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Washington and his Comrades: Chapter I

The Commander in Chief

Moving among the members of the second Continental Congress, which met at Philadelphia in May, 1775, was one, and but one, military figure. George Washington alone attended the sittings in uniform. This colonel from Virginia, now in his forty-fourth year, was a great landholder, an owner of slaves, an Anglican churchman, an aristocrat, everything that stands in contrast with the type of a revolutionary radical. Yet from the first he had been an outspoken and uncompromising champion of the, colonial cause. When the tax was imposed on tea he had abolished the use of tea in his own household and when war was imminent he had talked of recruiting a thousand men at his own expense and marching to Boston. His steady wearing of the uniform seemed, indeed, to show that he regarded the issue as hardly less military than political.

George Washington
George Washington

The clash at Lexington, on the 19th of April, had made vivid the reality of war. Passions ran high. For years there had been tension, long disputes about buying British stamps to put on American legal papers, about duties on glass and paint and paper and, above all, tea. Boston had shown turbulent defiance, and to hold Boston down British soldiers had been quartered on the inhabitants in the proportion of one soldier for five of the populace, a great and annoying burden. And now British soldiers had killed Americans who stood barring their way on Lexington Green. Even calm Benjamin Franklin spoke later of the hands of British ministers as “red, wet, and dropping with blood.” Americans never forgot the fresh graves made on that day. There were, it is true, more British than American graves, but the British were regarded as the aggressors. If the rest of the colonies were to join in the struggle, they must have a common leader. Who should he be?

In June, while the Continental Congress faced this question at Philadelphia, events at Boston made the need of a leader more urgent. Boston was besieged by American volunteers under the command of General Artemas Ward. The siege had lasted for two months, each side watching the other at long range. General Gage, the British Commander, had the sea open to him and a finely tempered army upon which he could rely. The opposite was true of his opponents. They were a motley host rather than an army. They had few guns and almost no powder. Idle waiting since the fight at Lexington made untrained troops restless and anxious to go home. Nothing holds an army together like real war, and shrewd officers knew that they must give the men some hard task to keep up their fighting spirit. It was rumored that Gage was preparing an aggressive movement from Boston, which might mean pillage and massacre in the surrounding country, and it was decided to draw in closer to Boston to give Gage a diversion and prove the mettle of the patriot army. So, on the evening of June 16, 1775, there was a stir of preparation in the American camp at Cambridge, and late at night the men fell in near Harvard College.

Across the Charles River north from Boston, on a peninsula, lay the village of Charlestown, and rising behind it was Breed’s Hill, about seventy-four feet high, extending northeastward to the higher elevation of Bunker Hill. The peninsula could be reached from Cambridge only by a narrow neck of land easily swept by British floating batteries lying off the shore. In the dark the American force of twelve hundred men under Colonel Prescott marched to this neck of land and then advanced half a mile southward to Breed’s Hill. Prescott was an old campaigner of the Seven Years’ War; he had six cannon, and his troops were commanded by experienced officers. Israel Putnam was skillful in irregular frontier fighting, and Nathanael Greene, destined to prove himself the best man in the American army next to Washington himself, could furnish sage military counsel derived from much thought and reading.

Thus it happened that on the morning of the 17th of June General Gage in Boston awoke to a surprise. He had refused to believe that he was shut up in Boston. It suited his convenience to stay there until a plan of campaign should be evolved by his superiors in London, but he was certain that when he liked he could, with his disciplined battalions, brush away the besieging army. Now he saw the American force on Breed’s Hill throwing up a defiant and menacing redoubt and entrenchments. Gage did not hesitate. The bold aggressors must be driven away at once. He detailed for the enterprise William Howe, the officer destined soon to be his successor in the command at Boston. Howe was a brave and experienced soldier. He had been a friend of Wolfe and had led the party of twenty-four men who had first climbed the cliff at Quebec on the great day when Wolfe fell victorious. He was the younger brother of that beloved Lord Howe who had fallen at Ticonderoga and to whose memory Massachusetts had reared a monument in Westminster Abbey. Gage gave him in all some twenty-five hundred men, and, at about two in the afternoon, this force was landed at Charlestown.

The little town was soon aflame and the smoke helped to conceal Howe’s movements. The day was boiling hot and the soldiers carried heavy packs with food for three days, for they intended to camp on Bunker Hill. Straight up Breed’s Hill they marched wading through long grass sometimes to their knees and throwing down the fences on the hillside. The British knew that raw troops were likely to scatter their fire on a foe still out of range and they counted on a rapid bayonet charge against men helpless with empty rifles. This expectation was disappointed. The Americans had in front of them a barricade and Israel Putnam was there, threatening dire things to any one who should fire before he could see the whites of the eyes of the advancing soldiery. As the British came on there was a terrific discharge of musketry at twenty yards, repeated again and again as they either halted or drew back.

The slaughter was terrible. British officers hardened in war declared long afterward that they had never seen carnage like that of this fight. The American riflemen had been told to aim especially at the British officers, easily known by their uniforms, and one rifleman is said to have shot twenty officers before he was himself killed. Lord Rawdon, who played a considerable part in the war and was later, as Marquis of Hastings, Viceroy of India, used to tell of his terror as he fought in the British line. Suddenly a soldier was shot dead by his side, and, when he saw the man quiet at his feet, he said, “Is Death nothing but this?” and henceforth had no fear. When the first attack by the British was checked they retired; but, with dogged resolve, they re-formed and again charged up the hill, only a second time to be repulsed. The third time they were more cautious. They began to work round to the weaker defenses of the American left, where were no redoubts and entrenchments like those on the right. By this time British ships were throwing shells among the Americans. Charlestown was burning. The great column of black smoke, the incessant roar of cannon, and the dreadful scenes of carnage had affected the defenders. They wavered; and on the third British charge, having exhausted their ammunition, they fled from the hill in confusion back to the narrow neck of land half a mile away, swept now by a British floating battery. General Burgoyne wrote that, in the third attack, the discipline and courage of the British private soldiers also broke down and that when the redoubt was carried the officers of some corps were almost alone. The British stood victorious at Bunker Hill. It was, however, a costly victory. More than a thousand men, nearly half of the attacking force, had fallen, with an undue proportion of officers.

Philadelphia, far away, did not know what was happening when, two days before the battle of Bunker Hill, the Continental Congress settled the question of a leader for a national army. On the 15th of June John Adams of Massachusetts rose and moved that the Congress should adopt as its own the army before Boston and that it should name Washington as Commander-in-Chief. Adams had deeply pondered the problem. He was certain that New England would remain united and decided in the struggle, but he was not so sure of the other colonies. To have a leader from beyond New England would make for continental unity. Virginia, next to Massachusetts, had stood in the forefront of the movement, and Virginia was fortunate in having in the Congress one whose fame as a soldier ran through all the colonies. There was something to be said for choosing a commander from the colony which began the struggle and Adams knew that his colleague from Massachusetts, John Hancock, a man of wealth and importance, desired the post. He was conspicuous enough to be President of the Congress. Adams says that when he made his motion, naming a Virginian, he saw in Hancock’s face “mortification and resentment.” He saw, too, that Washington hurriedly left the room when his name was mentioned.

There could be no doubt as to what the Congress would do. Unquestionably Washington was the fittest man for the post. Twenty years earlier he had seen important service in the war with France. His position and character commanded universal aspect. The Congress adopted unanimously the motion of Adams and it only remained to be seen Whether Washington would accept. On the next day he came to the sitting with his mind made up. The members, he said, would bear witness to his declaration that he thought himself unfit for the task. Since, however, they called him, he would try to do his duty. He would take the command but he would accept no pay beyond his expenses. Thus it was that Washington became a great national figure. The man who had long worn the King’s uniform was now his deadliest enemy; and it is probably true that after this step nothing could have restored the old relations and reunited the British Empire. The broken vessel could not be made whole.

Washington spent only a few days in getting ready to take over his new command. On the 21st of June, four days after Bunker Hill, he set out from Philadelphia. The colonies were in truth very remote from each other. The journey to Boston was tedious. In the previous year John Adams had traveled in the other direction to the Congress at Philadelphia and, in his journal, he notes, as if he were traveling in foreign lands, the strange manners and customs of the other colonies. The journey, so momentous to Adams, was not new to Washington. Some twenty years earlier the young Virginian officer had traveled as far as Boston in the service of King George II. Now he was leader in the war against King George III. In New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut he was received impressively. In the warm summer weather the roads were good enough but many of the rivers were not bridged and could be crossed only by ferries or at fords. It took nearly a fortnight to reach Boston.

Washington had ridden only twenty miles on his long journey when the news reached him of the fight at Bunker Hill. The question which he asked anxiously shows what was in his mind: “Did the militia fight?” When the answer was “Yes,” he said with relief, “The liberties of the country are safe.” He reached Cambridge on the 2d of July and on the following day was the chief figure in a striking ceremony. In the presence of a vast crowd and of the motley army of volunteers, which was now to be called the American army, Washington assumed the command. He sat on horseback under an elm tree and an observer noted that his appearance was “truly noble and majestic.” This was milder praise than that given a little later by a London paper which said: “There is not a king in Europe but would look like a valet de chambre by his side.” New England having seen him was henceforth wholly on his side. His traditions were not those of the Puritans, of the Ephraims and the Abijahs of the volunteer army, men whose Old Testament names tell something of the rigor of the Puritan view of life. Washington, a sharer in the free and often careless hospitality of his native Virginia, had a different outlook. In his personal discipline, however, he was not less Puritan than the strictest of New Englanders. The coming years were to show that a great leader had taken his fitting place.

Washington, born in 1732, had been trained in self-reliance, for he had been fatherless from childhood. At the age of sixteen he was working at the profession, largely self-taught, of a surveyor of land. At the age of twenty-seven he married Martha Custis, a rich widow with children, though her marriage with Washington was childless. His estate on the Potomac River, three hundred miles from the open sea, recently named Mount Vernon, had been in the family for nearly a hundred years. There were twenty-five hundred acres at Mount Vernon with ten miles of frontage on the tidal river. The Virginia planters were a landowning gentry; when Washington died he had more than sixty thousand acres. The growing of tobacco, the one vital industry of the Virginia of the time, with its half million people, was connected with the ownership of land. On their great estates the planters lived remote, with a mail perhaps every fortnight. There were no large towns, no great factories. Nearly half of the population consisted of negro slaves. It is one of the ironies of history that the chief leader in a war marked by a passion for liberty was a member of a society in which, as another of its members, Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, said, there was on the one hand the most insulting despotism and on the other the most degrading submission. The Virginian landowners were more absolute masters than the proudest lords of medieval England. These feudal lords had serfs on their land. The serfs were attached to the soil and were sold to a new master with the soil. They were not, however, property, without human rights. On the other hand, the slaves of the Virginian master were property like his horses. They could not even call wife and children their own, for these might be sold at will. It arouses a strange emotion now when we find Washington offering to exchange a negro for hogsheads of molasses and rum and writing that the man would bring a good price, “if kept clean and trim’d up a little when offered for sale.”

In early life Washington had had very little of formal education. He knew no language but English. When he became world famous and his friend La Fayette urged him to visit France he refused because he would seem uncouth if unable to speak the French tongue. Like another great soldier, the Duke of Wellington, he was always careful about his dress. There was in him a silent pride which would brook nothing derogatory to his dignity. No one could be more methodical. He kept his accounts rigorously, entering even the cost of repairing a hairpin for a ward. He was a keen farmer, and it is amusing to find him recording in his careful journal that there are 844,800 seeds of “New River Grass” to the pound Troy and so determining how many should be sown to the acre. Not many youths would write out as did Washington, apparently from French sources, and read and reread elaborate “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.” In the fashion of the age of Chesterfield they portray the perfect gentleman. He is always to remember the presence of others and not to move, read, or speak without considering what may be due to them. In the true spirit of the time he is to learn to defer to persons of superior quality. Tactless laughter at his own wit, jests that have a sting of idle gossip, are to be avoided. Reproof is to be given not in anger but in a sweet and mild temper. The rules descend even to manners at table and are a revelation of care in self-discipline. We might imagine Oliver Cromwell drawing up such rules, but not Napoleon or Wellington.

The class to which Washington belonged prided itself on good birth and good breeding. We picture him as austere, but, like Oliver Cromwell, whom in some respects he resembles, he was very human in his personal relations. He liked a glass of wine. He was fond of dancing and he went to the theater, even on Sunday. He was, too, something of a lady’s man; “He can be downright impudent sometimes,” wrote a Southern lady, “such impudence, Fanny, as you and I like.” In old age he loved to have the young and gay about him. He could break into furious oaths and no one was a better master of what we may call honorable guile in dealing with wily savages, in circulating falsehoods that would deceive the enemy in time of war, or in pursuing a business advantage. He played cards for money and carefully entered loss and gain in his accounts. He loved horseracing and horses, and nothing pleased him more than to talk of that noble animal. He kept hounds and until his burden of cares became too great was an eager devotee of hunting. His shooting was of a type more heroic than that of an English squire spending a day on a moor with guests and gamekeepers and returning to comfort in the evening. Washington went off on expeditions into the forest lasting many days and shared the life in the woods of rough men, sleeping often in the open air. “Happy,” he wrote, “is he who gets the berth nearest the fire.” He could spend a happy day in admiring the trees and the richness of the land on a neighbor’s estate. Always his thoughts were turning to the soil. There was poetry in him. It was said of Napoleon that the one approach to poetry in all his writings is the phrase: “The spring is at last appearing and the leaves are beginning to sprout.” Washington, on the other hand, brooded over the mysteries of life. He pictured to himself the serenity of a calm old age and always dared to look death squarely in the face. He was sensitive to human passion and he felt the wonder of nature in all her ways, her bounteous response in growth to the skill of man, the delight of improving the earth in contrast with the vain glory gained by ravaging it in war. His most striking characteristics were energy and decision united often with strong likes and dislikes. His clever secretary, Alexander Hamilton, found, as he said, that his chief was not remarkable for good temper and resigned his post because of an impatient rebuke. When a young man serving in the army of Virginia, Washington had many a tussle with the obstinate Scottish Governor, Dinwiddie, who thought his vehemence unmannerly and ungrateful. Gilbert Stuart, who painted several of his portraits, said that his features showed strong passions and that, had he not learned self-restraint, his temper would have been savage. This discipline he acquired. The task was not easy, but in time he was able to say with truth, “I have no resentments,” and his self-control became so perfect as to be almost uncanny.

The assumption that Washington fought against an England grown decadent is not justified. To admit this would be to make his task seem lighter than it really was. No doubt many of the rich aristocracy spent idle days of pleasure-seeking with the comfortable conviction that they could discharge their duties to society by merely existing, since their luxury made work and the more they indulged themselves the more happy and profitable employment would their many dependents enjoy. The eighteenth century was, however, a wonderful epoch in England. Agriculture became a new thing under the leadership of great landowners like Lord Townshend and Coke of Norfolk. Already was abroad in society a divine discontent at existing abuses. It brought Warren Hastings to trial on the charge of plundering India. It attacked slavery, the cruelty of the criminal law, which sent children to execution for the theft of a few pennies, the brutality of the prisons, the torpid indifference of the church to the needs of the masses. New inventions were beginning the age of machinery. The reform of Parliament, votes for the toiling masses, and a thousand other improvements were being urged. It was a vigorous, rich, and arrogant England which Washington confronted.