Military history


Of Arms and Men

I have often thought how much happier I should have been if, instead of accepting a command under such Circumstances, I should have taken my musket upon my Shoulder & entered the Ranks or … had retir’d to the back country & lived in a Wig-wam.


Although American independence was still not officially declared by the late spring of 1776, it already had a martyr and a hero. The martyr was Joseph Warren, a local physician who was marked as a rising star in Boston politics and who also just happened to be the doctor for the Adams family. Warren had bravely stood his ground at Bunker Hill until the redcoats overwhelmed his redoubt; he had been shot in the back of the head as he turned to escape, and then his dead body had been bayoneted by several British soldiers caught up in the heat of the battle. The next day, an execution squad that was finishing off the American wounded made a point of decapitating Warren and displaying his head on a spit, thereby ensuring his martyrdom.1

The hero was George Washington, the commander in chief of the haphazard collection of militia units now being referred to as the Continental Army. Over six feet tall and just over two hundred pounds, Washington was a physical specimen produced by some eighteenth-century version of central casting. (There is an ongoing scholarly debate about Washington’s height. In his instructions to his tailor, he described himself as six feet tall. Fellow officers in the French and Indian War described him as six foot two. Measurements of his corpse for his coffin list him at six foot three and a half.) Adams had been the one to nominate him as American military commander in June 1775, later explaining that he was the obvious choice, in part because he was a Virginian and Virginia’s support for the still-undeclared war was critical, and in part because he was a full head taller than anyone else in the room.2

Although the Boston Siege was really less a battle than a prolonged tactical minuet in which the Americans enjoyed a three-to-one superiority in manpower, the fact that the British Army eventually sailed away to fight another day was regarded in the American press as a major victory. And the obvious symbol of this triumph was Washington. Not only did Harvard grant him an honorary degree, but the Massachusetts General Court issued a statement predicting that monuments would be constructed in his name. And the Continental Congress ordered a gold medal cast to commemorate his triumph. John Hancock, the president of the congress, explained what the medal was intended to celebrate: “Those Pages in the Annals of America, will record your Title to a conspicuous Place in the Temple of Fame, which shall inform Posterity that under your Directions, an undisciplined Band of Husband men, in the Course of a few Months, became Soldiers [and then defeated] an Army of Veterans, commanded by the most experienced Generals.”3

So there it was. The widespread apprehension that the British Army was invincible had just been disproved. Not only was the British fleet sailing away in defeat and disgrace, but the formula for American military success had now been discovered. Rank amateurs who believed in the cause they were fighting for could defeat British veterans who were fighting for pay—that is, if the Americans were commanded by a natural leader who proved himself capable of tapping the bottomless well of patriotism in his citizen-soldiers. Washington was obviously that man, now the one-man embodiment of “The Cause.”

As he headed south from Boston with slightly less than 10,000 troops to oppose the presumed British attack at New York, Washington was greeted with parades, multiple toasts to “His Excellency,” and the kind of spontaneous public adulation that would become commonplace throughout the rest of his life. If all successful revolutions require heroes, and they do, the American Revolution had discovered its larger-than-life personality around whom to rally.

Washington not only fit the bill physically, he was also almost perfect psychologically, so comfortable with his superiority that he felt no need to explain himself. (As a young man during the French and Indian War, he had been more outspoken, but he learned from experience to allow his sheer presence to speak for itself.) While less confident men blathered on, he remained silent, thereby making himself a vessel into which admirers poured their fondest convictions, becoming a kind of receptacle for diverse aspirations that magically came together in one man. All arguments about what independence stood for ceased in his presence. As the toasts to Washington put it, he “unites all hearts.”4

Beneath this magisterial veneer, however, Washington himself harbored serious doubts about the assumptions underlying Hancock’s uplifting assessment, chiefly his confidence in the military prowess of an army of amateurs. During the Boston Siege, he had unburdened himself on several occasions on this very point. “To expect then the same Service from Raw, and undisciplined Recruits as from Veteran Soldiers,” he warned, “is to expect what never did, and perhaps never will happen.” Patriotism was an indispensable ingredient, no question, but it was not an adequate substitute for military discipline and experience. What no one seemed to notice was that the triumph at the Boston Siege had been achieved without a major battle. In that sense, the Continental Army was still untested. And Washington was uncertain that it would perform with equivalent success when confronted by the full power of the British Army in New York. If he had known what the British intended to throw at him there, he would have been more skeptical.5

Here, for the first time, an underlying contradiction that in fact was never wholly resolved began to take shape. (In Washington’s mind, it was the shape of a satanic specter.) Namely, the very values that the American patriots claimed to be fighting for were incompatible with the disciplined culture required in a professional army. Republics were committed to a core principle of consent, while armies were the institutional embodiments of unthinking obedience and routinized coercion. The very idea of a “standing army” struck most members of the Continental Congress and the state legislatures as a highly dangerous threat to republican principles. And yet, at least as Washington saw it, only a professional army in the British mode could win a war that then permitted those republican principles to endure. At least logically, this dilemma was insoluble, an ends-means problem of the most dramatic kind. Even at the rhetorical level, it was never really resolved so much as obscured beneath the glittering gloss of the Washington mystique. Because he was the universally recognized symbol of all the American cause claimed to stand for, any army that he commanded was, by definition, republican in character. Thomas Jefferson was about to declare some rather significant self-evident truths of his own, but for now, and in fact for the entire war, Washington was the towering self-evident truth on horseback, indispensable because he rendered all argument unnecessary.

WHAT WASHINGTON KNEW, having learned it over and over again during the nine-month-long Boston Siege, was that the Continental Army he was leading down the coast through Rhode Island and Connecticut to New York was neither continental in character nor an army in anything like the professional sense of the term.6

On the first score, over 90 percent of his troops were New Englanders. This made perfect sense, given that the initial military actions had all occurred in and around Boston; the militia units that rallied to “The Cause” were overwhelmingly volunteers fromMassachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. Moreover, if patriotism had a temperature, the hottest region in the American colonies was New England, where political indifference in many towns and villages was stigmatized as treasonable behavior. Outright expressions of loyalty to the crown were severely punished with tar and feathers in the town square, mobs that tore down and burned your house, and public notices of your imminent demise. Not for nothing did the British ministry regard New England as the cradle of the rebellion.7

But if the army was the clearest expression of American resistance and patriotism, the hegemonic presence of New Englanders raised serious questions about the level of political commitment in the middle and southern colonies. Washington was acting on the presumption that he was leading a consolidated American effort to withdraw from the British Empire, but no political statement to that effect had yet been sanctioned by the Continental Congress. Despite the confidence that Washington projected as he rode through Providence, New London, and New Haven, it was still unclear whether the colonies south and west of the Hudson would rally to “The Cause” in the manner of the New Englanders.

The army marching behind Washington might charitably have been called a work in progress. It represented the enduring remnant of the militia units that had formed around Boston the preceding summer and then become incorporated into what was now being called the Continental Army. In fact, most of the men with farms and families, the prototypical yeomen farmers, had gone home to till their fields and resume their role as state militia. The troops who stayed represented the bottom rung of the social ladder—former indentured servants; recent Irish immigrants; unemployed artisans, blacksmiths, and carpenters—who stayed because they had nowhere else to go. What Washington called “the soldiery” of the Continental Army was a motley crew of marginal men and misfits, most wearing hunting shirts instead of uniforms, spitting tobacco every ten paces, all defiantly confident that they had just humiliated the flower of the British Army at Boston and would soon do the same at New York. Free-spirited, rough-hewn, and full of youthful vigor, they were not the kind of men you wanted living in your neighborhood.

They had driven Washington to the edge of exasperation for the past nine months, resisting most forms of military discipline, relieving themselves wherever and whenever the spirit moved them, and mocking their junior officers, whom in many cases they had elected and regarded as their representatives rather than their superiors. “I have often thought,” Washington confessed to a trusted aide, “how much happier I should have been if, instead of accepting a command under such Circumstances, I should have taken my musket upon my Shoulder & entered the Ranks or … had retir’d to the back country & lived in a Wig-wam.”8

On several occasions, when Washington had recommended an assault on the British defenses in Boston, all the general officers, meeting in councils of war, had convinced him that the troops lacked the discipline and unit cohesion to conduct an offensive operation. They were simply too inexperienced. (The average length of service in the Continental Army was less than six months. In the British Army it was seven years.) Washington eventually, if reluctantly, accepted the limitations imposed by the kind of troops he was commanding and adjusted his tactics accordingly: “Place them behind a Parapet—a Breast Work—Stone Wall … and they will give a good Acct.… But they will not March boldly up to a work—or stand exposed on a Plain.” The paradigm was Bunker Hill. Occupy a strong defensive position, then invite the British to attack, and the men would fight like demons. That was the picture and tactical vision that Washington was carrying in his mind on the road to New York.9

THEIR COMPENSATING ASSET, intangible but essential, was that they were all volunteers fighting for a cause they believed in passionately. On several occasions outside Boston, Washington had brandished this asset before them. “Whilst we have men who in every way are superior to mercenary troops,” he urged, “why cannot we in appearance also be superior to them, when we fight for Life, Liberty, Property and our Country?” But the question made no sense to the bulk of the troops, who regarded instinctive obedience to orders and ready acceptance of subordination within a military hierarchy as infringements on the very liberty they were fighting for. They saw themselves as invincible, not because they were disciplined soldiers like the redcoats but because they were patriotic, liberty-loving men willing to risk their lives for their convictions.10

In that sense they embodied what came to be called “the spirit of ’76,” also known at the time as “rage militaire.” This was the heartfelt but romantic notion that the moral supremacy of the American quest for independence was an indefatigable and undefeatable force—picture Joseph Warren going down in glory at Bunker Hill. Neither Washington, who was too much of a realist to embrace this attitude, nor the troops themselves knew it at the time—there was no way they could—but the so-called spirit of ’76 was dying even before the year itself ended and, most ironically, even before the Continental Congress got around to making American independence official. What one historian has called “the Norman Rockwell moments of the war” were over. The military struggle was not going to be a short conflict won by a burst of American patriotism that convinced the British that the game was not worth the candle. It was going to be a protracted war in which the capacity to endure would count more than the purity of “The Cause.” For that kind of conflict, and Washington knew this, the Continental Army as currently constituted was woefully inadequate, indeed no match for their disciplined British opponents.11

For once you got past the patriotic rhetoric and the romantic glorification of amateur status, the simple fact was that the so-called Continental Army was less than a year old. For over a century, the British Army had been building up an institution with rules and procedures that were now established. The Continental Army had to start from scratch, improvising on the run to create a centralized commissary system for providing food, a quartermaster corps to deliver equipment and clothing, and rules for hygiene and medical care, right down to the elemental matters of latrines and waste disposal.

Nor was that all. Questions of pay rates for officers, procedures for courts-martial, and uniform regulations for marching and drill all had to be invented and then standardized. And because enlistments for the vast majority of the troops lasted only a year, the Continental Army would become a permanent turnstile, different soldiers always coming and going, so that by the time they had learned the rudiments of military life, they were replaced by inexperienced recruits. Washington kept pressing his civilian superiors in the congress for mandatory troop allotments from each state and inducements for those willing to serve for three years or, better yet, “for the duration.” But the response from the congress was stunned silence, since what Washington was requesting sounded very much like a permanent standing army, the epitome of everything Americans were rebelling against.

Moreover, allegiances were still provincial rather than national, meaning circumscribed by local and at most state loyalties, so all the political incentives favored service in the state militia, and in most states the pay rates were higher as well, making the Continental Army the choice of last resort.

Creating an officer’s corps de novo, especially at the senior level, also presented a unique set of problems. In the British Army, senior officers were the product of privilege and merit. The privilege came from being born into the aristocracy, the merit from undergoing about twenty years of experience as a proven leader on the battlefield. Since America had no such thing as a titled aristocracy and the only military theater in which soldiers could have acquired experience was the French and Indian War, the pool of candidates was quite small, though large enough to include Washington and a few others like Charles Lee, the most experienced and colorful general in the Continental Army. Lee’s many eccentricities included an ever-present pack of dogs that accompanied him into battle and the nickname “Boiling Water,” given him by the Mohawk tribe for his unpredictable volatility.12

But Washington and Lee, in different ways that would eventually collide, were singular figures. More typical, and more illustrative of the leadership problem facing the fledging Continental Army, were two men who, over the long course of the war, turned out to be examples of Washington’s excellent eye for talent.

One was Nathanael Greene, a Rhode Island Quaker who was cast out of the Society of Friends because of his support for the war. In 1775 Greene was a private in a Rhode Island militia unit called the Kentish Guards. A year later he was a brigadier general, plucked from the ranks outside Boston on the basis of his conspicuous intelligence and dedication.13

The other was Henry Knox, one of the fattest men in the Continental Army at well over three hundred pounds, whose only experience of war had been acquired through books, which he devoured feverishly in his own Boston bookstore. Impressed with Knox’s resourcefulness in transporting the British cannons captured at Ticonderoga on forty sleds over the ice and snow, the near-impossible logistical feat that had provided the firepower on Dorchester Heights so crucial in forcing the British withdrawal from Boston, Washington appointed Knox to head the artillery regiment in the Continental Army.14

The appointment of Greene and Knox as senior officers is usually cited as an example of Washington’s uncanny judgment about latent ability. And this is unquestionably correct, as their performance over the next seven years would confirm. But in the moment, which is to say in the spring of 1776, Greene and Knox represented the unprecedented level of military inexperience leading the Continental Army. In any European context, or from the perspective of the officer class of the British Army, they were preposterously unimaginable. To be sure, America was already renowned as the land of opportunity, where credentials mattered less than demonstrated ability. But Greene and Knox, neither of whom had ever before heard a shot fired in anger, were measures of Washington’s desperation and the novice status of the Continental Army. No one wanted to say it outright, but the looming battle in New York represented their opportunity to acquire on-the-job training.

Finally, there was the problematic character of New York itself as the site for a stand. Unquestionably, New York enjoyed enormous strategic significance. As Adams had already apprised Washington, it was “the nexus of the Northern and Southern colonies … the key to the whole Continent, as it is a Passage to Canada, to the Great Lakes, and to all the Indian Nations.” Sent south to reconnoiter the terrain because of his experienced eye, Charles Lee confirmed Adams’s assessment, agreeing that “the consequences of the Enemy’s possessing themselves of New York have appeard’d to us so terrible that I have scarce been able to speak.” But Lee then went on to conclude that New York was indefensible. “What to do with this city, I own puzzles me,” Lee wrote, “it is so encircled with deep navigable water, that whoever commands the sea commands the town.”15

There was no question as to who commanded the sea. The Royal Navy ruled the waves like no other navy in modern history. And one look at a map confirmed that the city of New York consisted of three islands—Staten Island, Long Island, and Manhattan—and that the shorelines of all were accessible to amphibious landings in multiple locations via Long Island Sound and the Hudson and East rivers. There was no such thing as a Continental navy, only a small flotilla of privateers capable of harassing smaller British vessels off the New England coast. Total naval supremacy gave the British Army floating platforms of artillery at any point of attack and the tactical agility to move troops wherever and whenever they wished. This was not to mention that New York contained the highest percentage of loyalists of any colony in North America.16

And so, as the spring flowers bloomed and the grasses greened along the road to New York, the honeymoon phase of the American Revolution was coming to an end. The victorious insurgency was about to become a full-scale war. The multiple toasts toWashington in the towns and villages through which he and the army passed echoed the patriotic chords of a hymn to “The Cause,” which was simultaneously glorious and invincible. A more detached assessment would have produced a more ominous tune, with lyrics about a quasi-army of marginal misfits, led by a team of overconfident amateurs, marching to defend a strategically significant city that, truth be known, was indefensible.

AS THE MAKESHIFT AMERICAN ARMY trudged south and the Continental Congress waited for popular opinion on independence to congeal, the British war machine was gearing up at lightning speed. In a nearly miraculous burst of logistical energy, Great Britain assembled a fleet of 427 ships equipped with 1,200 cannons to transport 32,000 soldiers and 10,000 sailors across the Atlantic. It was the largest amphibious operation ever attempted by any European power, with an attack force larger than the population of Philadelphia, the biggest city in America. Having concluded that nothing less was at stake than retention of all its American colonies, the top echelon of the government at Whitehall had decided to show the imperious face of the British Empire.17

The man most responsible for this logistical legerdemain was Lord George Germain, whose appointment as secretary of state for the American colonies signaled the commitment of the British ministry to an aggressive policy designed to smash the American rebellion with one massive blow. Germain had made his own convictions clear soon after the stunning report of the bloodletting at Bunker Hill reached London. “As there is no common sense in protracting a war of this sort,” Lord George wrote, apparently unaware of his echo of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, “I should be for exerting the utmost force of this Kingdom to finish the rebellion in one campaign.” The enormous armada assembling at several English ports—nearly half the British fleet—plus the 18,000 mercenaries eventually recruited from several German principalities at considerable cost, all represented Germain’s commitment to the projection of Britain’s full military might in order to ensure a decisive outcome.18

All historical assessments of Germain are clouded by the vilification that befell him in the wake of the eventual American victory, when he was described as “probably the most incompetent official that ever held an important post at a critical moment.” This retrospective description made perfect sense, since the loss of its entire North American empire was beyond much doubt the biggest blunder in the history of British statecraft, and Germain more than anyone else shaped the ill-fated British policy. And once this interpretive angle was established, Germain’s belligerent tendencies fell into line as the inevitable excesses of a man whose military reputation had been tarnished by accusations of cowardice and incompetence at the Battle of Minden (1759), which he then spent the rest of his career trying to redeem with conspicuously aggressive policies.19

But in this case, hindsight tends to obscure rather than clarify our understanding of a highly dramatic and consequential historical moment. For Germain grasped instinctively the seriousness and depth of the threat represented by the American rebellion. He dismissed as blatant idiocy the condescending confidence of several retired British generals, one of whom claimed that he could march across the American colonies with 5,000 men and subdue the rebellion in a month. Germain knew that he was up against a formidable force that defied conventional measures of military effectiveness, and he worried that in a protracted war, space and time would be on the side of the rebels. The vast size of the American theater, plus the latent energies of a proud people, numerous and armed, would gradually wear down the British resolve unless the rebellion was quashed before these larger forces could be brought to bear.

Moreover, Germain had a military strategy that reflected his keen sense of political urgency. For all the reasons John Adams had listed, New York was the preferred target. But then, once subdued and occupied as the base of operations for the British army and navy, Germain envisioned mounting a campaign up the Hudson corridor that would meet a British army coming down from Canada, thereby sealing New England off from the middle and southern colonies. Once joined, these two British armies would march through western New England toward Boston, destroying the cradle of the American rebellion as they went, while the British navy wreaked havoc on all the coastal cities and towns.

Even in retrospect, it was an extremely sophisticated strategy that might well have worked if it had been implemented early in the war. It showed that Germain recognized from the start the great danger hovering over any military campaign against the Americans: namely, that the British Army—no matter how large and experienced—would dissipate its strength marching hither and yon across the vast American landscape in search of a strategic center of the rebellion that in fact did not exist. (This is eventually what happened.) Germain’s plan avoided that ill-fated prospect by insisting on a concentrated display of British military supremacy against a focused objective, an isolated New England, which he identified as the wellspring and soul of the American insurgency.20

Finally, Germain handpicked the Howe brothers to lead the British naval and ground forces. Admiral Lord Richard Howe, nicknamed “Black Dick” for his congenital gravity, was at forty-nine near the peak of his powers as the ablest seaman in the greatest navy in the world. Like William, his younger brother, Lord Richard was connected by blood to the royal family, albeit in an awkward fashion: their grandmother had been the favorite mistress of George I. Both had attended Eton, the preferred gateway for the most privileged members of the British aristocracy, and both occupied secure seats in Parliament, where as good Whigs they had originally favored a diplomatic resolution of the Anglo-American conflict, at least in part because of their mutual affection for the citizenry of Massachusetts, who had raised 250 pounds for a monument in honor of their older brother, George Augustus Howe, killed at Ticonderoga in 1758. By 1776, however, both men had concluded that the ongoing war could be ended only by delivering a decisive blow that would bring their American cousins to their senses. Both relished the opportunity to deliver such a blow but relished even more the opportunity to then negotiate a peace that would end this misguided and unfortunate conflict promptly.21

General William Howe, the younger but taller brother at forty-five and nearly six feet, had the more glamorous military record. And because his decisions during the battle for New York proved so consequential, his career merits a more extended pause.

Much in the manner of Washington, the foundation of Howe’s military education was laid during the French and Indian War. And again like Washington, he had survived several actions without a scratch when all around him went down in heaps of blood and gore. As a young officer, Howe had led the “forlorn hope” assault (i.e., suicide mission) on the Plains of Abraham at Quebec, which proved to be the decisive action in the culminating battle of the war. In the middle years of his career, he developed a reputation for mastery of light infantry tactics that put a premium on speed of maneuver. After his conspicuous display of tactical agility at the Battle of Havana, he was generally regarded as the most brilliant regimental commander in the British Army.

Howe’s role at Bunker Hill reinforced his reputation for personal courage but also added a new dimension of fatalism to his military mentality. He had led the first wave, accompanied by his staff and a servant carrying a silver tray with a decanter of wine. Obviously unimpressed with the fighting prowess of the militia, Howe had presumed the assault would be a waltz. But his entire staff, including the servant, was wiped out that day, along with nearly half the attacking force, more than 1,000 men. Howe never fully recovered from the trauma of the experience and internalized both a newfound respect for the fighting spirit of American troops and a nearly obsessive aversion to frontal assaults against entrenched positions.

Something snapped in Howe after Bunker Hill. In one sense, his aristocratic style became even more flamboyant. While holed up in Boston, he spent more time at the card tables and consumed almost obscene amounts of food and drink. He threw caution to the wind and developed an openly scandalous relationship with Elizabeth Loring, the blond and beautiful twenty-four-year-old wife of a Boston loyalist, who acquiesced to the liaison, correctly presuming that Howe would reward him for his broad-mindedness. The Lorings accompanied Howe in the retreat to Halifax, where Mrs. Loring resumed her role as Cleopatra to Howe’s Marc Antony. While gaming by day and enjoying the company of Mrs. Loring at night, Howe received word of his appointment as commander of His Majesty’s ground forces in North America, as well as Germain’s orders to prepare for a campaign against New York.22

Howe’s response to Germain conveyed a combination of weariness and wariness about his new mission. “The scene here at present wears a lowering aspect,” he confided to Germain, “there not being the least prospect of conciliating the continent unless its armies are roughly dealt with, and I confess my apprehension that such an event will readily be brought about.” In effect, Howe concurred with Germain’s strategic analysis that a decisive blow had to be delivered, and that any effort at reconciliation could only come after a military campaign of overwhelming force had shocked the rebels into recognizing the futility of their cause.

While Howe harbored no doubts that a British army of the size Germain proposed could deliver such a blow, he worried that the Americans would refuse to cooperate by attempting to defend New York. “Knowing their advantages in having the whole country, as it were, at their disposal,” Howe predicted, “they will not readily be brought into a situation where the King’s troops can meet with them on equal terms.” The rebel army was likely to withdraw inland, away from the coast, where the British navy gave its army such a tactical and logistical advantage. “Their armies retiring a few miles back from the navigable rivers,” Howe concluded, “ours cannot follow them from the difficulties I expect to meet with in procuring land carriage.” Howe was already anticipating the kind of problems generals John Burgoyne and Charles Cornwallis would encounter once marooned inland without the protection of the British fleet. But his major point was that he seriously doubted the Americans would be so foolish as to fight a conventional battle against a numerically and professionally superior British force. And the last place they would choose to do so was New York, which he fully expected they would abandon and probably burn to the ground.23

THE CONTINENTAL ARMY, in fact, did not have a comprehensive strategy for the conduct of the war. During the Boston Siege, several of Washington’s senior officers, chiefly Charles Lee and Horatio Gates—both not so incidentally veterans of the British Army—had argued for a defensive strategy along just the lines that Howe had anticipated. Gates had even suggested taking the army west of the Alleghenies and daring the British Army to pursue them, while Lee seemed to favor a “war of posts” in which the Continental Army avoided any full-scale engagements except on the most favorable terms. On occasion Lee suggested dividing the army into several smaller units, then conducting quasi-guerrilla operations designed to harass and frustrate the British Army.24

But these were merely conversations during councils of war outside Boston. Devising a comprehensive strategy for the conduct of the war required an established government with clearly delineated powers and designated decision makers charged with coordinating the quite monumental civil and military considerations. Both the Continental Congress and the Continental Army were still provisional improvisations, managing the imperial crisis as best they could, one step at a time. Indeed, at the moment, the question of military strategy had to be deferred until the all-important question of independence was resolved. A decisive presence like Lord Germain was unimaginable in an American context, because no political infrastructure or lines of authority had yet been devised, and until independence was decided, it was unclear that any would be needed.

And so, when Washington arrived in New York on April 13, the question of whether New York should be defended had never even been raised. “The designs of the Enemy are too much behind the Curtain for me to form any accurate opinion of their Plan of operations,” Washington confided to Hancock, adding that “we are left to wander in the field of conjecture.” All such wanderings, however, led to the conclusion that “no place—all of its consequences considered—seemed of more Importance in execution of their Grand Plan than possessing themselves of Hudson’s River.”25

Since no American version of a “Grand Plan” was in place to guide a decision, Washington was implicitly acknowledging that British strategy would dictate American strategy. In practice, this meant that wherever Howe (or Germain) chose to attack, Washington felt obliged to defend. Everyone on both sides seemed to agree that New York was the obvious target, which was why Washington was setting up his new headquarters in Manhattan by mid-April. The fact that Lee’s earlier reconnaissance of the terrain had concluded that New York was inherently indefensible had at least temporarily dropped out of the strategic equation.

It dropped back in over the ensuing month as Washington’s own eyes surveyed the same terrain, now dotted with multiple forts, redoubts, trenches, and barricades, all being constructed by a small army of day laborers, soldiers, and slaves according to an engineering scheme Lee had devised to transform a vulnerable archipelago into something resembling an armed camp. Lee’s primary purpose had been to restrict British naval mobility at the entrances to the Hudson and East rivers and then to construct a series of defensive positions on Manhattan Island that would permit American troops to inflict heavy casualties on the British, then fall back to the next line. It was not so much a recipe for American victory as an attempt to create a series of Bunker Hills in which the probable British victory would come at a very high cost.26

As this grim scenario began to settle in his mind, Washington decided that the best way to bolster his waning confidence was to redouble the forts and entrenchments on Manhattan and Long Island. He enlisted one of his brigadiers who had been born and raised in New York, General William Alexander, to oversee two full regiments, who proceeded to dig and build ten hours a day. (Alexander claimed descent from Scottish royalty, and though the House of Lords rejected his claim, he insisted on being called Lord Stirling, and everyone, including Washington, somewhat strangely complied.) As Long Island loomed larger in Washington’s mind as a likely invasion route, he assigned the construction of its defenses to Nathanael Greene, who, true to form, began to turn Brooklyn Heights into a honeycomb of connected forts, redoubts, and trenches, a kind of Bunker Hill on steroids.27

But as the weather warmed, it became quite clear that New York resisted all comparisons with Boston. “The Fortifications in and about this City are exceedingly strong, and strengthening everyday,” Greene wrote his brother. “But the New England Colonies without the least fortification [are] easier defended than this Colony … owing to the different dispositions of the People. Tories here are as plenty as Whigs with you.”28

Indeed, reports had it that most of the farmers on Long Island were loyalists, or at least British sympathizers, and that they were organizing a militia unit to join the British Army once it arrived in force. The governor of the colony, the mayor of New York City, and the majority of the wealthiest residents were all loyal to the crown and thereby lent considerable credibility to the British claim that any invasion and occupation of New York was less a hostile act than a much-welcomed liberation. And so, while the water-laced geography of New York made it strategically indefensible, probably the worst spot on the Atlantic Coast for the Americans to make a stand, the political architecture of the city and surrounding countryside made it the most hostile environment in all the American colonies to defend, because so many of the residents did not wish to be defended.

As these depressing realizations continued to mount, Washington tried to take solace from all those new forts and artillery emplacements—defense mechanisms against his own growing skepticism as much as against the looming British leviathan. He also issued orders on an almost daily basis designed to project the impression that the Continental Army was a welcomed guest in the city and must conduct itself according to the highest standards of civility and manners. “The General flatters himself,” read one typical General Order, “that he shall hear no Complaints from the Citizens, of abuse, or ill treatment, in any respect whatsoever; but that every Officer, and Soldier, of every Rank and Denomination will pride themselves (as Men contending in the glorious Cause of Liberty ought to do) in an orderly, decent, and regular deportment.”29

The less patriotic and more prosaic reality was that relations between the troops and the residents were tense, often violent and abusive, much in the manner of an unwelcome occupying army. The toxic social chemistry was rendered more poisonous by the presence of the largest brothel in North America, in a neighborhood sardonically named the Holy Ground, populated by a veritable army of prostitutes eager to share their charms and venereal diseases with virile young men lacking families or futures. Most of the prostitutes were tough-minded loyalists, and when two soldiers were murdered and castrated, then stuffed in a barrel, their regiment retaliated the next day by pulling down two houses of ill repute where the suspected killers plied their trade. Washington condemned the regiment’s behavior as a conspicuous violation of regulations, ignoring the real source of the problem.30

Finally, to make matters worse, the Continental Congress ordered Washington to release six of his regiments to bolster an ill-conceived campaign to capture Quebec, part of a bold initiative that Washington had earlier endorsed to deny Great Britain a safe base from which to spread mischief among the Six Nations, the Native American confederation already leaning toward an alliance with the redcoats. Washington somewhat reluctantly agreed, apprising Hancock that although New York had become “the Grand Magazine of America,” at this rate there would be no one left to oppose the imminent British invasion.31

Assurances from the congress took the form of guarantees that militia units from New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and New Jersey were already placed on alert and poised to move as soon as the British fleet was sighted on the horizon, adding about 15,000 troops to Washington’s New York garrison. From a patriotic perspective, this was splendid news, confirmation that America’s minutemen were ready to live up to their name. From a more professional perspective, however, this arrangement had an almost comical character, since none of the militia units had been given designated areas of responsibility on either Manhattan or Long Island, had not been integrated into the regimen of the Continental Army, and were presumably expected to make a difference just by showing up.

By late May, Washington had seen enough to recognize the strategic and political precariousness of his position and had begun to adopt a fatalistic posture toward the looming calamity. “We expect a very bloody Summer of it at New York,” he wrote his brother, “as it is here I expect the grand efforts of the Enemy will be aim’d; and I am sorry to say that we are not either in Men, or Arms, prepared for it.” But for several unspoken reasons—all that work on all those forts, the sense that he had bested Howe before and could do it again, and the near unanimity of his civilian superiors in the congress that New York must not be abandoned—he never gave serious consideration to doing what Howe presumed he would do and abandon New York for more defensible terrain inland. Since all the tangible signs were bad, he took final refuge in the intangible potency of “The Cause” itself: “If our cause is just, as I do most religiously believe it to be, the same Providence which has in so many Instances appeared for us, will still go on to afford its aid.” He was counting on a miracle.32

THE LAST OPPORTUNITY to rethink the New York commitment occurred in late May and early June, when Washington was called to Philadelphia to confer with the delegates of the Continental Congress about overall American strategy. It was the first such session ever, but for several reasons the gravity of the military situation in New York never received the concerted attention it deserved. Washington brought along his wife, Martha, so that she might undergo inoculation, and given the risky character of the procedure, a part of Washington’s mind was preoccupied with her recovery. News of the complete debacle suffered by American troops at Quebec also arrived during this time, casting a pall over the deliberations because it was the first unmitigated American defeat in the war and was wholly unexpected, but it was explained away on the grounds—not wholly unfounded—that the American troops were riddled with smallpox. A delegation of Native American chiefs being cultivated as prospective allies added to the confusion by insisting that they would remain in attendance only if assured that they would be provided with sufficient amounts of alcohol during the negotiations.33

But the big distraction came in the form of a resolution passed on May 15 by the Virginia legislature that arrived in Philadelphia just before Washington and his entourage. For obvious reasons, it immediately dominated the agenda of the Continental Congress because it proposed “that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.” In effect, the summit on military strategy was coinciding with the climactic political moment when the long-delayed discussion on American independence finally came before the congress. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia moved the resolution on June 7, and the congress immediately appointed a five-member committee to draft a document implementing Lee’s resolution. The crucial military and political decisions were cresting simultaneously.34

Washington kept an elaborate account of all his expenses for the trip to and residence in Philadelphia but made no record of the all-important deliberations about the defense of New York. Part of his own attention was diverted by the looming vote on independence, which he was not sure would carry because of the lingering reluctance of moderate delegates like John Dickinson to face the inevitable. “Members of Congress, in short, the representation of whole Provinces,” he wrote his brother, “are still feeding themselves on the dainty food of reconciliation.” The recent arrival of news from London that the British ministry was sending peace commissioners to negotiate a political solution to the conflict struck Washington as an obvious ploy designed to enhance the futile hopes of the moderate faction in the congress, a tactic he could only deplore as blatant manipulation.35

Though no record of the committee’s deliberations was kept, correspondence over the ensuing weeks and subsequent reports of the congress made it clear that the committee made two decisions. First, it created a new Board of War and Ordnance to coordinate all military strategy and to be chaired by John Adams, making him the de facto secretary of war. Adams accepted the new post reluctantly, echoing Washington’s statement, almost exactly a year earlier, that he was unqualified for the job. “It is a great Mortification to me I confess,” he confided to Greene, “and I fear it will too often be a Misfortune to our Country, that I am called to the Discharge of a Trust to which I feel myself so unequal, and in the Execution of which I can derive no assistance from my Education or former Course of Life.” He began asking friends in Boston to scour the Harvard library for books on how to run an army. An array of amateur soldiers and officers was now to be supervised by a civilian with no military experience whatsoever.36

Second, the question of New York’s defense received extended attention, but the focus was on the additional resources Washington believed he needed to stop the looming invasion, not on whether New York should be defended at all. The latter, of course, was the most crucial and consequential consideration, the most elemental strategic issue of all, but it was never faced or even raised. Though it is always intellectually awkward to explain a nonevent, in this case the effort seems justified, knowing as we do that the entire cascade of battlefield horrors about to befall Washington and his inexperienced troops followed inevitably from this basic strategic blunder.

Context helps explain what is otherwise bafflingly inexplicable. It helps to recall the relentless outpouring of praise for Washington and his troops in the wake of the British evacuation of Boston. As noted earlier, though there was never a real battle, the British retreat was portrayed as a monumental victory for the Continental Army. Most if not all the delegates in the Continental Congress, Adams included, harbored an inflated opinion of the military prowess of Washington’s raw recruits, as well as an ill-informed and wholly unrealistic estimate of the militia as a dependable fighting force. Greene once tried, albeit gently and diplomatically, to disabuse Adams about all this. “You think the present army assisted by the militia is sufficient to oppose the force of Great Britain,” he warned. “I can assure you it is necessary to make great allowances in the calculation of our strength … or else you’ll be greatly deceived.” Adams was, in fact, convinced that Washington would repeat in New York the same splendid outcome over Howe’s army that he had delivered in Boston.37

Washington himself knew better, but he found it impossible to tell his civilian superior that the florid praise they were passing out so freely was misplaced and that the confidence in both him and his army was equally excessive. He appeared to take refuge in the quasi-spiritual power of “The Cause” and in the possibility of multiple repetitions of the Bunker Hill carnage on Long Island and Manhattan. “If our troops will behave well,” he confided to Hancock, Howe’s troops “will have to wade through much blood & Slaughter before they can carry any part of our Works, If they carry ’em at all.… May the sacredness of our cause Inspire our Soldiery with sentiments of Heroism, and lead ’em to the performance of noblest exploits.”38

It also made a difference that Howe’s army was likely to arrive at the same moment that the question of American independence would be decided. How would it look if just as the political climax to years of debate finally occurred, the military embodiment of that glorious cause fled New York for the security of the Connecticut hills and allowed Howe to occupy the city without a fight? The mounting political momentum for independence also buoyed confidence in the military commitment to defend New York. The Americans had profound political reasons to avoid appearing militarily weak and vulnerable at this propitious moment when, at last, independence was about to be declared.

Of course, someone could have asked how it would look if precisely when the celebrations of American independence were ringing in the air, news arrived from New York that the Continental Army had just been annihilated. Even to pose such a question seemed almost unpatriotic in this overheated moment, and no one did.

While in Philadelphia, Washington was promised a major injection of new militia from New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland, raising his troop strength to slightly over 25,000, more than half of whom were militia. He was authorized to round up and arrest the known loyalists on Long Island, thus ending the pretense that they could not be touched until a formal declaration of independence had been made. He was directed to construct “as many fire rafts, row gallies, armed boats, and floating batteries as may be necessary,” a final gesture at impeding British naval access up the Hudson and East rivers.39

On the day Washington arrived back in New York, his aides apprised him that many of the incoming militia lacked muskets. The next day, headquarters issued an order that these men be equipped with spears. This was an ominous sign.40

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