US American History Info and Articles
Washington in Command of the Army
Next day under the famous elm still standing near Harvard University, Washington drew his sword and took command of the American army.
He was then forty-three years old, tall and manly in form, noble and dignified in bearing. His soldiers looked upon him with pride as he sat upon his horse, a superb picture of strength and dignity. He wore a three-cornered hat with the cockade of liberty upon it, and across his breast a broad band of blue silk. The impression he made was most pleasing, his courteous and kindly manner winning friends immediately.
Washington at once began the labor of getting his troops ready to fight, as his army was one only in name. For although the men were brave and willing, they had never been trained for war, and were not even supplied with muskets or powder.
Fortunately, the British did not know how badly off the American army was, and were taking their ease inside their own defenses. The autumn and the winter slipped by before Washington could make the attempt to drive the British out of Boston.
At last, by the first of March, some cannon and other supplies arrived in camp. Many of them had been dragged over the snow from Ticonderoga on sledges drawn by oxen. This gave Washington his opportunity to strike.
One night, while the cannon of the American army, which was just outside of Boston, were firing upon the British for the purpose of concealing Washington’s plan, he sent troops to seize and fortify Dorchester Heights, overlooking Boston on the south.
Next morning when the astonished British commander, Howe, realized what the Americans had done, he saw clearly that he must drive them from the Heights or else leave Boston himself. But before he could send a force across the bay, a violent storm came up and delayed the attack.
In the meantime the Americans had made their earthworks so strong that Howe decided not to molest them. He remembered too well the Bunker Hill affair. So with all his army he sailed away to Halifax, leaving behind much powder and many cannon, which you may be sure the Americans lost no time in seizing.
Washington believed that after leaving Boston the British would try to take New York in order to get control of the Hudson River and the middle colonies. To outwit them his men must get to New York first. This they did.
He had not gone far in putting up defenses there when an event of profound importance took place in Philadelphia. This was the signing of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress. Up to the summer of 1776, it was for their rights as free-born Englishmen that the colonists had been fighting. But now that King George was sending thousands of soldiers to force them to give up these rights, which were as dear to them as their own lives, they said: “We will cut ourselves off from England. We will make our own laws; we will levy our own taxes; we will manage our affairs in our own way. We will declare our independence.”
So they appointed a committee, two of whom were Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, to draw up the Declaration of Independence. This was signed July 4, 1776.
It was a great day in American history, and worthy of celebration. After that, the thirteen colonies became States, and each organized its own government.
This act, no doubt, gave Washington good heart for the difficult work he had in hand, but the task itself was no easier. While he was waiting at New York for the enemy’s attack, he had only an ill-assorted army of about eighteen thousand men to meet them. General Howe, who soon arrived, had thirty thousand men and a large fleet as well. Yet Washington pluckily made plans to defend the city.
When Brooklyn Heights, on Long Island, had been fortified, he sent General Putnam with half the army across East River to occupy them.
On August 27 General Howe, with something like twenty thousand men, attacked a part of these forces and defeated them. If he had attacked the remainder at once, he might have captured the full half of the army under Putnam’s command - and even Washington himself, who, during the heat of the battle, had crossed over from New York. But, as we have seen, the British were apt to “put off till to-morrow.” And very fortunate it was for the Americans.
Possibly General Howe could have ended the war at this time if he had continued his attack. But of course he did not know that the Americans were going to escape, any more than he had known that they were going to capture Boston. His men had fought hard at the end of a long night march and needed rest. Besides, he felt so sure of making an easy capture of the remainder of the army that there was no need of haste. For how could the Americans get away? Did not the British fleet have them so close under its nose that it could easily get between them and New York and make escape impossible?
This all seemed so clear to the easy-going General Howe that with good conscience he gave his tired men a rest after the battle on the 27th. On the 28th a heavy rain fell, and on the 29th a dense fog covered the island.
But before midday of the 29th, some American officers riding down toward the shore noticed an unusual stir in the British fleet. Boats were going to and fro as if carrying orders.
“It looks as if the English vessels may soon sail up between New York and Long Island and cut off our retreat,” said these officers to Washington. The situation was perilous. At once Washington gave orders to secure all the boats possible, in order to attempt escape during the night.
It was a desperate undertaking. There were ten thousand men to be taken across, and the width of the river at the point of crossing was nearly a mile. It would hardly seem possible that such a movement could be made in a single night without being discovered by the British troops, who were lying in camp within gunshot of the retreating Americans.
But that which seemed impossible was done, for the army was transferred in safety.
The night must have been a long and anxious one for Washington, who stayed at his post of duty on the Long Island shore until the last boat-load had pushed off. The retreat was as brilliant as it was daring, and it saved the American cause.
But even after he had saved his army from capture and once more outwitted the British, the situation was still one of great danger. No sooner had the Americans made their perilous escape from Long Island than the British seized Brooklyn Heights. So just across the river from New York were the British troops, and just below them in the harbor lay the British fleet.