Military history


A Long War

Give me leave to say, Sir, that your Affairs are in a more unpromising way than you seem to apprehend.


One might have thought that the victory at Harlem Heights, small though it was, would serve as the stroke that Washington had been hoping to deliver. Having scored that important point, he was now free to evacuate the Continental Army off Manhattan, honor intact, before General Howe could block his exit.

But instead he ordered his troops to dig more trenches, in anticipation of a major British assault from the south. He had finally found the ideal defensive position that perfectly embodied his entire strategic plan for defending New York, and he intended to use the rocky elevation at Harlem Heights to inflict maximum casualties on the British Army before beating his retreat. It was a bold but dangerous decision, since he was putting the survival of the Continental Army at risk in order to deliver one more telling blow in behalf of “The Cause.”1

On the evening of September 20, as he scanned the sky to the south, looking for Howe’s approaching army, the horizon became ablaze from the fires consuming more than one-third of New York City. The Continental Congress had given strict orders not to torch the city upon evacuation, reasoning that one day it would be recaptured—a palpable measure of the confidence still dominating the deliberations in Philadelphia.2

What came to be called the “Great Fire” was probably the work of arsonists, most likely self-styled American patriots who were now a beleaguered minority in the city. Two suspects were summarily dispatched, one thrown into the flames, the other hanged on a lamppost. Washington apprised Hancock that the fire was not his doing and was probably an accident. But privately he confided to Lund Washington that “Providence, or some good honest fellow, has done more for us than we can do for ourselves.” Whatever the cause, for the remainder of the war the occupying British Army lived among the ashes of all the homes, churches, and buildings west of Broadway.3

MEANWHILE, AS WASHINGTON awaited Howe’s frontal assault of Harlem Heights, which never materialized, the Continental Congress was attempting to digest the full implications of the Kip’s Bay disaster. Unlike the American populace as a whole, the delegates in Philadelphia were fully apprised of the humiliation.

Caesar Rodney, for example, provided his fellow delegates from Delaware with a full narrative of the debacle, taking care to absolve Washington of any responsibility and casting blame on “the beardless boys” he commanded. “I have wrote on the Subject till I am in ill Humour,” Rodney concluded, “and the only Comfort is that by the time you have read it you’ll be as Angry as I am.” William Hooper of South Carolina believed it was time to take off the patriotic blinders. “It becomes our duty to see things as they really are[,] divested of all disguise,” he urged, “and when the happiness of the present age and Millions yet unborn depends upon a reformation of them, we ought to spare no pains to effect so desirable a purpose.” Washington, in fact, had been trying to tell Hancock for several weeks that the Continental Congress did not seem to fathom the deplorable condition of the army. After Kip’s Bay, the delegates finally got the message and voted to send a three-man committee to confer with Washington and his staff at Harlem Heights. They met for five days, from September 20 to September 24.4

No record of the deliberations was kept, but the problems addressed and solutions proposed were clearly outlined in the committee’s report to the Continental Congress two weeks later. The underlying conclusion was that the Continental Army was really not much of an army at all. To the extent that a quick victory was no longer tenable and that therefore success in the war for American independence depended on a fighting force that could compete on equal terms with the British Army, there needed to be a “New Model” or “New Establishment.” In effect, the committee recommended all the reforms that the congress had already tried and failed to implement a month earlier, this time with a greater sense of urgency and comprehension.

First, the Continental Army needed to expand to at least 60,000 troops, with a majority committed to serving “for the duration.” This would eliminate the need for militia, since the New York campaign had demonstrated that dependence on “Minutemen” had proved to be one of those glorious presumptions that produce only inglorious consequences. And one-year enlistments had proven equivalently problematic, since the troops were scheduled to rotate out of the army just when they had begun to internalize the discipline of military service and became reliable soldiers.

Second, the organizational infrastructure of an effective army did not exist. The quartermaster corps, the commissary, and the hospital units were all fly-by-night improvisations. The troops were poorly clothed, poorly fed, and poorly cared for if wounded or incapacitated by disease. The prevailing assumption that it was going to be a short war had allowed the Continental Army to function in this ad hoc fashion. Now that the assumption had changed—it was clearly going to be a protracted conflict—organizational reforms had to be institutionalized along lines modeled on the British Army, precisely what Washington had been urging for months.

Third, the officer corps at both the senior and the junior levels was woefully inadequate. After-action reports on the collapse of discipline at Gowanus Heights and Kip’s Bay placed the blame on inexperienced officers. Poorly led troops became mere gangs. On the other hand, when a natural leader like Lord Stirling or Thomas Knowlton was commanding, the troops fought well. Nathanael Greene even thought that, properly led, American troops were a match for British regulars. “If the officers were as good as the men,” Greene claimed, “America might bid defiance to the whole world.”5

The visiting committee endorsed all the reforms that Washington and his staff suggested. The New York campaign had been a painful learning experience, so the only sensible thing to do was to fix the glaring problems in order to make the Continental Army an effective fighting force worthy of its name. The problems were clear, so the solutions were obvious—in fact, the solutions had been bandied about in the congress for several weeks. Now, with greater resolve, the full congress embraced all the recommendations for a “New Establishment” during the first week of October.6

But it was one thing to endorse the recommendations, another to implement them. Once again it became clear that the Continental Congress lacked the authority to enforce troop levies in the states, so the proposed enlargement of the Continental Army to 60,000 was a political, economic, and logistical impossibility, which in turn meant that Washington would remain dependent on the militias for the foreseeable future. Even offering enhanced incentives for volunteers who signed up “for the duration” made little appreciable difference. One-year enlistments remained the norm. Only a mandatory draft could have solved the problem, and that was out of the question. The manpower for a much enlarged Continental Army was undoubtedly available, and the political will to draw on it was present in the Continental Congress, but that will did not extend to the state legislatures, whose vision remained local rather than national.

Moreover, the necessary organizational reform could not be effected merely by drafting new procedural guidelines for the different branches of the army. The regulations had to be enforced up and down the chain of command by men with little or no military experience, then internalized until routinized. This was not a natural act for the kind of men in the Continental Army. The truth was that a “New Establishment” could not be created overnight except on paper. The fact that the war was going to be long meant that the army would have time, on a trial-and-error basis, to work out the all-important details. The Continental Army, it would seem, was destined to be a permanent work in progress. And that more limited projection of a national army was all that could be justified within a republican framework.

The recommendation for an improved officers corps caught John Adams’s attention, in part because it confirmed battlefield reports from New York, in part because he had been reading histories of the Roman army in order to educate himself as head of the Board of War and Ordnance. He discovered that Polybius had concluded that most Roman defeats were not the fault of troops but “always the Fault of the officers.” This same failure of leadership haunted the Continental Army, but Adams believed there was no swift cure for the problem: “The true Cause of the want of good officers in the army is because … such officers in sufficient Numbers are not in America. Without Materials the best Workman can do nothing. Time, Study, and Experience alone must make a sufficient Number of officers.”7

What he meant was that America lacked the kind of British aristocracy that encouraged military careers in the manner of the Howe brothers. And lacking such a tradition, the Continental Army would have to manufacture officers the republican way, by recognizing and promoting merit on the battlefield. (Henry Knox, Nathanael Greene, and the much-missed Thomas Knowlton were all excellent examples of this slow but sure process, and a young artillery captain named Alexander Hamilton was a looming discovery.) In the long run, America needed a military academy to produce competent officers, and Adams was prepared to recommend such an institution after the war was won. For now, however, demand vastly exceeded supply, and since there was no immediate solution, the very act of talking about the problem only advertised a congenital weakness in the Continental Army. “Concealing it is the way to cure it,” Adams concluded, “not publishing it,” meaning that the unsolvable problem should be conveniently obscured.8

As the summer turned to fall, then, two conclusions were clear: first, on all matters related to the war effort, the Continental Congress continued to function as a provisional national government prepared to give Washington everything he asked for; and second, while there was the will, there was no way to translate that rhetorical support into reality, in part because the congress lacked authority over the state legislatures, in part because many of the ills affecting the Continental Army had no immediate cure.

Washington fully grasped this unpleasant but intractable reality. In a long letter to Hancock on October 4, he expressed his appreciation for the endorsement of all his recommendations by the visiting committee but added that “there is a natural difference between voting for Battalions and raising of Men.” For the foreseeable future, he would command an army of unqualified officers, wholly undependable militia, and short-term enlisted troops. As his newest aide, Tench Tilghman, put it, it would take a miracle to “stop the career of Monsi Howe with the finest army that ever appeared in America,” while Washington commanded “as bad a one as ever appeared in any part of the Globe.”9

At bottom, Washington concluded, what was militarily essential was politically impossible. Nothing less than a permanent standing army on the British model could win the war, but there was “such a distrust & jealousy of Military power, that the Commander in Chief has not an opportunity … to give the least assurance of success.” To be sure, “The Cause” was glorious, but the Continental Army, as currently constituted, was an inherently problematic improvisation.10

Indeed, the deplorable situation was sufficiently obvious to his own troops that some deserters were already going over to the British Army. One British officer, Frederick MacKenzie, claimed that they were arriving at the rate of eighty a day. And as Washington predicted, loyalists from Long Island and lower Manhattan were volunteering in company-size units to join Howe’s army. Meanwhile, over in New Jersey, a civil war seemed to be brewing, as nearly three thousand citizens, including one signer of the Declaration of Independence, took up Lord Howe’s offer of amnesty and signed an oath of allegiance to George III.11

These defections could plausibly be regarded as the first cracks in the edifice of American independence and therefore as early indications that the Howe strategy was working. Several British officers expressed confusion when General Howe let weeks pass without taking any action against Harlem Heights. They presumed, as Captain MacKenzie put it, that “the grand point in view is certainly to beat and disperse this principal army, which, if once effected, little more will remain to be done.” But Howe, in fact, did not share that presumption. Having delivered a series of devastating blows to the Continental Army, he was waiting for the aftershock to take effect. He felt no need to destroy the Continental Army, since he believed it was going to disintegrate on its own. And no less a witness than Washington himself feared that, as he had told Hancock, his army “is upon the eve of its political dissolution.”12

IN ORDER FOR the Howe strategy to succeed, the epidemic of fear and disillusionment had to spread beyond New York and New Jersey. Pro-American press coverage limited the contagion, but Washington worried that deserting troops would carry the infection back to their respective states and the unattractive reality would begin to settle in; namely, that it was going to be a long war, and that the Continental Army as currently constituted was ill equipped to fight it.

The leadership in the Continental Congress had demonstrated its wholehearted support for Washington and provided a united front on the nonnegotiable status of American independence. Even though they could not deliver on their promises about a “New Establishment,” the political gesture itself was important as a statement of commitment during this vulnerable moment. The delegates in Philadelphia had to demonstrate that they were immune to the infection.

Adams, for example, used his position as head of the Board of War and Ordnance to reassure officers who were having doubts about the dispirited condition of the Continental Army. “I am extremely sorry to learn that the troops have been disheartened,” he wrote to one officer. “But the despondency of spirit was the natural Effect of the Retreats you have made one after the other.” After the defeats on Long Island and at Kip’s Bay, Adams observed, “the finest Army in the world would have been seized, in similar circumstances, with more or less of a Panick. But your Men will soon recover their Spirits in a short Time.”13

Franklin took a different tack, preferring in his ever-agile way to use the deplorable condition of the Continental Army as leverage to extract money and supplies from the French. In his instructions to Silas Deane, the new American minister to France, he urged complete candor about the sad state of the army: “Upon the whole our Army near New York are not sufficiently strong to Cope with General Howe in the open Field.… They want better Arms, better Tents and more Clothing than they now have, or is in our power now to Supply them with, consequently we cannot recruit or increase that Army under these discouragements.” Nothing less than immediate French assistance could save the day.14

Among several delegates, at yet another, somewhat deeper level, the need to immunize themselves from doubt prompted a variety of ingenious and often counterintuitive arguments, all designed to serve as flying buttresses that reinforced the interior architecture of their revolutionary confidence. Like Thomas Aquinas’s five proofs of God’s existence, these were rational attempts to justify a belief that ultimately rested on faith, which in this case was the conviction that the military defeats in New York were meaningless because the American cause was destiny’s child.

Benjamin Rush, who would later be celebrated as the founder of American psychiatry, told his wife that the recent British victories were, in truth, a godsend. “I think we stood in need of a frown from heaven,” he wrote. “It is, you know, through difficulties & trials that states as well as individuals are trained up to glory & happiness. My faith is now stronger than ever.” Indeed, Rush claimed that “for a long time I not only expected, but wished that General Howe might gain possession of New York.” For now all theloyalists from adjacent states would flee to New York, “where they will ripen as the Tories of Boston did for banishment & destruction.” The rest of the country would then “be purged of those rascals whose idleness or perfidy have brought most of our calamities upon us.” All of America’s rotten eggs would now be gathered into one basket.15

William Williams, a delegate from Connecticut, took a more theological route to reach a similar conclusion. His preferred interpretive framework was the Puritan jeremiad, which transformed the British victories on Long Island and Kip’s Bay into acts of divine retribution for a sinful American people. “God has blunted the weapons of our warfare,” Williams intoned, “and made us flee before our Enemies, and given them possession of our strongholds.” In Williams’s moral universe, the issue was not the relative weakness of the Continental Army but the depravity of the entire American population: “A thorough Repentance & Reformation … will appease the Anger of a holy & just God, avert these amazing Calamities, secure Liberty & Happiness to this and all succeeding Ages & eternal Felicity & Glory to all the Subjects of it.” The obvious solution was not better officers, better equipment, or aid from France. All those items would be forthcoming after American patriots fasted, did penance, and prayed for their providential redemption.16

Adams discovered assurance in Greek and Roman history, chiefly the lessons learned in the Peloponnesian and Punic wars. When Henry Knox expressed concern about the impact of the series of defeats on the morale of the Continental Army, Adams told him to stop worrying: “It is very true that a Silly Panic has been spread in your Army, and from there come to Philadelphia.” But Hannibal had inflicted an equivalent panic on the Roman army yet could never manage to take advantage of it and eventually lost the war. Howe was likely to prove the Hannibal of the American Revolution.17

For, like Hannibal, Howe would discover that winning battles was not synonymous with winning wars: “Conquests were easily made, because We atchieve them with our whole force—they are retained with difficulty because We defend them with only a part of our forces.” In Howe’s case, the occupation of Long Island and Manhattan would stretch his resources to the breaking point. “After such a division and distribution of his forces,” Adams predicted, “I think he has nearly reached the end of his tether for this Year.” The greater Howe’s victories, the greater his difficulties. Howe was destined to win his way to defeat.18

Moreover, Adams explained, the Americans had the example of Thebes in the Peloponnesian War to guide them. After some initial defeats akin to the American losses in New York, the Thebans realized that they could not win a conventional war against Sparta and adopted a defensive strategy that rendered it “rash to hazard a decisive Battle against the best troops in Greece.” Instead, they chose “to harass the Spartans with frequent Skirmishes … whilst they gained Experience, Confidence, and Courage by daily Encounters.” The humiliations in New York were really a marvelous learning experience that taught the Americans the lessons the Thebans had learned two thousand years before. For the British, like the Spartans, had to win the war. And the Americans, like the Thebans, had only not to lose it. That seminal insight had been learned the hard way in New York but would now guide the American side to ultimate victory.19

The Adams analysis would prove prescient as the war dragged on, though it would take a herculean effort on Washington’s part to embrace a defensive, or Theban, strategy, partly because of his own aggressive instincts, partly because he was worried that superior British financial resources would win out in a protracted war. But in the crucible of that moment, what stands out is the multiple arguments the leading members of the Continental Congress were able to construct in order to dismiss the military disasters at New York. Whether it was demographically, divinely, or historically sanctioned, they regarded the fate of American independence as foreordained. Even if the specific arguments were specious, the underlying faith on which they rested was unshakable. The Howes had badly miscalculated the depth of that faith.

BY EARLY OCTOBER, Washington had come to the realization that General Howe was not going to take him up on his invitation to attack the fortress at Harlem Heights. About the same time, Howe was coming to the realization that the campaign season was drawing to a close and that he needed to stage another evocative demonstration of British military supremacy—in effect, to deliver another shock to the dazed and dwindling Continental Army.

Howe’s tactic of choice was almost always a flanking movement, so after consulting his brother about navigation options and obstacles in the East River, he chose to launch an invasion at Throg’s Neck (also called Frog’s Neck), nine miles northeast of Harlem Heights, near present-day Fort Schuyler in the Bronx.

In keeping with his measured strategy, Howe’s objective was not to block Washington’s escape from Manhattan but, just the opposite, to threaten encirclement in order to force the Continental Army to evacuate the island, then fight an open-field battle in which the superiority of the British Army would once again prove decisive. As he later put it to Germain, his goal was not to trap Washington on Manhattan but to draw him out of his Harlem Heights fortress “and if possible to bring him to action.”20

The movement of British ships and men up the East River immediately caught Washington’s attention. “I have reason to believe,” he wrote Hancock on October 11, “that the greatest part of their Army has moved upward, or is about to do it, pursuing their original plan of getting in our rear & cutting off our communications with the Country.” Washington plausibly presumed that Howe intended to seal the trap, when in fact he intended to open the door.21

Washington conducted a personal survey of the shoreline northeast of Manhattan, including the terrain at Throg’s Neck. It revealed that the isthmus was really an island at high tide, connected to the mainland by a causeway and bridge. He ordered an undersize regiment of Pennsylvania Continentals to block this prospective landing spot. Under the command of Colonel Edward Hand, the exit off the island was destroyed, and when the advance wave of 4,000 British troops under Henry Clinton landed on October 12, they found themselves marooned in a mosquito-infested swamp. Throg’s Neck, it turned out, was the worst possible place to launch an invasion.22

Events then moved at lightning speed on both sides. Washington convened a council of war on October 16 that voted almost unanimously—there was one dissenter—to evacuate Manhattan and move the army eighteen miles to the high ground of White Plains, which would provide a natural defensive refuge akin to Harlem Heights. The goal was to get there before Howe blocked the route.

The council of war also voted to leave 2,000 troops at Fort Washington. This made no strategic sense, since leaving “a castle in the rear” violated every conventional principle of warfare and since it was already abundantly clear that British warships could sail up the Hudson past Fort Washington with impunity, which undermined the core mission of the garrison. But the commitment made perfect sense psychologically, as a statement of American resolve to defend New York, even as Washington was ordering an evacuation. It was simultaneously an indefensible military decision, a heartfelt act of honor, and Washington’s worst tactical blunder of the entire war.23

Present for the council of war was none other than Charles Lee, recently arrived from his victorious campaign in South Carolina. Despite his irreverent and erratic mannerisms, his beaked nose, disheveled appearance, and ever-present pack of dogs, Lee was second-in-command only to Washington. His presence bolstered the confidence of several officers, including Joseph Reed, who had been murmuring about Washington’s apparent confusion and indecisiveness ever since the brilliant escape from Long Island.

One can detect the early symptoms of rivalry between the two commanders, most glaringly when Lee suggested that Washington offer his resignation to the Continental Congress for the recent failures on the battlefield, an offer allegedly designed to extract a vote of confidence from his civilian superiors. Washington ignored the suggestion; further, he did not interpret Lee’s advice as a hostile act. Indeed, he renamed Fort Constitution, on the New Jersey side of the Hudson, Fort Lee to commemorate Lee’s return. And the decision to evacuate Manhattan was an implicit endorsement of Lee’s judgment, since he had always thought that New York was indefensible.24

On October 18, the same day that the Continental Army began its evacuation, the Howe brothers transported Clinton’s troops off Throg’s Neck, added two regiments of recently arrived Hessians to the invasion force, and landed at Pell’s Point, a few miles up Long Island Sound in present-day Pelham. The complicated amphibious maneuvers went like clockwork, the landing site was on the mainland rather than on a quasi-island, and the landing was initially unopposed.

But unluckily for the Howes, they had chosen a location that was guarded by John Glover and his Marblehead regiment, perhaps the most disciplined troops in the Continental Army. Glover later remembered looking through his telescope and seeing two hundred British ships approaching his position: “Oh! The anxiety of mind I was in then for the fate of the day.… I would have given a thousand worlds to have had General Lee … present to direct or at least approve what I had done.”25

Acting on his own initiative, Glover moved his 750 men into position behind a series of stone walls and, though outnumbered more than five to one, invited an attack. As the British advanced, one row of Glover’s troops rose up to fire, then retreated, and as the British charged forward with bayonets at the ready, the next row rose up to deliver another withering salvo, and so on from wall to wall. In a little more than a hour, the British lost more men at Pell’s Point than they had in the entire Long Island campaign. (Glover later claimed that his men remained as calm throughout the engagement “as if shooting ducks.”) By one estimate, the British suffered over 300 dead and wounded, the Americans only 20.26

Howe was sufficiently stunned by the unexpected fighting prowess of American troops to order a halt in the British advance. The next day he moved cautiously inland toward New Rochelle, where he decided to wait for 8,000 newly arrived Hessians to come up from Long Island. Glover’s troops had, in fact, retreated to join Washington’s army, so there were only a handful of militia to contest Howe’s march toward White Plains. But Howe did not move.

The Continental Army did move, though ever so slowly, advancing less than three miles a day. Fully a quarter of the 13,000 troops were sick or wounded; there were not enough horses to pull the wagons and cannons, which had to be hauled by hand; and food supplies were nonexistent, forcing troops to scavenge whatever they could find along the route. Joseph Plumb Martin remembered, with irony, that he was required to carry an iron cooking kettle, which was never used because there was nothing to cook. The troops were in no condition to fight, but that was not necessary, because Howe made no effort to block their path. It was almost as if he wished them to escape.27

Whatever Howe’s motives, the final stragglers in the Continental Army reached the safety of the hills at White Plains on October 24, at last out of the trap. The strategic decision to defend New York had always been a fundamental mistake that created the potential for an American catastrophe; now, thanks to the diplomatic priorities of the Howes, it had been averted. True to form, William Howe waited four more days to launch an attack on White Plains, enough time for Washington to prepare his defenses.

IT WAS THE END of the beginning for the American side, meaning that its army had managed to survive what proved to be the most vulnerable moment of the war. Washington, from lessons learned at New York, would never again allow the survival of the Continental Army to be put at risk. Though it ran counter to all his instincts, he now realized that his goal was not to win the war but rather not to lose it.

It was the beginning of the end for the British side, meaning that the Howe brothers, despite their tactical brilliance, had failed to deliver the decisive blow that killed the rebellion at its moment of birth. Indeed, they had deliberately decided not to do so. What might have happened if they had acted otherwise will always remain one of the most intriguing and unanswerable questions in American history.

But several other intriguing questions had, in fact, been answered during America’s revolutionary summer, and the answers largely defined the parameters of the war that would ensue. They cut in two different directions, one making the prospects for a British victory remote in the extreme, the other making any outright American military triumph equally unlikely. Taken together, they defined the terms of the protracted conflict that would play out over the next five years and end with the British decision after Yorktown that the war was unwinnable.

On the one hand, it was now clear that the Continental Congress was immune to any British proposal for reconciliation. Commitment to “The Cause” was creedal in character, impervious to the calamities on Long Island and Manhattan, which were dismissed as temporary setbacks and then folded into the providential sense of American independence. This was not a wholly rational mentality, for it ruled as inadmissible any evidence that challenged that core conviction. It turned out that Jefferson’s lyrical rendering of the revolutionary pledge—“our lives, our futures, and our sacred honor”—was much more than a rhetorical gesture. It accurately reflected the bottomless level of commitment in the Continental Congress, which had now been tested to the limit and never wavered. The central assumption on which the Howes had based their military strategy, namely that support for the rebellion was soft and shallow, was exposed as misguided. Whatever subsequent disappointments and disasters might befall “The Cause” out there in the vast American theater, the center would always hold.

On the other hand, it was equally clear that the consensus on independence did not translate into a consensus on American union. And because local, state, and regional allegiances remained supreme, all prospects for a fully empowered Continental Army were impossible. Americans regarded both a national government and a potent Continental Army as embodiments of consolidated political and military power that ran against the grain of the very values the American Revolution claimed to stand for.

This, in turn, meant that the Continental Army would forever remain a kind of awkward orphan, indispensable but suspect, always on the verge of dissolution. Its persistence was obviously essential, but its marginal status constituted a more essential statement about the hostility toward standing armies in the fledging American republic. There was no way that such an army could win the war.

Taken together, these two products of the revolutionary summer virtually ensured a long conflict that the British could not win for political reasons and the Americans could not win for military reasons. Many fateful decisions and challenges remained ahead—Washington’s inspired bravado at Trenton, Howe’s bizarre decision to capture Philadelphia rather than seal the Hudson corridor, the endurance test at Valley Forge, the crucial French entry into the war—but they all played out within the strategic framework created in the summer of 1776.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!