France in the American Revolution, 1777



During the winter and spring of 1777, Washington's mind was filled with anxiety concerning the future. The Congress was weak, for the jealousy of the States paralyzed their executive power. Faction was disturbing their councils. There was discontent in the army because inefficient foreign officers were, it was supposed, about to be put in high military positions; also because few a like Gates could not bear to serve in subordinate stations. That intriguing officer, like Lee, exerted a baneful influence continually. Aided by the New England delegation, with Samuel Adams at the head of the faction, he had supplanted General Schuyler, the most trusted and best beloved by Washington of all his generals. But his triumph was short. The baseness of his insinuations against the character of Schuyler were exposed by a committee of the Congress and, superseded in April, the latter was reinstated in May with larger discretionary powers. Gates, angry and insubordinate, refused to serve under Schuyler; and, without leave, he left the army and hastened to Philadelphia to demand redress. By falsehood he obtained admission to the floor of Congress, and the privilege of making a verbal communication. There he made an exhibition of impertinence, malice, folly and unmanliness, that disgusted all but his New England friends, who supported him in further intrigues, as we shall observe presently. Samuel Adams and some others had resolved to make Gates the commander-in-chief of the Northern Department, and worked assiduously for that purpose; and while they were swaying Congress in favor of this weak man, who was doing nothing but boasting, they were unjustly demanding of Washington vigorous aggressive movements against the enemy, with so few troops that failure would have been a certain result. They reproached him with slowness; and intimations were thrown out that Gates was "the life and soul of the army." Washington bore this injustice with patience and obedience, for he was an unselfish patriot.

When the king heard of the disasters to the British arms in New Jersey, his wrath took the form of vindictiveness; and Germain, inspired by his majesty, wrote to General Howe that he must wage a more distressing warfare, so that "through a lively experience of losses and sufferings the rebels might be brought to a sense of their duty." It was intimated that Boston and other sea-port towns in flames would be pleasing to the king; but the brothers Howe, more humane than their masters, would not engage in that kind of warfare. They sent word back that it was "not consistent with other operations." Meanwhile the sluggish British commander wasted the months of May and June in idleness at New York, when, with his large army, he might have marched to Philadelphia with very slight opposition; but he had resolved to go to that city by sea, and partly by sea he finally went.

In the meantime, Washington, with an army of about seven thousand five hundred men, composed of forty-three regiments in five divisions of two brigades each, moved from Morristown to the heights of Middlebrook on the borders of the Raritan, and nine miles from New Brunswick. At the latter place Howe assembled about seventeen thousand men, British and Germans, at near the middle of June, with boats and pontoons for crossing the Delaware. At the same time Washington's army had been rapidly increasing. Sullivan was at Princeton with fifteen hundred men. Arnold was posted on the Delaware with a division, and the troops on the Hudson were so concentrated that they might reinforce the main army quickly if required.

Howe's plan (if he had any) seemed to be to bring on a general engagement with the weaker American army. He dared not attack Washington in his stronghold, but tried to draw him out of it. He sent a detachment to attack Sullivan, but so tardy was their movement that the veteran was allowed to escape to the Delaware, pursued only three miles. This and other movements made Washington so vigilant that he was in the saddle almost continually, and his men lay upon their arms at night. On the 19th (June), Howe suddenly retreated to Amboy, and sent some of his troops over to Staten Island, so giving an impression that he was evacuating New Jersey. Washington was fairly deceived, and descending from the heights he gave chase with his whole army. Howe suddenly changed front and attempted to gain the rear of the Americans, but Washington was too quick for him. After a series of sharp skirmishes between New Brunswick and Amboy, without any serious effect on the fortunes of the campaign, the American army resumed their position at Middlebrook. On the 30th of June, the British had entirely evacuated New Jersey, and were encamped on Staten Island, where they afforded protection to a host of Tories, who fled with them from the main.

During these movements, the Congress at Philadelphia and the inhabitants there, were kept in anxious suspense by the expectation that Howe would attempt to capture that city. When they heard of the retreat of the enemy and the rapid increase of Washington's army to almost fourteen thousand men, their spirits revived, and the Congress celebrated the Fourth of July--the first anniversary of the Declaration of Independence--much as we celebrate it now, after the lapse of a century. They had a banquet, made speeches, drank to patriotic toasts, rang the bells, fired cannon, had a military procession, a naval display on the Delaware; and in the evening, fireworks, bonfires, and illuminations were displayed. To the vigilance and caution, skill and bravery of Washington, the Congress and the citizens were indebted for their safety; and yet they indulged in ungenerous reproaches of the commander-in-chief because he had not done more. Samuel Adams publicly complained of the "Fabian policy" of Washington; and Gates, who had charmed the New England delegation by his boasting and malicious criticisms, like Lee, scattered firebrands of distrust in the army. But Washington went steadily forward. Referring to these reproaches, he said he had one great object in view, which he should pursue according to the dictates of his own judgment; and that he was willing to be loaded with all the obloquy they could bestow if he committed a willful error.

Washington now watched the movements of the enemy with more anxiety than ever, for news had reached him of the invasion of Northern New York by Burgoyne. For several days these movements puzzled him. The British troops were embarked in the fleet of Lord Howe. At one time they seemed to be preparing to go up the Hudson River, and Washington made arrangements to oppose them. Finally, on the 24th of July, the fleet and troops left New York Bay and went to sea. Washington believed they were bound for Philadelphia by way of the Delaware, and moved a larger portion of his army toward that river; but he prudently kept back a reserve to act in case of Howe's return. Until he was assured that Howe had really abandoned Burgoyne, he could not, he wrote, help casting his eyes continually behind him. His suspense was soon ended. On the 31st of July, he received an express from Congress, telling him that two hundred and twenty-eight British vessels had appeared off the Capes of Delaware the day before. Howe had left New York with eighteen thousand troops for Philadelphia; but for the purpose of increasing his force by the addition of Tories in Maryland and Pennsylvania, where, General Lee had informed him, they abounded, he concluded to go up Chesapeake Bay, and march upon the Continental capital from the south. Washington instantly put a greater portion of his army in motion for that city, where they arrived early in August and encamped at Germantown.

At Philadelphia, Washington was joined by the Marquis de Lafayette, an enthusiastic Frenchman, then less than twenty years of age. He had married, three years before, the daughter of the Duke de Noailles, a beautiful, accomplished, and rich maiden. The story of the wrongs of America, and their struggle for their rights, inflamed his young heart with ardent sympathy and a passionate desire to help them. He openly espoused their cause, and resolved to hasten to their support. Offering his services to the American Commissioners in Paris, he said: "Hitherto I have only cherished your cause; now I am going to support it." The women of Paris applauded his noble zeal. The young queen, Marie Antoinette, cheered him with her good wishes. The king expressed his disapprobation, for he hated republicans. Lafayette's young wife bade him go, for the sympathies of her heart were in unison with his. He went to England, stayed three weeks there, and was presented to the king. He danced at the house of Lord George Germain, and held pleasant social intercourse with civilians and soldiers who were serving against the Americans. On all occasions he frankly expressed his sentiments in favor of the latter, but did not avow his purpose to go to America. Returning to France, he sailed for this country in a ship fitted out at his own expense, accompanied by eleven French and Polish officers who sought employment in the American army. Among them was the Baron de Kalb. Count Pulaski, a gallant Pole, soon followed. The confrere of the latter in the struggle for liberty in Poland, Kosciuszko, had come over the year before, and was then a highly esteemed engineer in the Continental Army.

Lafayette and his friends arrived at Georgetown, in South Carolina, whence they journeyed overland to Philadelphia. He offered his services to the Congress as a volunteer in any capacity and without pay. These terms were so different from those of the other foreign officers that the Congress accepted them, and on the last day of July commissioned him a major-general in the Continental Army. As such he was introduced to Washington at a dinner-party in Philadelphia, when the latter invited the young general to become a member of his military family. The invitation was accepted.

A little before this, a rumor reached the American camp, that Du Coudray, a French officer sent over by the Commissioners, had been appointed by the Congress a major-general in the Continental Army, and was to be placed at the head of the artillery service. Generals Knox, Greene, and Sullivan wrote to the Congress, declaring that such an appointment would compel them to resign their commissions. That body resented this as "an attempt to influence their decisions, an invasion of the liberties of the people, and as indicating a want of confidence in the justice of Congress;" and Washington was instructed to tell the complaining generals that if they were "unwilling to serve their country under the authority of Congress, they were at liberty to resign their commissions, and retire." The rumor was not true; no such appointment had been made. The rebuff which these officers received, prevented a repetition of such an offence.

The Congress did employ some of the French officers as engineers. Du Portail was commissioned a colonel of engineers; Laumoy and Radiere, lieutenant-colonels, and Gouvion a major. These proved to be valuable officers, and of essential importance during the war.





Return to Our Country, Vol II