VII. THE REVOLUTION.
[Washington as Commander-in-chief.]
George Washington had been assigned to the command-in-chief of the colonial troops, just before the Battle of Bunker Hill. Thus, at the very start, wisdom ruled the counsels and Providence guided the action of our forefathers. The military abilities and lofty patriotism of Washington could scarcely have been foreseen at the first in all their breadth and scope; yet he was already known as a soldier of tried courage and of prudent conduct, and as a Virginia gentleman of conspicuous social and private virtues.
Washington assumed the chief direction of the Continental forces, under the famous old elm which still stands, but a few steps from Harvard College, in Old Cambridge, on the third day of July, 1775. At the same time of his appointment, four major-generals - Artemus Ward, Israel Putnam, Philip Schuyler, and Charles Lee - were designated. The principal troops of the colonies were at this time gathered in an irregular cordon around Boston. Their position was almost unchanged from that which they had occupied before the Battle of Bunker Hill; for the British were unable to follow up the success which they had achieved on that occasion.
[The Continental Forces.]
The general-in-chief, on inspecting his forces, saw how ill disciplined and ill supplied they were. They had but little clothing, a scant supply of arms, and still less ammunition. Washington's first task was by no means the least difficult of those which lay before him. It was to create an army out of a brave but heterogeneous multitude of patriots. It was to collect arms and supplies; to keep vigilant watch on the British in Boston; to fortify and defend the surrounding circle; and prepare to meet and drive out the pent-up foe.
At last, after preparations extending through nearly eight months, Boston was attacked by batteries from Dorchester Heights, and on the 17th of March, 1776, Howe evacuated the town, and the first decisive struggle of the seven years' contest had been decided in favor of the Americans.
The scene is now transferred further south. Charleston had, it is true, already been attacked, but without favorable results to the English; on the other hand, Arnold and Montgomery had vainly essayed to assail British power in the Canadas. New York was the objective point of those who had now come to be regarded as the invaders of our soil. Its splendid harbor and its central position afforded a good standpoint. The concentration of the troops of Howe, which had evacuated Boston, the war ships commanded by his brother, Lord Howe, and the forces under Clinton, which had been occupied in futile operations in the South, enabled the British to force Washington out of New York, and to occupy it themselves.
[Numerical Force of the Contestants.]
The whole British force engaged in this enterprise was scarcely less than twenty-five thousand men; the American force did not exceed twelve thousand; and the contrast in discipline and equipment still further increased this inequality of strength. Then came the retreat across New Jersey, succeeded by one of the most brilliant strokes of the war. This was the midnight and midwinter crossing of the Delaware by the American general and his troops, the forced march upon Trenton through the snow and cold, and the surprise and utter defeat of the Hessians at that place on Christmas morning.
But the colonists, though waxing in strength, were not yet able to cope in a prolonged and active campaign with the royal army. Philadelphia, like New York, had to be given up. The terrible winter months spent at Valley Forge formed one of the saddest and most heroic romances of the Revolution. The army lived in huts, which, as Lafayette exclaimed, "were no gayer than dungeons." Bread and clothing were sadly wanting. The cold was intense, and almost unremitting. The Pilgrims during their first winter at Plymouth were scarcely more comfortless.
It was early in the following year (1777) that General Burgoyne made an offensive movement southward from Canada, by way of Lake Champlain and Fort Ticonderoga. A portion of his troops were sent to Bennington to capture some stores collected there by the Vermont patriots. A vigorous defence of these stores by the intrepid Stark resulted in the repulse, first of the British, then of the Hessian troops. The next scene in the drama was what may be called the second decisive action of the war. Burgoyne, with his whole force of five thousand men, encamped at Saratoga. There he was confronted by General Horatio Gates, who engaged him in two battles, which, however uncertain their immediate issue, were followed by a retreat on Burgoyne's part. The Americans succeeded in turning his flank, and hemming him in; and then came the surrender of Burgoyne and his entire force.
[Surrender of Burgoyne.]
The consequences of this event were of far greater moment than the elimination from the contest of an able British general and five thousand well drilled British and mercenary soldiers. It silenced the complaints which were growing loud against the inactivity of Washington. It once more harmonized the colonial counsels, which were becoming seriously discordant. It inspired new effort throughout the colonies. And it decided France to make open cause with the struggling patriots. To the masterly diplomacy of Franklin we owe it that the great European rival of England threw the weight of her sympathy and material assistance on our side.
[Capture of Stony Point.]