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Washington and His Comrades: Chapter VIII

These events on land were quickly followed by stirring events on the sea. The delays of the British Admiralty of this time seem almost incredible. Two hundred ships waited at Spithead for three months for convoy to the West Indies, while all the time the people of the West Indies, cut off from their usual sources of supply in America, were in distress for food. Seven weeks passed after d’Estaing had sailed for America, before the Admiralty knew that he was really gone and sent Admiral Byron, with fourteen ships, to the aid of Lord Howe. When d’Estaing was already before New York Byron was still battling with storms in mid-Atlantic, storms so severe that his fleet was entirely dispersed and his flagship was alone when it reached Long Island on the 18th of August.

Meanwhile the French had a great chance. On the 11th of July their fleet, much stronger than the British, arrived from the Delaware, and anchored off Sandy Hook. Admiral Howe knew his danger. He asked for volunteers from the merchant ships and the sailors offered themselves almost to a man. If d’Estaing could beat Howe’s inferior fleet, the transports at New York would be at his mercy and the British army, with no other source of supply, must surrender. Washington was near, to give help on land. The end of the war seemed not far away. But it did not come. The French admirals were often taken from an army command, and d’Estaing was not a sailor but a soldier. He feared the skill of Howe, a really great sailor, whose seven available ships were drawn up in line at Sandy Hook so that their guns bore on ships coming in across the bar. D’Estaing hovered outside. Pilots from New York told him that at high tide there were only twenty-two feet of water on the bar and this was not enough for his great ships, one of which carried ninety-one guns. On the 22d of July there was the highest of tides with, in reality, thirty feet of water on the bar, and a wind from the northeast which would have brought d’Estaing’s ships easily through the channel into the harbor. The British expected the hottest naval fight in their history. At three in the afternoon d’Estaing moved but it was to sail away out of sight.

Opportunity, though once spurned, seemed yet to knock again. The one other point held by the British was Newport, Rhode Island. Here General Pigot had five thousand men and only perilous communications by sea with New York. Washington, keenly desirous to capture this army, sent General Greene to aid General Sullivan in command at Providence, and d’Estaing arrived off Newport to give aid. Greene had fifteen hundred fine soldiers, Sullivan had nine thousand New England militia, and d’Estaing four thousand French regulars. A force of fourteen thousand five hundred men threatened five thousand British. But on the 9th of August Howe suddenly appeared near Newport with his smaller fleet. D’Estaing put to sea to fight him, and a great naval battle was imminent, when a terrific storm blew up and separated and almost shattered both fleets. D’Estaing then, in spite of American protests, insisted on taking the French ships to Boston to refit and with them the French soldiers. Sullivan publicly denounced the French admiral as having basely deserted him and his own disgusted yeomanry left in hundreds for their farms to gather in the harvest. In September, with d’Estaing safely away, Clinton sailed into Newport with five thousand men. Washington’s campaign against Rhode Island had failed completely.

The summer of 1778 thus turned out badly for Washington. Help from France which had aroused such joyous hopes in America had achieved little and the allies were hurling reproaches at each other. French and American soldiers had riotous fights in Boston and a French officer was killed. The British, meanwhile, were landing at small ports on the coast, which had been the haunts of privateers, and were not only burning shipping and stores but were devastating the country with Loyalist regiments recruited in America. The French told the Americans that they were expecting too much from the alliance, and the cautious Washington expressed fear that help from outside would relax effort at home. Both were right. By the autumn the British had been reinforced and the French fleet had gone to the West Indies. Truly the mountain in labor of the French alliance seemed to have brought forth only a ridiculous mouse. None the less was it to prove, in the end, the decisive factor in the struggle.

The alliance with France altered the whole character of the war, which ceased now to be merely a war in North America. France soon gained an ally in Europe. Bourbon Spain had no thought of helping the colonies in rebellion against their king, and she viewed their ambitions to extend westward with jealous concern, since she desired for herself both sides of the Mississippi. Spain, however, had a grievance against Britain, for Britain would not yield Gibraltar, that rocky fragment of Spain commanding the entrance to the Mediterranean which Britain had wrested from her as she had wrested also Minorca and Florida. So, in April, 1779, Spain joined France in war on Great Britain. France agreed not only to furnish an army for the invasion of England but never to make peace until Britain had handed back Gibraltar. The allies planned to seize and hold the Isle of Wight. England has often been threatened and yet has been so long free from the tramp of hostile armies that we are tempted to dismiss lightly such dangers. But in the summer of 1779 the danger was real. Of warships carrying fifty guns or more France and Spain together had one hundred and twenty-one, while Britain had seventy. The British Channel fleet for the defense of home coasts numbered forty ships of the line while France and Spain together had sixty-six. Nor had Britain resources in any other quarter upon which she could readily draw. In the West Indies she had twenty-one ships of the line while France had twenty-five. The British could not find comfort in any supposed superiority in the structure of their ships. Then and later, as Nelson admitted when he was fighting Spain, the Spanish ships were better built than the British.

Lurking in the background to haunt British thought was the growing American navy. John Paul was a Scots sailor, who had been a slave trader and subsequently master of a West India merchantman, and on going to America had assumed the name of Jones. He was a man of boundless ambition, vanity, and vigor, and when he commanded American privateers he became a terror to the maritime people from whom he sprang. In the summer of 1779 when Jones, with a squadron of four ships, was haunting the British coasts, every harbor was nervous. At Plymouth a boom blocked the entrance, but other places had not even this defense. Sir Walter Scott has described how, on September 17, 1779, a squadron, under John Paul Jones, came within gunshot of Leith, the port of Edinburgh. The whole surrounding country was alarmed, since for two days the squadron had been in sight beating up the Firth of Forth. A sudden squall, which drove Jones back, probably saved Edinburgh from being plundered. A few days later Jones was burning ships in the Humber and, on the 23d of September, he met off Flamborough Head and, after a desperate fight, captured two British armed ships: the Serapis, a 40-gun vessel newly commissioned, and the Countess of Scarborough, carrying 20 guns, both of which were convoying a fleet. The fame of his exploit rang through Europe. Jones was a regularly commissioned officer in the navy of the United States, but neutral powers, such as Holland, had not yet recognized the republic and to them there was no American navy. The British regarded him as a traitor and pirate and might possibly have hanged him had he fallen into their hands.

Terrible days indeed were these for distracted England. In India, France, baulked twenty years earlier, was working for her entire overthrow, and in North Africa, Spain was using the Moors to the same end. As time passed the storm grew more violent. Before the year 1780 ended Holland had joined England’s enemies. Moreover, the northern states of Europe, angry at British interference on the sea with their trade, and especially at her seizure of ships trying to enter blockaded ports, took strong measures. On March 8, 1780, Russia issued a proclamation declaring that neutral ships must be allowed to come and go on the sea as they liked. They might be searched by a nation at war for arms and ammunition but for nothing else. It would moreover be illegal to declare a blockade of a port and punish neutrals for violating it, unless their ships were actually caught in an attempt to enter the port. Denmark and Sweden joined Russia in what was known as the Armed Neutrality and promised that they would retaliate upon any nation which did not respect the conditions laid down.

In domestic affairs Great Britain was divided. The Whigs and Tories were carrying on a warfare shameless beyond even the bitter partisan strife of later days. In Parliament the Whigs cheered at military defeats which might serve to discredit the Tory Government. The navy was torn by faction. When, in 1778, the Whig Admiral Keppel fought an indecisive naval battle off Ushant and was afterwards accused by one of his officers, Sir Hugh Palliser, of not pressing the enemy hard enough, party passion was invoked. The Whigs were for Keppel, the Tories for Palliser, and the London mob was Whig. When Keppel was acquitted there were riotous demonstrations; the house of Palliser was wrecked, and he himself barely escaped with his life. Whig naval officers declared that they had no chance of fair treatment at the hands of a Tory Admiralty, and Lord Howe, among others, now refused to serve. For a time British supremacy on the sea disappeared and it was only regained in April, 1782, when the Tory Admiral Rodney won a great victory in the West Indies against the French.

A spirit of violence was abroad in England. The disabilities of the Roman Catholics were a gross scandal. They might not vote or hold public office. Yet when, in 1780, Parliament passed a bill removing some of their burdens dreadful riots broke out in London. A fanatic, Lord George Gordon, led a mob to Westminster and, as Dr. Johnson expressed it, “insulted” both Houses of Parliament. The cowed ministry did nothing to check the disturbance. The mob burned Newgate jail, released the prisoners from this and other prisons, and made a deliberate attempt to destroy London by fire. Order was restored under the personal direction of the King, who, with all his faults, was no coward. At the same time the Irish Parliament, under Protestant lead, was making a Declaration of Independence which, in 1782, England was obliged to admit by formal act of Parliament. For the time being, though the two monarchies had the same king, Ireland, in name at least, was free of England.

Washington’s enemy thus had embarrassments enough. Yet these very years, 1779 and 1780, were the years in which he came nearest to despair. The strain of a great movement is not in the early days of enthusiasm, but in the slow years when idealism is tempered by the strife of opinion and self-interest which brings delay and disillusion. As the war went on recruiting became steadily more difficult. The alliance with France actually worked to discourage it since it was felt that the cause was safe in the hands of this powerful ally. Whatever Great Britain’s difficulties about finance they were light compared with Washington’s. In time the “continental dollar” was worth only two cents. Yet soldiers long had to take this money at its face value for their pay, with the result that the pay for three months would scarcely buy a pair of boots. There is little wonder that more than once Washington had to face formidable mutiny among his troops. The only ones on whom he could rely were the regulars enlisted by Congress and carefully trained. The worth of the militia, he said, “depends entirely on the prospects of the day; if favorable, they throng to you; if not, they will not move.” They played a chief part in the prosperous campaign of 1777, when Burgoyne was beaten. In the next year, before Newport, they wholly failed General Sullivan and deserted shamelessly to their homes.

By 1779 the fighting had shifted to the South. Washington personally remained in the North to guard the Hudson and to watch the British in New York. He sent La Fayette to France in January, 1779, there to urge not merely naval but military aid on a great scale. La Fayette came back after an absence of a little over a year and in the end France promised eight thousand men who should be under Washington’s control as completely as if they were American soldiers. The older nation accepted the principle that the officers in the younger nation which she was helping should rank in their grade before her own. It was a magnanimity reciprocated nearly a century and a half later when a great American army in Europe was placed under the supreme command of a Marshal of France.