, it was, on the 4th of March, resolved “that the house will consider as enemies to his Majesty and the country, all those who should advise or attempt a further prosecution of offensive war on the continent of North America.”
These votes were soon followed by a change of ministers, and by instructions to the officers commanding the forces in America, which conformed to them.
Early in May, Sir Guy Carleton, who had succeeded Sir Henry Clinton, arrived at New York.1 Having been also appointed, in conjunction with Admiral Digby,2 a commissioner to negotiate a peace, he lost no time in forwarding copies of the votes of the House of Commons, and of a bill founded on them, which had been introduced on the part of administration. But the bill had not yet become a law; nor was any assurance given that the present commissioners were authorized to offer other terms than those which were formerly rejected. General Carleton could not expect that negotiations would open on such a basis.
But the public votes which have been stated, and probably his private instructions, restrained General Carleton from offensive war; and General Washington was too weak to make any attempt on the posts in his possession. The summer of 1782 consequently passed away without furnishing any military operations of moment between the armies under the immediate direction of the respective commanders-in-chief.
Early in August, a letter was received by General Washington from Sir Guy Carleton and Admiral Digby, containing the information that Mr. Grenville3 was at Paris, invested with full powers to treat with all the parties at war; and that his Majesty had commanded his minister to direct Mr. Grenville, that the independence of the thirteen provinces should be proposed by him, in the first instance, instead of being made a condition of a general treaty. This letter was followed by one from Sir Guy Carleton, declaring that he could discern no farther object of contest, and that he disapproved of all further hostilities by sea or land, which could only multiply the miseries of individuals, without a possible advantage to either nation.
These communications appear to have alarmed the jealousy of the minister of France. To quiet his fears, Congress renewed the resolution “to enter into no discussion of any overtures for pacification, but in confidence and in concert with his Most Christian Majesty;” and again recommended to the several states to adopt such measures as would most effectually guard against all intercourse with any subjects of the British crown during the continuance of the war.
The same causes which produced this inactivity in the North, operated to a considerable extent in the South.
When General Wayne entered Georgia, the British troops retired to Savannah, and the Americans advanced to Ebenezer.
Propositions for the suspension of hostilities were made in the Southern department about the time that they were rejected in the North. The same motives continuing to influence Congress, they were rejected in the South also, and the armies still continued to watch each other. While the whole attention of Wayne was directed towards Savannah, an unlooked-for enemy came upon his rear, entered his camp in the night, and had not his army been composed of the best materials, must have dispersed it.
A strong party of Creeks, marching entirely in the night, guided by white men through unfrequented ways, subsisting on meal made of parched corn, reached the neighborhood of the American army undiscovered; and, emerging in the night from a deep swamp which had concealed them, entered the rear of the camp about three in the morning of the 23d of June. The sentinel was killed before he could sound the alarm, and the first notice of danger was given by the fire and yell of the enemy. They rushed into the camp, and, killing the few men they met with, seized the artillery. Fortunately, some time was wasted in attempting to turn the pieces. Captain Parker, with his company, had returned that evening from a fatiguing tour of duty, and they were asleep in the rear, near the artillery, when the Indians entered the camp. Roused by the fire, and perceiving the enemy, he drew off his men in silence, and formed them, with the quarter-guard,4 behind the general’s house. Wayne was instantly on horseback, believing the whole garrison of Savannah to be upon him. Parker was directed to charge immediately with the bayonet, and orders were despatched to Posey to bring up the troops in camp without delay. The orders to Parker were executed so promptly, that Posey could not reach the scene of action in time to join in it. The Indians, unable to resist the bayonet, soon fled; leaving their chief, his white guides, and seventeen of his warriors, dead on the spot. Only twelve prisoners were made. The general’s horse was shot under him, and twelve privates were killed and wounded.
This sharp conflict terminated the war in Georgia. Savannah was evacuated on the 11th of July, and Wayne rejoined General Greene.
While the two armies continued to watch each other in South Carolina, occasional enterprises were undertaken by detachments, in some of which a considerable degree of merit was displayed. In one of them, the corps of Marion, their general being absent in the legislature, was surprised and dispersed by the British Colonel Thompson; and in another, an English guard-galley, mounting twelve guns, and manned with forty-three seamen, was captured by Captain Rudolph of the legion.
From the possession of the lower country, the army had anticipated more regular supplies of food than it had been accustomed to receive. This hope was disappointed by the measures of the government.
The war having been transferred to the South at a time when the depreciation of paper-money had deprived Congress of its only fund, subsistence for the troops could often be obtained only by coercive means. Popular discontent was the necessary consequence of this odious measure, and the feelings of the people were communicated to their representatives. The Assembly of South Carolina, during its session at Jacksonborough, passed a law forbidding impressment, and enacting “that no other persons than those who shall be appointed by the Governor for that purpose, shall be allowed or permitted to procure supplies for the army.”
The effect of this measure was soon felt. Subsistence was not procured; and General Greene, after a long course of suffering, was compelled to relieve his urgent wants by an occasional recurrence to means forbidden by law.
Privations which had been borne without a murmur under the excitement of active military operations, produced great irritation when that excitement had ceased; and the discontents in the Pennsylvania line, composed chiefly of foreigners, were aggravated to such a point as to produce a treasonable intercourse with the enemy, the object of which was to seize General Greene, and deliver him to a detachment of British troops which would march out of Charleston to favor the design. It was discovered when supposed to be on the point of execution, and a serjeant was condemned and executed on the 22d of April. Twelve others deserted that night.
Charleston was held until the 14th of December. The proposal of General Leslie for a cessation of hostilities, and the supply of his troops with fresh provisions, in exchange for articles of the last necessity in the American camp, being rejected, the British general continued to supply his wants by force. This produced several skirmishes, to one of which, importance was given by the death of Lieutenant-Colonel Laurens, whose loss was universally lamented.5
Such were the prospects of peace in 1782, that a reduction of the army was contemplated, by which many of the officers wouldOct. 1782 be discharged. In a confidential letter to the Secretary of War, after expressing his conviction of the alacrity with which they would return to private life, could they be placed in situations as eligible as they had left at entering the service, the General added, “Yet, I cannot help fearing the result of the measure, when I see such a number of men, goaded by a thousand stings of reflection on the past, and of anticipation on the future, about to be turned on the world, soured by penury, and what they call the ingratitude of the public; involved in debt, without one farthing to carry them home, after having spent the flower of their days, and many of them, their patrimonies, in establishing the freedom and independence of their country, and having suffered every thing which human nature is capable of enduring on this side death. But you may rely on it, the patience and long-sufferance of this army are almost exhausted; and there never was so great a spirit of discontent as at this instant.”
To judge rightly of the motives which produced this uneasy temper, it must be recollected, that the resolution of October, 1780, granting half-pay for life to the officers, stood on the mere faith of a government, possessing no funds enabling it to perform its engagements. From requisitions alone, to be made on sovereign states, supplies were to be drawn; and the ill success of these, while the dangers of war were impending, furnished melancholy presages of their unproductiveness in time of peace. Other considerations, of decisive influence, were added to this reflection. The dispositions manifested by Congress itself, were so unfriendly to the half-pay establishment, as to extinguish the hope, that any funds the government might acquire would be applied to that object. Since the passage of the resolution, the articles of confederation, which required the assent of nine states to any act appropriating money, had been adopted; and nine states had never been in favor of the measure.
In October, the French troops marched to Boston, in order to embark for the West Indies; and the Americans retired into winter quarters. General Washington felt the utmost confidence that no military operations would be undertaken during the winter, which would require his presence in camp; but the irritable temper of the army furnished cause for serious apprehension: and he determined to forego every gratification to be derived from a suspension of his toils, in order to watch its discontents.
Eventual and preliminary articles of peace, between the United States and Great Britain, were signed on the 30th of November, 1782; but their effect was suspended until peace should also be concluded between that power and France. This was delayed by the persevering endeavors of Spain to recover Gibraltar. At length, the formidable armament which had invested that fortress was defeated, with immense slaughter; after which, negotiations were commenced in earnest; and preliminary articles for a peace between Great Britain, France, and Spain, were signed on the 20th of January, 1783.
In America, the officers could not look with indifference at the prospect which was opening to them. In December, they presented a petition to Congress, proposing a commutation of the half-pay for a sum in gross, which they flattered themselves would encounter fewer prejudices.
1783In consequence of the divisions in Congress, the question on this petition remained undecided in March, 1783; when intelligence was received of the signature of the preliminary and eventual articles of peace between the United States and Great Britain.
The officers, soured by their past sufferings, their present wants, and their gloomy prospects—exasperated by the neglect they experienced, and the injustice they apprehended, manifested an irritable and uneasy temper, which required only a slight impulse to give it activity. Early in March, a letter was received from a committee, attending on their behalf in Philadelphia, showing that the objects they solicited had not been obtained. On the 10th of that month, an anonymous paper was circulated, requiring a meeting of the general and field-officers at the public building, at eleven in the morning of the succeeding day; and announcing that an officer from each company, and a delegate from the medical staff would attend, “to consider the late letter from their representatives in Philadelphia, and what measures (if any) should be adopted, to obtain that redress of grievances which they seemed to have solicited in vain.”
On the same day, an address to the army was privately circulated, which was admirably well calculated to work on the passions of the moment, and to lead to the most desperate resolutions.
Persuaded, as the officers generally were, of the indisposition of Congress to remunerate their services, this eloquent and impassioned address, dictated by genius and by feeling, found in almost every bosom a kindred, though latent sentiment, prepared to receive its impression.
Fortunately, the commander-in-chief was in camp. His characteristic firmness and decision did not forsake him in this crisis. The occasion required that his measures should be firm, but prudent and conciliatory—evincive of his fixed determination to oppose any rash proceedings, but calculated to assuage the irritation which had been excited, and to restore confidence in government.
Knowing well that it was much easier to avoid intemperate measures, than to correct them, he thought it essential to prevent the immediate meeting of the officers; but, knowing also that a sense of injury, and a fear of injustice, had made a deep impression on them, and that their sensibilities were all alive to the proceedings of Congress on their memorial, he thought it more advisable to guide their deliberations on that interesting subject, than to discountenance them.
With these views, he noticed the anonymous paper in his orders; and expressed his conviction, that their good sense would secure them from paying any “attention to such an irregular invitation”; but his own “duty,” he conceived, “as well as the reputation and true interest of the army, required his disapprobation of such disorderly proceedings.” At the same time, he requested a similarly constituted meeting to convene on the 15th, to hear the report of the committee deputed by the army to Congress. “After mature deliberation, they will devise what further measures ought to be adopted, as most rational, and best calculated to obtain the just and important object in view.” The senior officer present was directed to preside, and to report the result of their deliberations to the commander-in-chief. The interval between his orders and the general meeting, was employed in impressing on those who possessed the largest share of general confidence, a just sense of the true interest of the army; and the whole weight of his influence was exerted to calm the agitations of the moment. It was all required by the occasion.
March 1783On the 15th, the convention of officers assembled, and General Gates took the chair.
The commander-in-chief then addressed them, in terms well calculated to assuage the irritation which had been excited, and to give to their deliberations the direction which he wished. After animadverting with just severity on the irregular and unmilitary mutiny which had been invited, and on the dangerous and criminal anonymous paper which had been circulated through camp, he entered with affectionate warmth on their meritorious services and long sufferings, which had been witnessed with much approbation by himself, and which entitled them to the gratitude of their country, and the admiration of the world. He stated his own earnest endeavors to promote their just claims on the public, and his firm belief that Congress would make every exertion honorably to perform the engagements which had been made, and to pay the debt of gratitude and justice which had been contracted. He exhorted them to avoid the criminal measures which had been suggested; and concluded with saying, “Let me conjure6 you, in the name of our common country, as you value your own honor, as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the military and national character of America, to express your utmost horror and detestation of the man who wishes, under any specious pretences, to overturn the liberties of our country, and who wickedly attempts to open the flood-gates of civil discord, and deluge our rising empire in blood.
“By thus determining, and thus acting, you will pursue the plain and direct road to the attainment of your wishes. You will defeat the insidious designs of our enemies, who are compelled to resort from open force to secret artifice. You will give one more distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism and patient virtue rising superior to the pressure of the most complicated sufferings; and you will, by the dignity of your conduct, afford occasion for posterity to say, when speaking of the glorious example you have exhibited to mankind, had this day been wanting, the world had never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining.”
These sentiments from the man whom the army had been accustomed to love, to revere, and to obey, could not fail to be irresistible. The general impression was apparent. A resolution moved by General Knox, and seconded by Brigadier-General Putnam, “assuring him that the officers reciprocated his affectionate expressions with the greatest sincerity of which the human heart is capable,” was unanimously voted. A committee was then appointed to prepare resolutions on the business before them, and to report in half an hour.
The report embodied the sentiments which had been expressed by the commander-in-chief, mingling the most fervent assurances of their patriotism and devotion to their country, with their hope and expectation that Congress would speedily decide on the subject of their late application to that body.
The storm, which had been raised so suddenly, being thus happily dissipated, the commander-in-chief exerted all his influence in support of the application the officers had made to Congress.
These proceedings produced a concurrence of nine states in favor of the resolution commuting the half-pay into a sum in gross, equal to five years’ full pay; immediately after the passage of which, the fears that the war might continue were dissipated by a letter from the Marquis de Lafayette, announcing a general peace; and orders were immediately issued recalling all armed vessels cruising under the authority of the United States. Early in April, an authenticated copy of the declaration announcing the exchange of ratifications of the preliminary articles between France and Great Britain was received; and, on the 19th of that month, the cessation of hostilities was proclaimed.
The reduction of the army, in the empty state of the treasury, was a critical operation. Large arrears were due to them, the immediate receipt of part of which was required by the most urgent wants; and Congress was unable to advance the pay of a single month. At the close of the year 1782, the expenditures of the Superintendent of the Finances had exceeded his receipts, including foreign loans, four hundred and four thousand seven hundred and thirteen dollars and nine-ninetieths; and the excess continued to increase rapidly.
Congress urged the states to enable him to advance a part of the arrears due to the soldiers; but, as the foreign danger diminished, they became still less attentive to their requisitions; and the financier was under the necessity of making farther anticipations of the revenue. Measures were taken to advance three months’ pay in his notes; but, before they could be prepared, orders were issued for complying with a resolution of Congress, granting unlimited furloughs7 to the non-commissioned officers and privates who were engaged for the war.
The superior officers presented an address to the commander-in-chief, in which the most ardent affection to his person, and confidence in his attachment to the interests of the army, were mingled with expressions of profound duty and respect for the government. But they declared that they had confidently expected that their accounts would be liquidated, and adequate funds for the payment of the balances provided, before they should be dispersed or disbanded.
The general was equally induced by sentiment and by prudence to regard this application. Declaring “that as no man could possibly be better acquainted than himself with the past merits and services of the army, so no one could possibly be more strongly impressed with their present ineligible situation; feel a keener sensibility at their distresses; or more ardently desire to alleviate or remove them.” He added, that although it was not for him, a servant of the public, to dispense with orders; yet, as furloughs are a matter of indulgence, not of compulsion, he would not hesitate, “until the farther pleasure of Congress shall be known, to comply with the wishes of the army, under this reservation only, that officers sufficient to conduct the men who choose to receive furloughs will attend them, either on furlough or on detachment.”8
This answer satisfied the officers; and the arrangements were made without a murmur. In October, a proclamation was issued by Congress, declaring all soldiers who had engaged for the war, to be discharged on the 3d of December.
While these excellent dispositions were manifested by the veterans serving under the eye of their patriot chief, the government was exposed to insult and outrage from the mutinous spirit of a small party of new levies.
About eighty men of this description, belonging to Pennsylvania, who were stationed at Lancaster, marched in a body to Philadelphia, with the avowed purpose of obtaining a redress of their grievances from the executive of the state. After augmenting their numbers by the junction of a few troops stationed in the barracks, they marched with fixed bayonets to the State House; and, after placing sentinels at the doors, sent in a written message, threatening the executive of the state with the vengeance of enraged soldiers if their demands were not gratified in twenty minutes. Although these threats were not directed against Congress, that body was grossly insulted, and its members were blockaded for three hours, after which they separated, to reassemble at Princeton.
On receiving information of this outrage, the commander-in-chief detached fifteen hundred men, under the command of General Howe, to suppress the mutiny. His indignation and his mortification were strongly expressed in his letter to Congress.
Before this detachment could reach Philadelphia, the disturbances were, in a great degree, quieted without bloodshed.
At length the British troops evacuated New York; and, on the 25th of November, a detachment from the American army took possession of that town. General Washington, accompanied by Governor Clinton, and attended by many civil and military officers, and a large number of respectable inhabitants, made his public entry on horseback into the city, where he was received with every mark of attention.
His military course was now on the point of terminating, and he was about to bid adieu to his comrades in arms. This affecting interview took place on the 4th of December. The principal officers assembled at Frances’s tavern at noon; soon after which their beloved commander entered. His emotions were too strong to be concealed. After an affectionate embrace, and a strong manifestation of deep feeling, he left the room, and, passing through a corps of light infantry, walked to White Hall, where a barge waited to convey him to Powles Hook. The whole company followed in mute and solemn procession. Having entered the barge, he turned to the company, and, waving his hand, bid them a silent adieu. They paid him the same affectionate compliment, and returned in the same solemn manner to the place where they had assembled.
On the 19th of December, the General arrived at Annapolis, then the seat of Congress, and the next day informed that body that he attended for the purpose of resigning the commission he had the honor of holding in their service. They determined that his resignation should be received on Tuesday the 23d, at twelve, at a public audience.
When the hour arrived for performing a ceremony which recalled to the memory so many interesting scenes, the gallery was crowded with spectators, and several persons of distinction were admitted on the floor of Congress. The General was introduced by the Secretary, and conducted to a chair. After a short pause, the President informed him that “the United States in Congress assembled were prepared to receive his communications.” The General rose, and, in a short and impressive speech, tendered his commission.9 After retiring to his chair, he received, standing, the flattering answer of Congress, which was delivered by the President.
This interesting scene being closed, the American chief withdrew from the hall of Congress, leaving the silent and admiring spectators deeply impressed with those sentiments which its solemnity and dignity were calculated to inspire.
Divested of his military character, General Washington retired to Mount Vernon; followed by the enthusiastic love, esteem, and admiration of his countrymen. Relieved from the agitations of a doubtful contest, and from the toils of an exalted station, he returned with increased delight to the duties and the enjoyments of a private citizen. He indulged the hope that, in the shade of retirement, under the protection of a free government, and the benignant influence of mild and equal laws, he might taste that felicity which is the reward of a mind at peace with itself, and conscious of its own purity.
Father and President of the New Republic
[1. ]Sir Guy Carleton (1724–1808), Lieutenant General in the British army, formerly Governor of Canada from 1775 to 1778; Commander in Chief of the British army in America from 1782 to 1783; in 1786 named Lord Dorchester, and reappointed Governor of Canada (Quebec).
[2. ]Robert Digby (1732–1814), Rear Admiral in the British navy, successor to Admiral Graves as Commander in Chief of British naval forces in America as of August 1781.
[3. ]Thomas Grenville (1755–1846), English statesman, member of Parliament from 1780, entrusted by the British government in 1782 with arranging the terms of a treaty of peace with the United States.
[4. ]A small guard posted in camp by each battalion or regiment about one hundred yards in front of the unit.
[5. ]John Laurens (c. 1754–82) of South Carolina, from 1779 Lieutenant Colonel in the Continental army, and from 1777 to 1779 Washington’s aide-de-camp, secretary, and French translator; son of Henry Laurens (President of Congress, Ambassador to Holland, peace negotiator with the British).
[6. ]Solemnly enjoin. Washington’s speech to the officers of the army, March 15, 1783, is reprinted in appendix B, below.
[7. ]Leaves of absence granted to enlisted men (non-officers), usually for a stated period.
[8. ]Detached duty—serving on detachment—is performed by officers or enlisted men, singly or as a unit, when separated either from the regular organization to which he (or they, or it) belongs or from the regular duty station.
[9. ]Washington’s address to Congress on resigning his commission, December 23, 1783, is reprinted in appendix B, below.