I consider this War against us therefore, as both unjust, and unwise, and I am persuaded that cool dispassionate Posterity will condemn to Infamy those who advised it; and that not even Success will save from some degree of Dishonour, those who voluntarily engaged to conduct it.
—BENJAMIN FRANKLIN TO LORD RICHARD HOWE, July 20, 1776
The men disembarking onto Staten Island had just endured a harrowing monthlong ordeal at sea that eventually proved more dangerous than any of the battles they would fight on land. The close quarters, poor diet, and bad sanitary conditions had created outbreaks of malaria and accompanying high casualty rates. Slightly more than 1,000 soldiers and sailors had been buried at sea, together with almost as many horses and livestock. In most military histories, the term killing zone refers to that most lethal location on the battlefield where advancing troops are exposed to waves of metal projectiles propelled at high velocity from the state-of-the-art weapons of mass destruction. But in the late eighteenth century, and for more than a hundred years thereafter, the most lethal “killing zones” were the hospitals and confined conditions aboard ships, where the weapons of mass destruction were germs, microbes, and viral strains against which medical science had yet to develop any defensive network of prevention or cure. Leavingthose disease-ridden ships for the bucolic hills and clean air of Staten Island meant that for the British Army the most dangerous part of the American campaign was over.1
Ambrose Serle, the secretary to Admiral Howe, has left the fullest account of his impressions of Staten Island. “The People of this Island, like their Soil, are thin and meager; the Voices faint, and their whole Frame of a loose and languid texture,” Serle observed, adding that “the Soil is mostly poor, and receives a very inferior Cultivation than our Lands in G. Britain.” Serle obviously observed the people and overall American environment, which he had never seen before, through the lens of presumed superiority and studied condescension appropriate for an overbearing British aristocrat. It was all part of the mental package he carried from the London courts and Whitehall corridors, where American resistance to British authority was regarded as a preposterous violation of the divinely sanctioned political order and George Washington was viewed, in Serle’s words, “as a little paltry Colonel of Militia at the Head of a Banditti of Rebels.”2
If Serle’s political prejudices were just as predictable as they were insufferable—and, in truth, they provided a nice window into one reason American independence had become inevitable—ordinary British soldiers harbored several strange preconceptions of their own. Some were surprised that the colonists wore clothes, thinking they would dress like Indians. Others had expected to encounter roving bands of wild animals in the manner of African jungles. And when a loyalist came aboard one ship to help pilot it into port, the British crew and troops were dumbfounded. “All the People had been of the Opinion,” they exclaimed, “that the inhabitants of America were black.”3
But the dominant impressions were more sensible and strategic. The Staten Island landscape was dotted with highly productive farms and impressive herds of cattle and sheep that—Serle’s comments to the contrary notwithstanding—ensured an immediate improvement in the diet of the soldiers of the British Army. Indeed, given their recent experience crossing the Atlantic, the British troops could be excused for believing that they had arrived at paradise.
To top it off, the local inhabitants greeted them as long-awaited rescuers rather than as hostile invaders. Over the preceding months, all attempts to assess the political allegiance of farmers on Long Island and Staten Island had produced only muffled guesses, which accurately conveyed the multilayered political disposition of the populace. Outright loyalists and patriots were vastly outnumbered by simple farmers who only wished that the two armies would go somewhere else to kill each other. But with the arrival of General Howe’s massive force, popular opinion shifted overnight. American sentries looking through their telescopes from the southern coast of Long Island reported that the residents of Staten Island had not really surrendered so much as converted, enthusiastically joining the other side. Very soon the various “joinings” included sexual unions occurring throughout the rolling hills and apple orchards of the island. “The fair nymphs of this isle are in a wonderful tribulation,” reported one British officer. “A girl cannot step into the bushes to pluck a rose without running the imminent risk of being ravished.” Court-martial cases involving accusations of rape became daily occurrences at British headquarters.4
To a surprising degree, the British soldiers encamped on Staten Island resembled their American counterparts on Long Island and Manhattan. Contrary to a negative stereotype that developed in the next century during the emergence of the British Empire at the height of its power, the British Army was not a collection of outcasts, criminals, and psychopaths swept into service from the jails and bars of London or dragooned from English towns and villages. They were, instead, working-class Britons—former day laborers, farmers, carpenters, and shoemakers—who had the misfortune to have become victims of the Industrial Revolution, their jobs displaced by machines, thereby making the army the employer of last resort. They were almost all volunteers.
The big difference between the enlisted men of the British and American armies was age and experience. The typical British soldier was twenty-eight years old, his American counterpart almost eight years younger. And most important, the redcoat had seven years of experience as a soldier, while the American had less than six months, and those in several units of the Continental Army had none whatsoever.5
It came down to proven experience in battle, which on the eighteenth-century battlefield placed a premium on remaining calm amid scenes of unspeakable carnage and horror. “To march over dead men, to hear without concern the groans of the wounded,” Nathanael Greene meditated, “I say few men can stand such scenes unless steeled by habit or fortified by military pride.” Many of the British soldiers, and even more of the Hessians, had shown they could pass that test. The Americans were as yet untried.6
In an effort to buoy the spirit of his troops, Washington had on several occasions questioned the motivation of British regulars. They were mere mercenaries fighting for money. The Americans were patriots fighting for the noble goal of independence. This quasi-religious message had a point, but it misconstrued the motivation of ordinary soldiers on the British side, who shared a deep-felt affection for their respective regiments and for the men standing to the right and left of them in battle. British soldiers saw and felt themselves as a brotherhood prepared to share some of the most excruciating experiences of life together. The regiment was their family, and they were prepared to defend its honor whatever the cost.
ON JULY 9, Washington received a packet of documents from Hancock, along with the following cover letter:
The Congress have judged it necessary to dissolve the connection between Great Britain and the American Colonies, and to declare them free & independent states; as you will perceive by the enclosed Declaration, which I am directed to transmit to you, and to request that you will have it proclaimed at the Head of the Army in the Way you shall think it most proper.7
News that independence had been declared had reached Washington two days earlier, but this was the official communication from the civilian head of the government to the military commander, along with the document itself. Washington made no comment on the language of the Declaration, preferring to regard the words as the long-awaited political commitment that at last aligned the Continental Congress with the Continental Army. He ordered it read aloud to all the troops after dinner that evening on the New York City Commons and on several brigade parade grounds.
The reading on the commons was greeted with “three Huzzas from the Troops,” who then joined a large crowd of civilians that marched down Broadway to Bowling Green to tear down a massive statue of George III. It was made of lead gilded in gold and depicted the king on horseback clad as a Roman emperor. Only a strenuous effort with crowbars and ropes could budge the two-ton monument. After beheading their former sovereign, the lead was hauled away to make 42,000 musket balls, one witness relishing the prospect that “redcoats will have melted majesty fired at them.” In his General Orders the following day, Washington reprimanded his troops for joining the crowd in the wanton act of destruction against the last vestige of royal authority. No one took this reprimand seriously, including Washington himself, who ordered no investigation or punishment of the offenders.8
DURING THE WANING WEEKS of July, Washington continued his practice of building up his networks of defense, both on Long Island and inside his own soul. As ominous as the British encampment on Staten Island appeared, it soon began to provide reliable intelligence, from British deserters and from American loyalists on the island having second thoughts. Greene obtained information about the size and arrival time of Admiral Richard Howe’s approaching fleet, plus General William Howe’s tactical plans to launch his main invasion on Long Island.9
These precious bits of information allowed Washington to fill in the blanks of his defensive scheme with more confidence than guesswork. Moreover, by mid-July he had obtained accurate intelligence about Germain’s strategic plan for the conduct of the entire war. “As it now seems beyond question,” Washington informed Hancock, “that the Enemy mean to direct their Operations against this Colony, and will attempt to unite their two Armies, that under General Burgoyne [coming down from Canada] and the one arrived here.” The looming invasion of New York, then, was the southern half of a coordinated British strategy to capture the Hudson corridor and isolate New England.10
This helps explain the otherwise inexplicable attention Washington devoted to the hapless and apparently hopeless American military efforts in upstate New York commanded by General Philip Schuyler, which dominated his correspondence for days at a time at the expense of attention to the more conspicuous and visible British threat only six miles away. Knowing Germain’s overall strategy forced Washington to broaden his vision in order to counter the British buildup north of Lake Champlain. In retrospect, he would have been better off concentrating his attention on his more immediate adversary.11
On July 12 he proceeded to do precisely that. Knowing as he did that Admiral Howe’s fleet was due later that very day, Washington convened a council of war to consider a strike against the British garrison in Staten Island before it was reinforced. Rather than just sit and watch as the flower of the British army and navy assembled and prepared to deliver a crushing blow, Washington proposed that the Continental Army take the offensive and deliver its own blow before Admiral Howe’s fleet was securely ensconced.
It was a bold idea that accurately reflected Washington’s aggressive military instincts. A plan was drafted in Lord Stirling’s hand calling for a coordinated assault on Staten Island by 3,300 American troops at six separate landing spots. It presumed split-second timing and a wholly unrealistic level of coordination that would have tested the most experienced professional army in the world. Given the inexperience and conspicuous disarray throughout the Continental Army, the plan resembled a textbook example of how to orchestrate a disaster. It was also the first of Washington’s inherently overcomplicated offensive schemes that would bedevil the Continental Army throughout the war. The question put to the council of war was clear and succinct: Should the army mount an attack on Staten Island? The answer came back with equivalent clarity: “Agreed unanimously that it should not.” Complicated tactical attacks were not yet part of the Continental Army’s repertoire. Washington backed off.12
Even before that decision could be digested, Admiral Howe’s flagship, the Eagle, was sighted on the horizon, signaling the arrival of the main British fleet and force. A few hours later two British men-of-war, the Phoenix and the Rose, accompanied by three tenders, took advantage of the favorable winds and tides to sail past Red Hook and Governors Island up the Hudson, guns blazing all the way up the west side of Manhattan. Cannonballs came crashing through houses, scattering the terrified residents in the streets, while the soldiers in the Continental Army watched in disbelief from the shoreline as the Royal Navy offered an exhibition of its matchless firepower. American batteries got off nearly two hundred shots as the ships glided past, but to little avail—they swept past the major gun emplacements at Fort Washington and cruised thirty miles upstream before dropping anchor at the Tappan Zee that evening.13
A recently arrived recruit from Connecticut, only fifteen years old, by the name of Joseph Plumb Martin, noted that he had just seen his first action, which struck him as complete chaos. He had never witnessed cannonfire before but was prepared to testify that “the sound was musical, or at least grand.” He was mesmerized.14
In his General Orders the next day, Washington focused on the dazed response of troops, like Private Martin, who did not behave according to orders by repairing to their posts but instead just stood there in frozen amazement. “Such unsoldierly conduct must grieve every good officer,” Washington lectured, noting that it did not bode well for “The Cause” once serious fighting started.15
But the most foreboding fact about the action that day was the ease with which the British ships had sailed past all the American batteries. In this first test of those elaborately constructed forts and gun emplacements designed to limit British naval mobility around Manhattan, the American defenses had failed miserably. This meant that British ships could move with virtual impunity throughout the New York archipelago, delivering troops and firepower wherever they wished, making a mockery of Washington’s static defenses. Most ominously, it meant that if Manhattan was a bottle, the British could cork it at their pleasure, landing troops on the north end of the island and trapping Washington’s entire army without any avenue of escape. It meant that General Lee’s original assessment was correct: British naval supremacy made New York indefensible.
Hindsight suggests that these revelations should have prompted a fundamental review of American strategy, leading to the abandonment of New York and withdrawal of the Continental Army onto the American mainland in either New Jersey or Connecticut. But hindsight was not available to Washington, who was trapped in the moment much as his army was trapped on two islands. It was clear that the Continental Congress expected him to defend New York at all costs. It was equally clear that his civilian superiors in Philadelphia did not understand what “at all costs” might mean.
Throughout July he devoted his fullest energies to assessing several schemes designed to limit British naval mobility on the Hudson and East rivers. He responded enthusiastically to a proposal from the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety for the creation of six “fire ships” that would ram and sink British frigates in a naval version of “forlorn hope,” or suicidal tactics. He entertained the prospect of blocking ships in the channels of the Hudson with huge piles of debris called chevaux-de-frise, creating underwater blockades that would force British vessels to slow down and maneuver within the range of American guns at strongpoints like Fort Washington. He even listened to a proposal, forwarded to him through Benjamin Franklin, for the deployment of a new kind of ship called asubmarine, which would sink beneath the surface, then pop up to wreak havoc among unsuspecting British ships. He was obviously searching for a way to offset the tactical advantages enjoyed by the British fleet, grasping at straws to reduce the odds against him.16
The sheer volume of requests landing on his desk made it impossible for Washington to concentrate his attention on the larger picture. There were, it turned out, about fifteen thousand cattle, sheep, and horses on Long Island, all belonging to local farmers. Should his army confiscate them to prevent them from falling into British hands? What impact would such confiscation have on the political allegiance of the farmers? After much back-and-forthing, all the livestock on Long Island were rounded up and slaughtered, which amounted to Washington’s tacit recognition that Long Island was likely to fall into British hands.17
Then there was the pressing and awkward question of what to do about the local loyalists. It was pressing because, according to Greene’s estimate, several hundred residents of Long Island were currently hiding in the woods and swamps, waiting to join the British invasion force once it landed. It was awkward because within New York City, a substantial segment of the population, including some of the most prominent citizens, refused to acknowledge the new reality created by the Declaration of Independence and insisted on straddling the divide as British Americans who refused to choose. Eventually it was decided that all straddlers should be treated as loyalists and jailed, and the most suspicious characters should be transported to Connecticut in order to prevent their liberation if the British should occupy the city. Greene ordered a clean sweep of all the households on Long Island, done with decorum in order to avoid the appearance of harshness or insensitivity toward sincere neutrals. The arresting officers should be “decently dressed” and should avoid any expression of “indecency or abuse to any person.” The sheep had to be separated from the goats for obvious military reasons, but Greene wanted to accomplish his mission without becoming the American bully who alienated the very people he hoped to rescue.18
Washington’s chief accomplice in managing the cascading array of daily demands was Joseph Reed, a thirty-five-year-old veteran of the Boston Siege whom Washington had plucked from the ranks to serve as an aide because of his obvious intelligence and educational background. (Reed had studied law at London’s Middle Temple.) When Reed decided in April to return to his family and law practice in Philadelphia, Washington was disappointed, since he had come to regard the young man as an indispensable member of his official “family,” whose judgment and writing ability had become invaluable. In June he lured him back into service with an offer of higher rank, as adjutant general, the chief administrative office in the Continental Army. Almost immediately Reed recognized that he was in over his head. “The office I am in,” he wrote his wife, “is so entirely out of my line, that I do not feel myself so easy in it.”19
In addition to his inexperience—like Greene and Knox, Reed was another one of Washington’s gifted amateurs—he was responsible for administering an army that lacked time-tested procedures and routinized policies, so that every decision became an improvisational act. The intense concern within the officer corps about rank, for example, reflected the evolving criteria for promotion, which produced persistent bickering, mountains of paperwork, and scores of bruised egos. Militia units from Connecticut that insisted on bringing their horses had to be sent home because the Continental Army had no way of accommodating a cavalry regiment. Reed tried to transform the lack of cloth for uniforms into an advantage, ordering the soldiers to make their own “Hunting Shirts,” which might terrify the British, “who think every such person a complete marksman.” Knox’s artillery regiment had more cannons than men who could load and fire them safely. The standard-size musket balls and flints used in the Continental Army did not fit the muskets carried by several militia regiments. Surgeons at the regimental hospitals demanded the authority to admit or dismiss patients without approval from superior officers, but to no avail.20
Reed’s main job was to prevent all these nettlesome problems from landing on Washington’s desk. He surely did the best he could, but given the inexperienced condition of the army, even the most experienced British officer would have been hard-pressed to manage the flow. And beyond the unscripted administrative burdens, the Continental Army itself was actually designed as a permanently transitory improvisation that would expand and contract on a battle-by-battle basis, when the core force of regulars would be supplemented by militia from proximate states.
This meant that over half the total strength of the army was comprised of newly arrived volunteers who somehow had to be folded into the military plans and organizational charts at the last minute. This logistical nightmare defied any coherent solution, only adding a final layer of confusion and loose ends to the tangled mass of men and equipment called the Continental Army. No single mind could comprehend it all, much less control it. Swamped every day with vexing requests from countless quarters, Washington took refuge from the incessant barrage in the impenetrable bunker of his own mind, where all the options were uncompromisingly clear and blissfully elemental. “If they will stand by me, the place cannot be taken without some loss,” he wrote his brother, adding the caveat, “notwithstanding we are not yet in a posture of defense I should wish.”21
CONSIDER THE FOLLOWING SEQUENCE of events: on July 12, Lord Howe’s fleet with 20,000 British troops arrived in Long Island Sound; on that same day, His Majesty’s Phoenix and Rose blazed their way up the Hudson, demonstrating the tactical supremacy of the British navy and the abiding vulnerability of the American defensive scheme; the following day, Lord Howe sent a letter to Washington via a courier, announcing “the Commission with which I have the honor to be charged,” referring to his appointment as one of the two peace commissioners—his brother was the other—purportedly carrying proposals from George III and the British ministry for diplomatic negotiations that would render all those ships and soldiers superfluous. “I trust that a dispassionate consideration of the King’s benevolent intentions may be the means of preventing the further Effusion of Blood,” Lord Richard fondly hoped, “and become productive of Peace and lasting Union between Great Britain and America.” One would be challenged to find a more dramatic example of the iron fist and the velvet glove—or perhaps the sword and the olive branch—in all of ancient and modern statecraft.22
But the letter could not be delivered. Howe’s courier and Joseph Reed met in rowboats between Staten Island and Governors Island. After pleasantries were shouted over the wind and waves, Reed refused to accept the letter because it was addressed to “George Washington Esq. &c, &c, &c.” No such person existed in the Continental Army, Reed declared, adding that “all the World knew who Genl. Washington was since the transactions of last summer,” presumably referring to Washington’s appointment as commander in chief of the Continental Army. Reed’s legal training served him well during this diplomatic exchange, emboldening him to reject any solicitation that failed to acknowledge the legal status of his client.23
So the courier returned the letter undelivered, prompting a tantrum from Ambrose Serle, Lord Howe’s secretary. “So high is the Vanity and Insolence of these Men,” Serle recorded in his journal, “they Dare to rebut Lord Howe, whose Bravery & Honor are So well known…[and] they pretend (or rather have pretended) to seek Peace, and yet renounce it.” Washington wrote to Hancock the next day to justify Reed’s conduct during the interview, explaining that the decision to reject Howe’s letter involved more than mere etiquette. “I would not upon any occasion sacrifice Essentials to Punctilio,” Washington observed, “but in this Instance … I deemed it a duty to my Countrymen and my appointment to insist upon that respect which in any other than a public view I would willingly have waived.”24
In truth, Lord Howe’s inability to address Washington by rank, though only symbolic, captured the essence of the diplomatic impasse, for Germain’s instructions explicitly prohibited Howe from treating the Americans as equals or even from negotiating at all until after the rebels threw down their arms and surrendered. Both Howe brothers would have preferred a more roving mandate, but both had been forced to come to terms with Germain’s narrow restrictions, and they had reluctantly concluded that any peace initiative could occur only after inflicting a decisive defeat on Washington’s army.
Apparently, Lord Howe had decided to make one bold effort before the battle. Perhaps he thought that the very sight of the massive invasion force might weaken Washington’s resolve. And it is possible, though pure speculation, that Howe dispatched the two warships up the Hudson in order to demonstrate to Washington the hopelessness of his military situation. Whatever Howe’s motives, they had no effect on Washington’s resolute posture of defiance, nor on his long-standing conviction that the whole business of peace commissioners was a political ploy designed to give false hope to die-hard reconciliationists: “Lord Howe is arrived,” Washington informed General Horatio Gates, currently trying to impose some semblance of discipline on the northern detachment of the Continental Army. “He & the Genl his Brother are appointed Commissioners to dispense Pardons to Repenting Sinners.”25
Lord Howe was obviously exasperated, on the one hand by the short leash that Germain had allowed him, and on the other by the apparent obliviousness of Washington, who was rejecting the opportunity to avert what was most assuredly going to be a military catastrophe. He decided to make one final attempt a week later, this time sending his adjutant general, James Patterson, with the same letter, plus a generous proposal about prisoner exchange. Reed determined that the prisoner issue afforded a pretext for a face-to-face interview with Washington, so Patterson was led, blindfolded, to Washington’s headquarters on Manhattan. Patterson had been briefed to address Washington as “His Excellency,” to treat him with the utmost respect, and to assure him that the Howes had been granted great powers to effect an accommodation. This was demonstrably untrue, as Washington was quick to point out, observing that George III’s vaunted generosity lay on the other side of American capitulation, so all the Howes had to offer were pardons, “and that those who had committed no Fault, wanted no Pardon.” Patterson conveyed Lord Howe’s deep disappointment that matters could not move past this initial sticking point, reiterated the regret of both Howes about not recognizing the rank of a man whose “Person & Character they held in the highest Esteem,” then bowed himself out the door, “Sociable and Chatty all the way.”26
The chasm between the British and American positions was now exposed more fully than ever before. From the British side of the divide, all assumptions remained resolutely imperial. Despite over ten years of political conflict during which the colonies challenged Parliament’s sovereignty and called for some kind of semiautonomous American presence within the British Empire, then fifteen months of bloodletting that raised the stakes for both sides, George III and his ministers continued to insist that the colonists were subjects, not citizens, and that Parliament’s sovereignty was nonnegotiable. No compromise was possible because nothing less than the survival of the British Empire in North America was at stake. And no compromise was necessary because the British army and navy, so conspicuously poised on Staten Island, were invincible.
Only within this imperial context was George III prepared to be charitable, not because he was required to do so but because, so the Howes claimed, he retained a benevolent sense of affection for his American subjects and wished to envelop them once again within the protective folds of his kingship. That meant that he was prepared to issue a blanket pardon to the vast majority of American colonists once they relinquished their misguided claim to independence, disbanded their army, and disavowed those radical ringleaders in the Continental Congress and Continental Army who had generated so much of the recent mischief. These were the true culprits, who must, of course, be rounded up, be tried for treason, and suffer the consequences. After the old order was restored, George III was prepared to listen to fresh proposals for some sensible framework of political reform designed to keep his subjects happy.
The view from the American side of the divide was most eloquently expressed by Benjamin Franklin, who knew Richard Howe from their days together in London, when they were both vainly seeking a political compromise that avoided an open break. Writing from Philadelphia on July 20, Franklin commiserated with Lord Richard’s predicament, lamenting that he was precluded from offering any peace terms other than “Offers of Pardon upon submission; which I was sorry to find, as it must give your Lordship Pain to be sent so far on so hopeless a Business.”
No other delegate—indeed, no other American—could have written such words, which deftly reversed the British and American roles, commiserating with Lord Richard for the hopelessness of his position. The style came naturally to Franklin, who had been practicing it for nearly fifty years, first as the folksy Poor Richard with his arsenal of witty maxims (e.g., “Let all men know thee, but no man know thee thoroughly”), most recently in a devastating satire of British statecraft, Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One (1773).
Franklin was, in fact, a latecomer to the cause of American independence. For most of the last two decades he had lived in London, lobbying for a royal charter for Pennsylvania, receiving the accolades of the Royal Society for his pioneering work on electricity, and rubbing elbows with the leading figures of British society, Lord Richard included. He presumed that the British Empire was really an Anglo-American empire of partners, bound together by mutual consent and common interest. When the recently crowned George III and a succession of British ministries began to tighten restrictions on colonial trade, impose new taxes, and station a standing army in America, Franklin regarded these changes as a temporary aberration. Only a pack of fools would seek to destroy an imperial relationship that worked so smoothly and boded so well for both sides as members of an emerging global power.
By 1773 he was beginning to conclude that the British government no longer knew its own interest. The clinching moment came in January 1774, when he was required to sit silently in the House of Lords while he was pilloried and personally insulted for advocating his vision of a British Empire based on the principle of mutual consent. This searing experience prompted a conversion to the goal of American independence. He returned to America in 1775, was immediately elected to the Continental Congress, and never looked back. If John Adams was the hands-on architect of the movement for independence in the congress, Franklin was the acknowledged elder statesman, a generation or two older than most other delegates, who brought the resolve of a recent convert, the weight of his reputation, and even the status of a celebrity to the deliberations. If Washington was the new American hero, Franklin was the most familiar and famous American of the century.27
His message to Lord Richard Howe, then, carried a special resonance that could not be dismissed, even though it undermined everything that Lord Richard hoped to accomplish. The notion that the British government was prepared to pardon the recalcitrant colonists was preposterously presumptive, Franklin observed, since that very government “had behaved with the most wanton Barbarity and Cruelty, burnt our defenseless Towns in the midst of winter, excited the Savages to massacre our farmers … and is even now bringing foreign Mercenaries to deluge our Settlements with Blood.” The moral leverage to grant pardons belonged to the American side, “since it is not possible for you (I mean the British Nation) to forgive the People you have so heavily injured.”
If Lord Richard had carried proposals for peace between two sovereign powers currently at war, Franklin continued, then perhaps negotiations would be possible. “But I am persuaded you have no such Powers,” he observed, because Britain could not recognize the separate and independent existence of her former colonies as equal states without abandoning her presumed supremacy. And if that supremacy then took a military form, as it was now doing, it only exposed the hypocrisy of all British claims of generosity. It did not help the good lord’s cause that he was simultaneously a peace commissioner and co-leader of an invasion.
Whatever the outcome of the current contest at New York, Franklin predicted that Britain’s war against America would prove unwinnable and “so destructive both of Lives and Treasure, that must prove as pernicious to her in the End as the Croisades [Crusades] formerly were to most of the Nations of Europe.” Like all his former predictions, this one, Franklin realized, would not be believed “till the Event shall verify it.” Rather than invincible, British arms would prove inadequate.
Franklin concluded with a piece of unsolicited advice to Howe. It pained him to find his former friend prosecuting a war destined to go down in history as unnecessary, unwise, and unjust. “Posterity will condemn to Infamy those who advised it,” he warned, “and that not even Success will save from some degree of Dishnour, those who voluntarily engaged to conduct it.” Franklin was prepared to grant that Howe’s “great Motive in coming hither was the Hope of being instrumental in a Reconciliation.” Now that it was clear that reconciliation was impossible on the terms Lord Richard was permitted to propose, he should “relinquish so odious a Command and return to a more honourable private station.”28
Of course, Lord Richard could hardly hear Franklin’s advice, much less take it. A few weeks later he wrote Germain: “The interview [with Washington] was more polite than interesting; however it induced me to change my subscription for the attainment of an end desirable.” This was his elliptical way of acknowledging that no peace was possible until the Americans had been taught a painful and bloody lesson, which would now become his chief task.29
At Franklin’s urging, the Continental Congress forwarded Lord Richard’s peace proposals to several major newspapers, in order to expose his limited powers and dash any false hopes that still lingered in the ever-dwindling number of moderate minds. If there ever had been a middle position, a bridge over the chasm, it was now completely gone.30
IN EARLY AUGUST, the gathering storm continued to gather. On August 1, Greene reported the arrival of thirty ships at Sandy Hook, which he took to be the German mercenaries but turned out to be generals Clinton and Cornwallis coming up from South Carolina. Another small fleet arrived a week later, containing the first wave of Hessians and several regiments of Scottish Highlanders. The main body of Hessians, 8,000 strong, landed on August 12. All in all, the Howe brothers now commanded a strike force of 42,000 soldiers, marines, and sailors, by far the largest military operation ever mounted in North America.31
Back in Philadelphia, Adams concluded that Lord Howe’s peace initiative had always been a delaying tactic: “He has let the cat out of the Bag…, throwing out his Barrells to amuse Leviathan until his Reinforcements shall arrive.”32 This was not really correct. Lord Richard’s last-minute diplomatic effort was utterly sincere, though equally hopeless. The more prosaic truth was that William Howe, fully aware that Germain had spent a small fortune to acquire the Hessian mercenaries, saw no reason to launch his attack before they arrived. And given the tactical and manpower advantages that he enjoyed, he felt no pressure to move according to any schedule but his own.
For his part, Washington might be forgiven for regarding each new arrival of British and Hessian troops as nails in the proverbial coffin. He wrote in a nostalgic tone to a fellow veteran of earlier campaigns in the French and Indian War, recalling their providential escapes at “the Meadows [Fort Necessity] and on the Banks of the Monongahela.” Since both of these battles had been crushing defeats, they were strange memories to be conjuring up on the eve of the looming battle. Watching the British buildup enhanced his fear that the forces at his disposal were going to be seriously overmatched. He confessed that “I cannot help but feeling very anxious Apprehensions.”33
Part of his problem was that he did not know for sure how many troops he had at his disposal. Under the implicit “balloon theory,” the size of the Continental Army would be slightly more than doubled if and when militia units from Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey arrived, bringing his total force to about 25,000. But it was harvesttime, so many of the farmer-soldiers were late to the task or did not show up at all. Washington dashed off last-minute exhortations to state governors and militia officers to have the troops come on, leaving the crops to rot in the field if necessary, emphasizing the historical urgency of the current crisis. “The Deficiency of Regiments … is far short of its intended Compliments,” he warned. “Since the Settlement of these Colonies there has never been such just occasion of Alarm or such an Appearance of an Enemy both by Sea and Land.”34
Moreover, he did not know how many of his troops already present were fit for duty. Contaminated water supplies had produced widespread dysentery on Manhattan, and Greene reported an outbreak of smallpox on Long Island in late July. Within the week, Washington estimated that 20 percent of his army was too sick to fight.
Adams broke into a frenzy when he heard about the smallpox epidemic: “The small Pox has done us more harm than British Armies, Canadians, Indians, Negroes, Hannoverians, Hessians, and all the rest.” The disease was on his mind for personal reasons as well, since Abigail and their four young children were currently undergoing inoculation up in Boston at that very same time. He was juggling his responsibilities as statesman and his obligations as husband and father, in the same letter expressing guilt about being distant while his family was in danger, then adding that “our Army is also rather sickly at N. York.”35
The General Orders emanating from headquarters continued to sound an upbeat note, despite the overwhelming British superiority in numbers. “The enemy will endeavor to intimidate by show and appearance, but remember how they have been repulsed on various occasions, by a few brave men,” read the order for August 13. “Their Cause is bad; their men are conscious of it, and if opposed with firmness, and coolness … Victory is most assuredly ours.”36
Washington did not really believe these words, though he did believe that he was personally and professionally obliged to write them. He was more candid with Hancock, cataloging the manpower and sickness problems, acknowledging that it was unlikely that he could prevent the Howes from capturing New York. But he found final refuge in the Bunker Hill scenario, in effect another ruinous British victory: “These considerations lead me to think, that though the Appeal may not terminate so happily in our favor as I could wish, that they will not succeed in their views without considerable loss. Any advantage they may get, I trust will cost them dear.” Left unsaid was how many men he could afford to lose in order to produce a Pyrrhic British victory.37
Not yet sure how his family had made it through the inoculation process, Adams assured his recovering Abigail that his every thought was with her. But at least one eye was looking north: “We are in daily expectation of some decisive strike at New York.”38