WHEN Cornwallis was assured of Washington's escape and heard his cannon at Princeton, he was alarmed for the safety of his stores at New Brunswick, and immediately began a rapid pursuit. Had the republican troops been fresh, no doubt the British stores on the Raritan would have been a part of Washington's spoils of victory; but they were worn down with the fatigues of two days' hard service; lack of sleep and food; a night march of ten miles in bitter cold, many of the men barefooted and thinly clad, and the excitement of a battle. They could do very little more without rest and refreshment; and when Washington found his enemy close upon him, he pursued the fugitive British regiments only as far as the Millstone River at Kingston (about three miles), where he crossed that stream, broke down the bridge behind him, and rested at Somerset Court-House that night.
Cornwallis had pursued so swiftly, that he reached Princeton just as Washington left it. There he was confronted by a thirty-two pound cannon, whose vigorous discharges by the skillful American artillerists, made the British leader believe the republicans were about to make a stand and give battle. He halted, and wasted so much time in reconnoitering that Washington was allowed to escape. Believing his foe was pressing on toward New Brunswick, Cornwallis continued the pursuit, crossing the Millstone at Kingston after reconstructing the bridge. There Washington had turned toward the hill country around Morristown, by way of a narrow road by Rocky Hill; but Cornwallis, suspecting he was on the march toward New Brunswick, hastened forward over the rough highway, and arrived there at sunset, where he found his stores all safe, and not a republican soldier near. Washington marched to Morristown, where he put his army into winter-quarters.
The American commander had now achieved a mighty victory. Viewed in all its varied aspects, Frederick the Great of Prussia declared the exploits of the Patriot and his handful of followers, between Christmas and Twelfth Day, the most brilliant of any recorded in the annals of military achievements. At the very moment when his army appeared to be on the verge of dissolution, Washington struck a blow so powerful that it paralyzed the enemy. It broke up the British and Hessian cantonments upon the Delaware, and made Cornwallis anxious to secure quarters nearer New York, under the protection of General Howe. It caused Howe to recall a brigade from Rhode Island to strengthen his force at New York; and it was not long before the British were driven to near the sea-shores of New Jersey, and held posts only at New Brunswick, Amboy, and Paulus Hook (now Jersey City), for Washington, with his army encamped in huts at Morristown, was not idle. He had established cantonments from Princeton on the right, under the command of General Putnam, to the Hudson Highlands on the left, under General Health. He was in the midst of hills, a fertile country teeming with abundance, and generally patriotic inhabitants. His little expeditions sent out to harass the enemy were conducted with so much spirit, that the British were kept in continual dread. The people were thereby encouraged; their martial spirit seemed to revive, and early in the spring of 1777, the thinned battalions of the army began to fill up.
The Continental Congress, which had fled to Baltimore, satisfied that immediate danger was past, returned to Philadelphia early in March, 1777 and resumed their sessions there. And the people of New Jersey, of whom not more than a hundred had joined Washington in his retreat from the Hudson to the Delaware, and who, to the number of almost three thousand, had subscribed to a declaration of fidelity to the king, seeing the changed aspect of affairs, and having suffered dreadfully from the unbridled passions of the British and Hessian soldiers exercised on friend and foe alike, now became active partisans of the republican cause. A feeling of revenge gave strength to their purpose and arms. Their action was doubtless accelerated by a proclamation of Washington issued late in January, who, in the exercise of the discretion given him by Congress, demanded, in the name of the associated States, that all who had taken British protection, and professed fidelity to the crown, should take an oath of allegiance to the United States of America, or withdraw within the British lines.
The Legislature of New Jersey, regarding the proclamation as a violation of State supremacy,--a doctrine that was the bane of our national life down to the Civil War--censured the commander-in-chief. A few members of Congress, possessing less sagacity and political wisdom than Washington, joined in the censure, and seemed ready to deprive him of all power. When a proposition was made to give him authority to name his generals, John Adams said: "In private life, I am willing to respect and look up to him; in this House, I feel myself to be the superior of General Washington." By a bare majority, the Congress, after failing to furnish reinforcements for Washington's army, expressed their earnest desire that he could "not only curb and confine the enemy within their present quarters, but, by divine blessing, totally subdue them before they could be reinforced." This seemed like insulting irony, when we consider that Washington then had less than three thousand effective men at his command in New Jersey.
The apathy and folly of the British monarch and ministers, at this time, were astonishing to men who perceived the gravity of public affairs through the medium of events in America. They were in strong contrast with the energy and wisdom of the managers of American affairs at home and abroad. A British army had been driven from Boston; a British fleet had been expelled from Charleston harbor; the colonies had declared their independence, and full thirty thousand British and German troops had been defied and combated; and yet the Parliament did not meet until the close of October (1776) to consider these things. Then the king, in his speech, congratulated the legislature upon the success of the royal troops in America, and assured them, without the shadow of a good reason, that most of the Continental powers entertained friendly feelings toward Great Britain. After rejecting every conciliatory proposition, and voting men and supplies for the united service in America, Parliament adjourned to keep the Christmas holidays with an apparent feeling that their votes had crushed the trans-Atlantic rebellion. At that moment Washington was planning his brilliant achievements in person.
Meanwhile the American Congress had held a perpetual session. They knew that the European powers had no real friendship for haughty Britain. They knew that France, Spain, the States-General of Holland, the Prince of Orange, Catharine of Russia and Pope Clement, all feared and hated England, and were anxious for a pretence to strike her fiercely and humble her pride, because of her potency in arms, commerce, and diplomacy, and her strong Protestantism. Therefore, as we have seen, the Congress sent Silas Deane to France as a commercial agent in the spring of 1776, to procure army supplies, and in the autumn appointed Dr. Franklin and Arthur Lee joint commissioners with Deane for the same purpose. The latter had already procured arms from the French arsenals, and abundant promises of men and money from the French minister, Vergennes. The British ambassador to the French court (Lord Stormont) treated the Commissioners with contempt. When they asked him to make an arrangement for the exchange of captive seamen, he was silent. When the request was repeated, he answered: "The King's ambassador receives no applications from rebels unless they come to implore his Majesty's mercy." This was then the spirit of the British government; the spirit of the American people at the same time was displayed by the answer of Nathan Coffin, an American seaman, when he was threatened, to induce him to enlist in the royal navy: "Hang me, if you will, to the yard-arm of your ship, but do not ask me to become a traitor to my country."
Return to Our Country, Vol II