1902 Encyclopedia > United States > The Struggle for Independence: 1775-83

United States
(Part 4)




SECTION I: HISTORY AND CONSTITUTION (cont.)

Part 4. The Struggle for Independence: 1775-83


67. The Second Congress adopted the "army" around Boston as "the American continental army"; rules and articles of war were formulated for it; and Ward, Charles Lee (a British soldier of fortune), Schuyler (p. 790), and Putnam were named as major-generals, with eight brigadiers, and Gates as adjutant-general. Union, though accomplished, was still weak. Sectional interests, feelings, and prejudices were strong; and the efforts of the delegates to accommodate them had, as one result, the appearance of Washington on the historical stage which he was to fill so completely. He had been of special service on the military committee of Congress; and the Massachusetts members –the Adamses and others – saw in him the man whose appointment as commander-in-chief would be most acceptable to all the sections, and would "cement and secure the union of these colonies," as John Adams wrote in a private letter. He was chosen unanimously and commissioned, and set out for Boston. But another collision, the battle of Bunker Hill, had taken place on the date of his commission (June 17).

68. In one of the irregular surgings of the colonial force around Boston, it took possession of Breed’s (now known as Bunker) Hill, some 75 feet high, commanding Boston, and separated from it by a sheet of water. the British officers might have landed men so as to take the line of entrenchments in the rear, or might have raked it from end to end from the water. They chose to send 2500 men over in boats, and charge straight up the hill. The all-important question was whether the "embattled farmers" within the works would stand fire. Not a shot from the line of entrenchments returned the scattering fire of the advancing column until the latter was within a hundred feet; then a sheet of flame ran along the line, and, when the smoke cleared away, the charging troops were retreating down the hill. The officers moved the men again to the assault, with exactly the same result. At the third assault the ammunition of the farmers was exhausted; but they retreated fighting stubbornly with gun-stocks, and even with stones. "The success," wrote Gage to the ministry, "has cost us dear; the trials we have had show the rebels are not the despicable rabble too many have supposed them to be." He had lost 1100 out of 2500 men. A serious American loss was that of Warren, a Boston leader of high promise.

69. While Washington was endeavoring to form an army out of the heterogeneous material around Boston, another American force was attempting to drive British out of Canada. On the last day of the year 1775, in an assault on Quebec, one of the leaders, Montgomery (p. 790), was killed, and another, Benedict Arnold, was wounded. Shortly afterwards the American force was driven back into the northern part of the New York, near the Canada line, where it held its ground. Congress began in June the issue of bills of credit, or "continental currency," as a substitute for taxation- a most unhappy step. The bills soon began to depreciate. Congress insisted on holding them to be legal tender; but it had no seized, as it might have done, the power of taxation, in order to provide for the redemption of the bills; and its recommendation to committees of safety to treat as enemies of their country those who should refuse to receive the bills at their face value never accomplished its object. Successive emissions of paper enabled Congress to support the army for a few years, and even to begin the organization of a navy. Privateers and public armed vessels had been sent out by the several colonies; the first American fleet, of eight vessels, sailed in February 1776, but its cruise accomplished little.

70. All this time Congress had been protesting its horror of the idea of independence; and the colonial congresses had instructed their delegates not to countenance any such project. The last petition to the king was adopted by Congress in July 1775, and sent to London by the hands of Richard Penn. It besought the king to consider the complaints of the colonists, and to obtain the repeal of the Acts which they had found intolerable. The news of the battle of Bunker Hill had preceded Penn; the king refused to answer the petition; but by a proclamation (August 23, 1775) he announced the existence of open rebellion in the colonies, and called on all good subjects to give any information of those persons in Great Britain who were aiding and abetting the rebellion. This was but the first of a series of attacks on that strong sentiment in Great Britain which felt the cause of the colonies to be the old cause of English liberty. At the opening of the struggle this sentiment was intense: officers resigned their commissions rather than serve in America; the great cities took open ground in favor of the colonies; and some of the English middle classes wore mourning for the dead at Lexington. As the war increased in its intensity this sentiment necessarily decreased; but, even while parliament was supporting the war by votes of more than two to one, the ministry was constantly hampered by the notorious consciousness that the real heart of England was not in it. Even when 25,000 men were voted at the king’s wish, provision had to be made to obtain them from Germany. Privilege and officialism were against the colonies; the popular heart and conscience were either ignorant or in favor of them.

71. But in America everything spoke of war. Howe, who had succeeded Gage, passed a very bad winter. His men were often short of supplies; their quarters were uncomfortable; and their efforts to better their position were a severe infliction upon the inhabitants. Along the coast the commanders of British ships acted everywhere as if on the borders of an enemy’s country; Gloucester, Bristol, Falmouth, and other defenceless town were cannonaded; and the flag of the king tended more and more to appear that of an enemy. On the first day of the new year the distinctive standard of the thirteen united colonies was raised at Washington’s headquarters. It introduced the stripes of the present flag, but retained the crosses of St George and St Andrew on a blue ground in the corner, the whole implying the surviving acknowledgment of the royal power, with the appearance of a new nation. When independence had eliminated the royal element, the crosses were replaced (1777) by stars, as at a present. Congress had been compelled to go so far in national action as to threaten reprisals for the threats of special punishment by the ministry. The first step towards the ultimate application for admission to the family of nations was really taken in November 1775, when Franklin jay, and three other delegates were appointed a committee to maintain intercourse with friends of the colonies "in Great Britain, Ireland, and elsewhere"; the main importance of the appointment was in the last two words. The end of the year left independence in the air, though hardly spoken of.

72. Thomas Paine turned the scale (Janaury 9, 1776) by the publication of his pamphlet Common Sense. His argument was that independence was the only consistent line to pursue; that "it must come to that some time or other"; that it would only be more difficult the more it was delayed; and that independence was the surest road to union. Written in simple language, it was read everywhere; and the open movement to independence dates from its publication. In the meantime events were urging Congress on. Washington in March seized and fortified Dorchester Heights, to the south of Boston and commanding it. Before the British could move upon the works, they had been made so strong that the garrison evacuated the place (March 17, 1776), sailing away to Halifax on the fleet. For the moment the British had hardly an organized force within the thirteen colonies; Charles Lee had just seized New York city and harbor; and ministry seemed not only hostile, but impotent. The spirit of Congress rose with success. It had already ordered (November 25, 1775), on receipt of news of instructions to British war-vessels to attack American seaport towns "as in the case of actual rebellion," that British war-vessels or transports should be open to capture; now (March 23, 1776) it declared all British vessels lawful prize. It then went on (April 6) to open all American ports to the vessels of all other nations than Great Britain, still forbidding the slave trade. It had even opened communication with the French court, which, using the name of a fictitious firm in Paris, was shipping money, arms, and supplies to the colonies. All these were acts of an independent power; and colony after colony, changing the colonial into State forms of government, was instructing its delegates to vote for independence. In May some of the colonies had become too impatient to wait longer, for it was evident that the king had finally ranged himself against the new American nation. Virginia spoke in most emphatic tones; and one of her delegates, Richard Henry Lee, moved a resolution in Congress for independence, seconded by John Adams (June 7, 1776). A committee to draw up a declaration in conformity with the resolution was chosen, consisting of Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, John Adams, Franklin, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and Robet R. Livingston of New York; but the resolution was not adopted until July 2, as follows: - "Resolved that these untied colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent States; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown; and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is and ought to be totally dissolved."

73. Jeffeson had come from Virginia with the reputation of a very ready and able writer; and the committee. By common consent, left the preparation of the first draft of the Declaration of Independence to him. He wrote it almost at one heat; and, though parts of it were rejected or modified by Congress, the whole instrument, as it was adopted by that body (July 4, 1776), must stand as Jefferson’s own work. John Adams was its champion on the floor of Congress, for Jefferson was not a public speaker,- and the coincidence of the deaths of these two men, just fifty years afterwards (July 4, 1826), was a remarkable one. The language of the Declaration, like that of all the American state-papers of the time, was strong and direct. Ignoring parliament, it took every act of oppression which had been aimed at the colonies as the act and deed of the king; it concluded that "a prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant is unfit to be the ruler of a free people"; and it announced the independence of the United States in the terms of the resolution already stated. The date of its adoptions, is, by the decision of the Supreme Court, the date of the legal existence of the United States in matters of municipal law.

74. Meanwhile clouds were gathering about the young republic. A British expedition was beaten off from Charleston (June 28); but two days afterwards a stronger force, under Howe, landed on Staten Island, just below New York city. The ministry, abandoning New England, had decided to transfer the war to middle colonies. Here was the originally alien element among the colonies (§ 7), though the ministry was disappointed in it; here was the commercial element, which had sometimes been willing to prefer profit to patriotism; above all, the Hudson gave a safe path for British frigates, so that the British forces might control at the same time the road into Canada and the moat which should cut off New England from the other colonies. Most of the reasons which made the opening of the Mississippi a severe blow to the Confederacy in 1863 applied to the capture of New York city and the operations in the Hudson river in 1776.

75. Washington had hurried to New York city as soon as Boston had surrendered, but his preparations were not far advanced when Howe appeared (June 30). He and his brother Admiral Lord Howe, the commander of the fleet, had high hopes of receiving the confidence of both parties to the struggle, by reason of their hereditary connection with the crown and the liking of the colonies for their elder brother, killed at Ticonderoga; and they brought conciliatory proposals and the consent of the ministry to an unofficial exchange of prisoners. The country was now committed to independence, and in August Howe began offensive operations. Washington’s force numbered 27,000 about four-fifths of them having never seen action; and about one-third of his army had been placed on Long Island. Howe had 31,000 trained soldiers, largely Hessians; and he debarked 20,000 of them on Long Island, beating Putnam (p. 790), the American commander there, and driving him into Brooklyn (August 27). The British hesitated to attack the American works thee, so that Washington was able to draw off the defeated force, and the British followed slowly to the New York side of the river. Through September and October Washington retreated northwards, fighting stubbornly, until he reached the strong defensive positions where the mountains begin to make a figure in the landscape north of New York city. Here he faced about, and prepared to give battle from behind fortifications. Again Howe hesitated, and then turned back to occupy New York.





76. Howe was cut off from the water-way to Canada by Washington’s fortification of the highlands, but his lieutenant, Cormwallis, secured a lodgment by surprise on the other side of the Hudson, and thus drew Washington across the river to oppose him. Forced to retreat through New jersey, pursued by the British, Washington at least used up the month of December in the retreat. But affairs were in a desperate plight. His army had been driven across the Delaware; the British held all New Jersey, and were only waiting for the river to freeze over to "catch Washington and end the war"; Philadelphia was in a panic, and Congress had taken refuge in Baltimore, leaving Washington with almost dictatorial powers; hosts of half-hearted people were taking British protections and returning to their allegiance; and the time was one which "tried men’s souls." Washington’s soul was proof against all tests; and in the midst of his discouragements he had already planned that which was to be the turning-point of the war. The advanced post of the British was one of Hessians, under Rahl, at Trenton, on the Delaware. Seizing all the boats on the river, and choosing the night of Christmas, on the probability that the Hessians would be drunk, he crossed the river, assaulted the town with the bayonet, and captured the garrison. Taking his prisoners to Philadelphia, he recrossed the river on the last day of the year, and reoccupied Trenton. Cornwallis brought almost all his available forces towards that place; and Washington’s diminishing army was in greater danger than before. Leaving his camp-fires burning, he abandoned his position by night, swept around the sleeping British forces, met, fought, and captured at Princeton, (January 3, 1777) a detachment on its march to Trenton, and threatened the British base of supplies at New Brunswick. It was only a threat; but it served its purpose of drawing Cornwallis off from Philadelphia.

77. New Jersey is crossed from south-west to northeast by a spur of the Alleghanies. Thus far operations had been confined to the flat country to the south; Washington now swept on to the northern or mountainous part, and the ay after Princetone fixed his headquarters at Morristown, where they really remained almost all through the rest of the war. He was aided by the unwillingness of the British to attack entrenchments. His long line across New Jersey was everywhere strong; the British could now reach Philadelphia only by passing in front of his line and risking a flank attack; and they at once drew in their outposts to New Brunswick. With the exception of the occupation of Newport by the British, and attacks on minor outlying places, as Danbury, there was a short breathing space.

78. Kalb, Kosciusko, Conway, and other foreign offices were already serving in the American army; Pulaski (p. 790), Steuben (p. 790), and others were soon to come. Some of the minor foreign acquisitions of this sort were selfish, conceited, and troublesome; the most unselfish and devoted was the young Marquis de la Fayette, who came this year with a shipload of supplies as his gift to the republiuc. Franklin made his appearance at the French court (December 7, 1776) as one of the American envoys, and soon took the lead in negotiations. Shrewd, sensible, farsighted, and prompt, never missing or misusing an opportunity, he soon succeeded in committing the French Government, in all but the name, as an ally of the United States; and though his success with other European courts was small, he opened the way for the general commercial treaties which followed the war. His unofficial influence was a more important factor in his work. Carefully maintaining the character of a plain American burgher, he seemed to the French the veritable man of nature for whom they had been longing. The pithy sense and homely with which had given force to his Poor Richard’s Almanac had impressed even his unemotional countrymen strongly; his new audience took them as almost inspired. He, and his country with him, became the fashion; and it became easier for the Government to cover its own supplies to the insurgents by an appearance of embarrassments in dealing with the enthusiasm of its subjects. The foreign aid, however, did the Americans a real harm. Congress, relying upon it, grew more and more into the character of a mere agent of the States for issuing paper and borrowing money; and the taxing function, which should have been forced upon it from the beginning, fell more positively into the hands of the States. As the national character of Congress dwindled, the State jealousies and ambitions of its delegates increased; little cliques had their favorite offices, - gates Charles Lee, Conway, or some other soldier of fortune; and Washington, neglected and harassed by turns, must have found it difficult to face Howe with half his number of men, foil the various competitors for his own position, and maintain his invariably respectful tone towards Congress.

79. In July 1777 Burgoyne, with an army of British, Germans and Indians, attempted the Hudson river route from the north, and forced his way nearly to Albany. The utter defeat of a detachment at Bennington (August 16) by the farmers of Vermont and New Hampshire under Stark, the atrocities of the Indians before they deserted Burgoyne’s standard, and the end of the harvest brought abundant reinforcements to Gates, whom Congress had put in command. He gained the battle of Bemis Heights (Oct. 7), and ten days afterwards forced Burgoyne to surrender near Saratoga. The news of this success brought to Franklin (Feb. 6, 1778) the desire of his heart in a treaty of alliance, offensive and defensive, between the United States and France, and this was followed in the next month by war between Great Britain and France and an ineffectual proposal for reconciliation from Great Britain to the United States, covering colonial representation in parliament and everything short of independence.

80. Meantime Howe had taken the water-route to Philadelphia, by way of the ocean and Chesapeake Bay, and had captured the city (September 25, 1777); but Washington had at least made his army capable of fighting two battles, those of Chad’s Ford on the Brandywine (September 11) and Germantwon in the outskirts of Philadelphia (October 4), both stubbornly contested. Taking up winter-quarters at Valley Forge, about 20 miles from Philadelphia, he watched Howe vigilantly, and struggled manfully with the responsibilities of supreme command, which the fugitive Congress has again left to him, with the misery and almost despair of his own men, and with the final intrigues of those who now wished to supersede him by the appointment of Gates. In June 1778 the news of the treaty with France, and of the departure of a French fleet and army for America, compelled Clinton, who battles, those of Chad’s Ford on the Brandywine (September 11) and Germantown in the outskirts of Philadelphia (October 4), both stubbornly contested. Taking up winter-quarters at Valley Forge, about 20 miles from Philadelphia, he watched Howe vigilantly, and struggled manfully with the responsibilities of supreme command, which the fugitive Congress had against left to him, with the misery and almost despair of his own men, and with the final intrigues of those who now wished to supersede him by the appointment of Gates. In June 1778 the news of the treaty with France, and of the departure of a French fleet and army for America, compelled Clinton, who had succeeded Howe to set out for New York, in order to reunite his two main armies. Washington broke camp at once, followed him across New Jersey, and overtook the rear at Monmouth, or Freehold (June 29). An indecisive battle enabled the British to gain New York city; Washington formed his line from Morristown around the north of the city, so as to be able to interpose between Clinton and Philadelphia or New England; and these positions were maintained until the Yorktown campaign began in 1781. Beyond skirmishes, there were no more important events in the North, except some unsuccessful attempts to recover Newport with French assistance, the capture of Stony Point by Wayne (July 15, 1779), and the treason of the American commander of West Point, Benedict Arnold (p. 787), with the execution of the British adjutant-general, Major John Andre, whom the Americans had captured within their lines while he was carrying on the negotiations (September 1780).

81. Midsummer 1778 marks the beginning of the end. 33,000 men, the high-water mark of the British army in the United States, had maintained a footing at but two places, New York city and Newport; the ministry, in a war which had no real popular momentum, found German mercenaries an expensive resource; and the Germans were very apt to desert in America. An extraordinary number of leading men in England, while they would not hamper the nation in its struggle, made no scruple of expressing their practical neutrality or their high regard for various American leaders. France was now in the war, and Spain and Holland were soon to be the allies of France. The difficulties of supplying the British army were now aggravated by the presence of French fleets in American waters. English commerce had been decimated by American privateers; and Franklin was gathering vessels in France, in one of which (the "Richard") Paul Jones was to fight with the "Serapis" one of the most desperate naval battles on record (September 23, 1779). Perhaps hopeless of success in the northern and middle States, the ministry decided to begin operations in the south, where it was believed that the slave population would be a fatal source of weakness to the Americans.

82. Late in 1778 a British expedition from New York captured Savannah, and rapidly took possession of the thinly populated State of Georgia. An attempt to retake Savannah in the following year cost the Americans the life of Pulaski. Evacuating Newport, and leaving only troops enough to hold New York city, Clinton sailed southward and captured Charleston (May 12, 1780). Thence his forces swept over South Carolina until they had reduced it to a submission broken by continual outbursts of partisan warfare under Sumter (p/ 790), Marion, and other leaders. This work finished, Clinton returned to New York, leaving Cornwallis in command in the south. As soon as the summer heats had passed away Gates entered the State from the north with a militia army, and was badly beaten at Camden (August 16) by an inferior British force. Even North Carolina now needed defence, and the work was assigned to Greene, one of the best of the American officers developed by the war. The commander of his light troops, Morgan, met his British rival, Tarleton, at the Cowpens (January 17), and inflicted upon the latter the first defeat he had met in the south. This event brought Cornwallis up to the pursuit of the victor. Morgan and Greene retreated all the way across North Carolina, followed by Cornwallis, and then, having raised fresh troops in Virginia, they turned and gave battle at Guilford Court House (March 15, 1781). Greene was beaten, as was usually the case with him, but he inflicted so heavy a loss in return that Cornwallis retired to the coast at Wilmington to repair damages. Greene, energetic as well as cautions, passed on to the south, and gave battle to Rawdon, whom Cornwallis had lef tin command in South Carolina, at Hobkirk’s Hill (April 25), and was beaten again. But Rawdon’s loss was so severe that he drew in his lines toward Charleston. Greene followed, and at Eutaw Springs (September 8) fought the last pitched battle in the South. He was beaten again, but Rawdon again fell back, and thereafter did all that man could do in holding the two cities of Charleston and Savannah. Greene had won no battle, but he had saved the South.

83. Arnold, now a general in the British service (§ 80), had been sent, early in the year, to make a lodgment in Virginia. It seems to have been believed by the British authorities that the three southernmost States were then secure, and that Virginia could be carved out next. La Fayette was sent to oppose Arnold, but the latter was soon relieved, and in June Cornwallis himself entered the State. He had not been willing to serve with Arnold. Directed to select a suitable position for a permanent post on the Chesapeake, he had chosen Yorktown, where, with the troops already in Virginia, he fortified his army., The general ground was that of M’Clellan’s campaign of 1862 (§ 285) and Grant’s of 1864-65 (§ 296).

84. Washington, reinforced by a lately arrived force of 6000 excellent French troops (July 1780) under Rochamnbeau, was still watching Clinton at New York. The news that De Grasse’s French fleet, on its way to the American coast, would enter the Chesapeake, where Cornwallis had left himself open to the chances of such an event, led Washington to conceive the campaign which captured Cornwallis and ended the war. He began elaborate preparations for an attack on New York, so that Clinton actually called upon Cornwallis for aid. moving down the Hudson, he kept Clinton in ignorance of any movement to the south as long as possible, and then changed the line of march to one through New jersey. The allied armies passed through Philadelphia, were hurried down the Chesapeake, and drove Cornwallis within his entrenchments at Yorktown. De Grasse had arrived August 30, had defeated the British fleet, and was master of the Chesapeake waters. After three weeks’ siege Cornwallis , having exhausted a soldier’s resources, surrendered his army of 8000 men n(October 19, 1781).

85. The country at large had really been at peace for a long time. Everywhere, except in the immediate neighborhood of the British forces, the people were working almost with forgetfulness that they had ever been English colonists; and, where the enemy had to be reckoned with, they were looked upon much as the early settlers looked on bears or Indians, as an unpleasant but inevitable item in the debit side of their accounts. Their legislatures were making their laws; their governors, or "presidents," were the representatives whom their States acknowledged; nothing but an American court had the power to touch a particle of the judicial interests of the American people; the American flag was recognized on the ocean; independence was a fact, and the ministry received from the English people so emphatic a call to acknowledge it that it yielded so far as to propose a defensive war. The House of Commons (March 4, 1782) voted to regard as enemies to the king and country all who should advise the further prosecution of the war; the Rockingham ministry succeeded to power, to be followed shortly by the Shelburne ministry; and Rodney’s victory over De Grasse gave the new ministries very much the same cover for a unsuccessful peace as Jackson’s victory at New Orleans afforded the United States in 1815 (§ 181) Franklin, John Adams, and Jay, the American negotiators. Concluded the preliminary treaty of peace, by which Great Britain acknowledged the independence of the Uinited States (Nov. 30, 1782); hostilities ceased; and the definitive treaty of peace was concluded (Sept. 3, 1783). A number of American loyalists (usually called Tories) accompanied the departing armies.

86. In the winter of 1779-79 George Roghers Clark, Kentucky leader, acting under the authority of the State of Virginia, had led a force of backwoodsmen into the country north of the Ohio river, captured the British posts in it, and made the soil American up to the latitude of Detroit. The treaty of peace acknowledged the conquest, and even more than this. It settled the northern boundary of the United States, so far as the longitude of the Mississippi river, nearly as it now runs; the Mississippi as the western boundary down to 31° N. lat., thence east on that line to the present northern boundary of Florida, and east on that to the Atlantic. Great Britain restored the Floridas to Spain, so that the new nation had Great Britain as a neighbor on the north, and Spain on the south and west. Some disposition had been shown to exclude the Americans from the fishing ground off New foundland, but it was abandoned. The United States by the treaty entered the family of nations with recognized boundaries, and all the territory within these boundaries, and all the territory within these boundaries could be recognized by other nations only as the property of the United States. But, so far as internal arrangement s were concerned, a great question remained to be settled. There were thirteen organized States, covering but a part of this territory; a part of them claimed to be sole proprietors of the western territory outside of the present State limits; and it remained to be seen whether they would make good their claim, or the other States would compel them to divide, or the new national power would compel as clear an internal as an international recognition of its claim (§ 89).

87. The American army was now disbanded, its officers receiving a grudging recognition of their claims and the privates hardly anything. Poverty was to blame for much of this, and the popular suspicion of military power for the rest. Washington’s influence was strong enough to keep the dissatisfied army from any open revolt, though that step was seriously proposed. The organization of the hereditary order of the Cincinnati by the officers brought about a more emphatic expression of public dislike, and the hereditary feature was abandoned. But, wherever the officer and men went, they carried a personal disgust with the existing frame of government which could not but produce its effect in time. their miseries had been largely due to it. The politicians who controlled the State legislature had managed to seize the reins of government and reduce Congress, the only body with pretensions to a national character, to the position of a purely advisory body. The soldiery knew instinctively that the lack of power to feed them and clothe them, the payment of their scanty wages in paper worth two per cent. of its face value, were due to the impotence of Congress and the too great power of the States, that the nation presented the "awful spectacle," as Hamilton called it, of "a nation without a national government"; and the commonest toast in the army was "Here’s a hoop to the barrel," – a stronger national government to bind the States together.

The struggle for the establishment of this national government is the next step in the development of the United States, but to reach it naturally it will be necessary to go back into the midst of the struggle for independence.





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