Book Notes: The British Are Coming
God Himself our Captain
British orders from London to put down insurrectionists finally made their way to Boston in April 1775 to General Gage aboard the Nautilis. Concord was identified by Gage as a Puritan capital it the provincial congress and location of many hidden supplies. At Gage’s discretion, a strike against Concord the spoil the supplies built by insurrectionists would be more feasible than chasing some leaders into the countryside
Men Came Down from the Clouds
Hundreds of troops amassed on the Common and rowed across Back Bay on their way to Concord on the night of April 18th. Alerted by the mass troop movements, curious Paul Revere and William Dawes Jr. rode out on two separate routes to deliver warnings to the countryside that the British regulars were coming
Minutemen gathered on the common of Lexington, awaiting the column of virtuoso troops. As the distance closed between the two, both belligerents seemed intent on not being the first to fire. But, as soon as a shot rang out (and it is unclear where it came from), shooting erupted. Slight injuries happened on the British side, but right rebels were killed. Several had Bren killed retreating. The British then engaged in a celebratory salute, which to observing Lexington townsfolk seemed like celebrating a slaughter.
The British pushed onto Concord, looking for supplies. They found little, with most of it moved further out into the country or hid well. Minutemen gathered at a nearby hill, Punkatasset Hill, observing and waiting. They finally pushed forward to meet part of the British force at a bridge across the Concord River. Shots were fired, men were injured and killed on both sides, and thus began the perilous retreat of the British back to Boston. Both sides sustained casualties, but the British were dogged by growing numbers of militia men as they paraded back in the best order they could. Upon returning, they garrisoned in Boston and wouldn’t leave for some time.
I Wish This Cursed Place Was Burned
The American Army formed around Boston almost immediately, called for by the provincial college. It wasn’t a proper army; supplies were low, structure loose, and most members opportunistic.
Fort Ticonderoga was captured by Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys, providing much needed supplies.
Martial law was declared by General Gage on June 12th. Reinforcements came, and the British made plans to secure Boston by taking the high ground below the city, Dorchester Heights, and the high ground above the site, Bunker Hill. On June 16th, the rebels attempted to capture the north high ground. From Cambridge they marched, led by William Prescott, to the area around Bunker Hill during the evening and night. They quickly threw up breastworks and fortification. Their overnight movements quickly became apparent to the British as the next days light began to trickle in. British ships pounded the hill, although many of the larger ones could not get into position due to the shallow water.
The Americans had nearly 12,000 men by the afternoon, as the British launched from long wharf and the north end to land on Charlestown. The rebels stymied the first few attempts of the British to charge the breastworks, but eventually broke through after regrouping and taking a new strategy, and the rebels running out of ammunition. 40% of the attacking force had been killed or wounded, numbering over 1,000 casualties.
Initially the battle was looked upon by the rebels as a failure, of the ineptitude of leadership and the cowardice of the rank and file, all with a tinge of treachery. Over time, it grew into a prideful engagement, where rebel soldiers had stood their own and inflicted mass casualties. From the British side, while victory was always preferable, it was seen as Pyrrhic.
What Shall We Say of Human Nature?
General George Washington, a veteran of earlier wars on the French continent, arrived in Boston as the new Commander-in-Chief on July 2nd, 1775. He was deeply invested in the patriot cause, with a few resentments of his own: preference given to British land speculators, restrictions on westward expansion, and debts to British merchants.
He organized the army into three grand divisions consisting of two brigades of six regiments apiece. These were led by Ward, Putnam, and Charles Lee.
Washington mainly dealt with instilling discipline in his army composed of farmers, sailors, and laborers. He issued decrees relating to hygiene, alcohol intake, and profanity. He worked to source supplies for his army, both of sustenance (11 tons of fresh beef three times a week, for example) and of materiel (August 3rd, 1775, Washington learned that they only had enough powder for about 9 rounds per solider, let alone any cannon fire).
I Shall Try to Retard the Evil Hour
Canada, primarily inhabited by Catholic French and Native American allies, was traditionally viewed as an enemy of the British colonies in America. But, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and with swords turned toward the British empire, American patriots thought they might be able to unite with their neighbors up north to work toward a common goal. They invited Canada to join in a united North America. But, Canada did not send any delegates to the Continental Congress.
Matters came to a head with the Quebec Act in 1775, which effectively strengthened the place of Roman Catholics (remember, the colonies were primarily Protestant) and expanded boundaries down into lands fought for by colonists in the French and Indian war.
The Continental Army army forces north up past Lake Champlain onto the St. Lawrence River to capture British forts in Canada. There was much discussion by the Congress about the need and benefit of doing so, but it was decided it would be helpful to capture British staging grounds with access to New York and New England, provide frontier forts, and gain access to granary and fur trading. Multiple forts surrendered in October and November, and 3/4s of the British regulars in Canada were killed or captured.
They Fought, Bled, and Died Like Englishmen
John Murray was royal governor of Virginia, and also one of the most hated British officials in America.
With the explosion of tobacco farming in Virginia, many planters accelerated their growth by taking on more debt than prudent, resulting in Scottish and British merchants controlling much of the yield. Resentment toward British imperial restrictions and loss of local autonomy were the underpinnings of resentment against the mother country. There was additionally the jockeying of status between Anglicans (loyalists) and evangelical churches. “Lower-class men who did not own property saw the break from Britain as a chance to gain land and become slaveholders.”
500,000 Americans were black, 20% of the population, and in the Virginia it was 40%. Local Militias trained in part to prepare for space revolts. As Dunmore’s power restricted and he was run out of his estate in Virginia, he declared on November 7th, 1775 that slaves willing to join the British troops in arm would be free. Many did join the ranks, and took part in small victories against Virginia patriots.
However, Dunmore’s plan backfired. Rather than pushing slaveowners to remain loyal, he galvanized Virginians as never before, unified at the horror of emancipation of their slaves. The fight about political rights became an existential struggle to prevent the social fabric from unraveling. Washington was especially incensed from Cambridge.
On Saturday, December 9th, an attack was ordered by Dunmore on a fortified rebel redoubt near Great Bridge over the southern part of the Elizabeth River, by which Dunmore had built barracks and a small garrison to look over the bridge. The American strength was underestimated, and with the American reaction to partially flank the regulars crossing the bridge, the rebels made quick work of the 120 troops. With that defeat, Dunmore and loyalists abandoned Norfolk. Ships arrived from British to reinforce Dunmore, but with the town squarely in rebel hands, aid turned into destruction. On January 1st, 1776, the ships newly arrived from Britain launched a cannonade and regulars rowed to shore to set the town on fire. Instead of dousing, the rebels themselves proliferated the fires and burned Norfolk to the ground, partially with the intent to cast all blame on the British and partially to punish it for being largely a Tory town.
The Paths of Glory
Montgomery sailed up to Quebec from Montreal to support Arnold and his troops as they lay in wait, looking for the right moment to strike the remains British foothold in Canada. Their force was small, the winter cold, and prospects of taking the gift slim - inside, British commander Carleton had stocked supplies and larger guns.
Montgomery and Arnold moved to attack before enlistments ran out on the 1st of January. Smallpox had ripped through the camp, and troops under Arnold had become almost mutinous in their detest of him, not because of his military proficiency but his grating personality. They attacked Quebec in a pincer movement under the cover of a storm on December 31st.
Arnold’s portion of the pincer made good progress, sweeping around to the Lower Town and then waiting for Montgomery’s forces to come to the rendezvous. Montgomery’s arm initially pushed through, but were attacked by surprise from a seemingly abandoned blockhouse. Montgomery fell, his forces retreated, and eventually that arm routed as they fell back. The attack was stymied, and the forces remaining alive surrendering to the British. However, Arnold had been injured during the initial approach, and was carted back to the hospital before the attack collapsed.
The Ways of Heaven Are Dark and Intricate
Winter in Boston during the siege was boring and quite cold. As part of the effort to entertain themselves, British soldiers would write and perform plays. On January 8th, a premiere for the play titled The Blockade of Boston was supposed to play. Before the show began, alerts went out to those in Boston that something was amiss in Charlestown. The rebels had set fire to the few houses remaining in Charlestown that were now occupied by regulars.
British in Boston were also for want of food and supplies. It was tough to gather supplies from our the area, and crossing the Atlantic was expensive, resulted in losing much of the cargo (a fraction of livestock would make it over, and most veggies would spoil), and sometimes ships did not end up landing in Boston or making the journey at all. The Royal Navy stationed in Boston had 38 vessels to patrol the entire Atlantic seaboard, and too many tasks for it to handle with such a small fleet. Rebel ships were able to continue moving about without much disruption, and would sometimes capture British ships full of supplies.
Washingtons position with the Continental army was in despair. Enlistments would end on January 1st, 1776. The spirit of liberty was waning as the armies sat in inaction, and many New Englanders and Connecticut troops began to wander home, some taking their army-issued supplies with them - this added injury to insult as the Continental Army was not only looking for men but had thin supply provisions as well.
Some Henry Knox transported 58 guns from Fort Ticonderoga near Lake Champlain down to Albany and over to Boston, a journey of nearly 350 miles. The guns were much needed by the Continental army.
Washington considered a frontal attack across the Charles into Boston, estimated their were 5,000 British troops in the city (in reality, there were 9,000). The American forces number 13,000, but many were unarmed and untrained. His idea for an attack was met with almost unanimous disagreement from his war cabinet. Instead, he looked at Dorchester Heights as the high ground to siege the city.
The Whipping Snake
The Royal Governors in the colonies and ministers in government back in London were lured by the thought of a quick southern victory to split the rebellion and stoke morale from loyalists. South Carolina was especially apt to join arms against the rebellion, having many Scottish immigrants deeply loyal to the crown. A modest proposal to send some troops south grew into a large operation with the hallucination of loyalist support and easy success, hoping to subdue four colonies in a matter of months before turning to help the forces in the northeast.
Complications abounded: shipping was tough to find for the number of men and supplies needed, weather would not corporate with sailing schedules, supplies needed for a large standing army, recruitment floundering.
Josiah Martin, Governor of North Carolina, fled to a ship off of Cape Fear, Scorpion. He was under the impression that British reinforcements from London were coming, and happily waited their arrival. He tried to hold up his end of the bargain by galvanizing and amassing an army of loyalists. He appointed General Donald MacDonald to lead the Scottish colonists loyal to the crown. As they moved from their staging place in Fayetteville (at that time called Cross Creek) down to Wilmington, they were ambushed by nearly a thousand militiamen at Moore’s Creek. In a skirmish, 70 loyalists were killed while the rebels lost just 1; countless others captured, material plundered, and confidence instill in the rebel cause.
When Clinton arrived south, he was surprised and a bit miffed to find the reinforcements and loyalists in arms that were promised were in fact not available. The loyalist numbers had been thinned with the skirmish at Moore’s Creek, and the reinforcements that had departed from Cork, Ireland had yet to arrive.
City of Our Solemnities
On the night of March 4th, the taking of Dorchester Heights commenced. For the few days prior, the rebels had shot cannons into Boston; on the 4th, they continued you, to distract the British and cover the sounds thousands of men, along with oxen, supplies, barrels of sand and stone, and pre-made fortifications - called “chandelier” - moving along the isthmus to Dorchester Heights.
Intelligence had told the British General Howe that something was to be afoot at Dorchester; however, he never intervened. Once the daylight broke and British observers could see that the Heights were taken, cannons were swiveled and ships reoriented to launch cannonades at the hills. Some hit home fatally against the rebels; however, most could not reach the Heights or were ineffective.
Howe immediately readied the troops to be deployed in an assault on Dorchester Heights, to be led by General Percy, the man who had lead the reinforcement force during the British retreat from Lexington and Concord. Washington had a counter-strike planned - while troops stormed the slopes of the Heights, Nathaniel Greene, General Putnam, and General Sullivan all stood ready to land forces in Boston and capture much of the city.
However, none of these plans came to fruition. Delays in losing troops on transport, and then the next few days of bad weather, scuttled any hope of launching any sort of assault. With time to ponder, Howe then changed his mind to evacuate Boston and make his way to Halifax to regroup, retrain, and replan the American campaign.
A Strange Reversal of Fortune
The Canadian situation was in tatters: morale low, supplies dwindling, medicine absent, clothing severely underwhelming for the weather, and no money to properly provision supplies or pay the soldiers. Catholics and Canadians had been alienated by some of the actions taken by American leaders. Ben Franklin was sent my Congress to remedy the situation.
Lord Germain assembled a rescue regiment for Quebec, which had held out against the Americans. Sailing against tough waters with ice and unfavorable weather, Captain Charles Douglas aboard the Isis finally led the flotilla sent from London to Quebec along the St. Lawrence River on May 6. Almost immediately, General Carleton, commander of the Quebec garrison, took the newly arrived regulars along with troops that had been stuck in Quebec out to meet the Americans on the Plains of Abraham. The Americans turned and ran, leaving behind most sick and any supplies. They continued to push toward Montreal, from where they could turn south toward the colonies.
Carleton let up on his pursuit to wait for more reinforcements, but the situation was dire. General Thomas does from smallpox after his men had attempted to inoculate themselves. There was no money, no supplies, no firearms. To replace Thomas came General John Sullivan, a man wanting for military deftness. He saw the situation and decided an attack would be the best way to press forward; men were greatly outnumbered against more British reinforcements led by General Burgoyne, and many captured or killed.
As the Americans retreated to Sorel and then to Fort Chambly and then to At. Johns, Carleton tried to encircle them by sailing down the river while Burgoyne pursued from the north on foot. The Americans kept falling back, burning structures and destroying supplies lest they fall into enemy hands.
“So ended a botched campaign of liberation and aggrandizement, laden with miscalculation and marred by mishap. As always in way, contingency played an outsized role, starting with delays the previous summer in marching north and in reducing St. John’s. Carleton’s barrow escape from Montreal; the disastrous attack at Quebec, and malady all contributed to the American failure.”
A Dog in a Dancing School
After the failure at Moore’s Creek in North Carolina, and waiting for the reinforcements that were once promised, General Clinton idled along the coast at Cape Fear. On April 18th, the first British transport appeared, and near the end of May a war council convened with Clinton, Cornwallis, and Peter Parker, in which without further instruction the trio decided to look south toward Charleston, a city which Howe had earlier called “an object of importance to His Majesty’s service.” They knew that eventually they would need to come north to New York, and upon embarking actually received correspondence from Lord Germain who instructed them to proceed north if “nothing could be soon effected that would be of great and essential service.” They decided that a quick sortie into Charleston fit the bill, and continued south.
The approach to Charleston was difficult, with shallow waters and two sand cays, Sullivan’s and Morris Island, protecting the left and right of the entrance into the bay. South Carolinians, upon seeing the approaching armada, scrambled out of town. As folks, printing presses, and important documents moved inland, militias came to ready within Charleston. In South Carolina, militias were mostly prepped to put down slave revolts. Slaves outnumbered whites 104,000 to 70,000, and British encouragement of slave defections sparked hysteria amongst whites, leading to brutal bloodshed between slaves and slave owners, even as some slave owners fought for their own liberty while denying other humans theirs.
Lee had earlier been directed south to help defend the area after helping prep New York defenses and plan some of the Siege of Boston. However, local militia leaders would end up handling themselves quite well. Clinton and Parker landed troops on some of the small islands, thinking that at low tide a bar would emerge that could be crossed, but it turned out the passage was too deep. The water around Charleston was thought to be deeper, causing some ships to end up grounded, and barely able to wiggle out and retreat. An assault on the harbor happened mostly from naval guns, but rebels were able to return fire successfully and stifle any hope of landing British troops en made. Eventually, the British fleet knew the day could not be carried and sailed back north to connect with Howe. They had lost a few ships and many men, with rebel losses quite thin. Many issues were the cause: bad communication between commanders, shallow water, deep troop crossings, restrained aim from the rebels, and decent construction of defenses.
A Fight Among Wolves
Lord Howe amassed a gigantic naval force outside NY harbor, with 30,000 troops in tow. In a show of strength, Howe sent ships, the Rose and Phoenix, up the Hudson, past the cannonade from Manhattan, and anchored then upriver. The rebels in NYC now had multiple fronts to potentially worry about.
The British landed on Gravesend Bay, Long Island, on August 22nd, and pushed up toward Brooklyn. Sullivan, recently promoted to major general dispute the rout at Quebec, was given command of Long Island while Nathaniel Greene, the Rhode Island commander dealt with an illness. Quickly, with Washington unsatisfied with Sullivan, gave control to Putnam. They moved men onto the Heights of Guana, a woods pass 4 miles long and 150 feet high. Greene has intended to fall back to Brooklyn Heights, but Putnam and Sullivan decided this was where to stand. The line was brittle.
Clinton, fresh from his embarrassment at Charleston, sought to destroy the Continental army. He drew up a plan to flank the defenses at the Heights of Guana, moving toward Jamaica and circling back. He left on the evening of August 26th; skirmishes would break out later between Americans and regulars in the wee hours of the next morning, evolving into full-fledged fighting. The gambit to flank the continent isle worked: the American escape routes were cut off or restricted, and the fighting force caught between two British bodies.
The Americans fell back to the Brooklyn Heights, losing hundreds of men in the process to death, wounds, and imprisonment. British and Hessian losses totaled 376. With almost 40,000 participants, no battle would be larger or more lopsided.
Howe and the army paused for a few days before approaching Brooklyn Heights, giving his army to be properly fed, handle prisoners, and make preparations. Washington sent reinforcements to the crowded camp, swelling its numbers to almost 10,000 men. There were also many Long Island refugees that took shelter in the camp. Washington realized his position was in peril, and ordered a withdraw on Thursday evening, August 29th. By the next morning, all men and supplies were evacuated, the British so close to discovering the retreat before it finished that they saw the light of the last few boats on the fog across the east river. It was quite a feat - 10,000 men and supplies without losing a soul, under watch of a powerful army and navy.
A Sentimental Manner of Making War
Lord Howe wined and dined the two American generals captured at the Battle of Long Island, Sullivan and Stirling, aboard his ship in an attempt to convince them to bring the possibility of peace negotiations to congress. He was successful, in that Sullivan brought the idea when he was released in captivity.
Ben Franklin, John Adams, and Edward Rutledge met with Howe in Staten Island for 3 hours, but nothing came of it. Independence was table stakes, and the British were trying to wind back the clock of the political progression that had been made in the consciousness of America.
Howe launches an assault at Kip’s bay, starting with an hour of cannonade from the 5 ships that had dropped anchor there and then a landing by the Hessians and British. It was enough to make the Connecticut troops there flee, prompting Washington and his men to evacuate the island and head up to Harlem Heights. This process was already underway, but expedited by the landing. The snuck up the west coast of the island as the British, led by Clinton, regrouped and waited for Howe’s landing and further instruction.
After the rebels had quit New York, a serendipitous fire erupted, burning 500 houses, nearly a quarter of the city’s total. It was never determined if it was by accident or arson, and an investigation by a British commission later confirmed it was not motivated by any American command, but many loyalists assumed the worst of the American leaders.
Master of the Lakes
Carelton, along with more soldiers and supplies from across the Atlantic, stood near Ile Aux Noix, where the Americans had rested briefly during their flight from Canada back down south to New York. Supplies from Britain were tardy, limiting the fighting season so that Carleton would likely not achieve as much as he had originally hoped, but he kept his soldiers busy building warehouses and supply sheds, an armada of ships, disassembling and reassembling to move frigates and ships over land to circumvent the Richelieu River rapids to St. John’s and then the lakes. Eventually, several hundred craft stood ready, pointing south toward the lakes and New York.
The Continental Northern Army at Fort Ticonderoga was in tough shape: smallpox had been replaced by fevers with three thousand patients in the hospital, regional conflicts coming to blows, thievery and conning were common, and fighting between generals (Schuyler, the scapegoat, and Horatio Gates, an up-and-comer who was assigned a command in Canada but arrived after all the grounded had been ceded). It was decided that a fleet would need to be built to prevent the British from advancing on Ticonderoga and the Hudson valley, and that Benedict Arnold would be the one to command it.
Arnold took his fleet up near the middle of Lake Champlain, on the westward strait between the shore and Valcour island, setting a defensive position and waiting for Carleton to sail south. He waited for weeks until he caught them sailing south, and brought them into battle, where the wind was in Arnold’s favor. They did much damage to the British fleet, even though they were outnumbered and lacking talent. As the day expired, Arnold and his officers concluded that “like a rattlesnake, they had struck, venomously, and now must slither away.” Their goal was to distract and deflect - their armada had a vessel sunk, the Philadelphia, ammunition stocks were up and sixty men dead or wounded - and they had done so. Now they retreated in the night, staying along the coast and circumventing the British screen, to retire to Crown Point. On the morning of October 12th, realizing the Americans had escaped from under their nose, the British followed in hot pursuit. A few ships made it back to Crown Point (which was subsequently burned as the troops retreated back to Ticonderoga), although most were destroyed or captured, leaving Arnold and his ship Congress along with some gundalows making their way for Crown Point. Arnold and his seamen landed in Ferris Bay, a small cove, made their way up the embankment and reached Ticonderoga on foot, chased by Indians and British.
However, he had stalled the advancement, and after much pause Carleton figured to return back to Canada to wait out the winter rather than risk a full assault on Ticonderoga and its 10,000 defenders with the season sufficiently advanced. Arnold had done his job, and the Americans could rest for the winter knowing they had delayed British plans by at least a year.
The Retrograde Motion of Things
As Washington retreated more north, Howe sent some ships up the Hudson, bypassing the obstacles the Continentals had dumped into the river, taking down some ships and finally landing in Tappen Zee. Howe has a chance to encircle Washington and his army, but he was unsure of his course and the thought to cut off the army from behind was beyond his aptitude. He went slowly and cautiously. Howe snuck up the East river with his main force, landing on Frog’s Neck - it was a horrible spot for an amphibious Lansing, given it was cut off from the mainland during high tide - and the Americans were able to bottle them up on the peninsula for a few days.
The British moved up to Pell’s Point under the cover of night, and moved inland in the morning. A genius stonewalling led by Colonel John Glover of Marblehead, MA repelled 3 British pushes forwarded, yielding more losses the British took in the entire Long Island campaign, finally falling back once more troops came to the battlefield.
The Continental Army finally clashed face-to-face with the British Army at White Plains. Howe concentrates forces on the American right, finally breaking through. Rains delayed the possibility of attacking the next day, and the Americans fell back a mile to North Castle. Howe, having no intention to follow the Americans into back country without a chance of forcing them into a decisive battle, chose to withdraw his troops from their forward position at White Plains and head toward Dobbs Ferry. The American casualties were likely 175, and the British / Hessian forces 254.
Now, the four sections of the army stood as such: General Heath at the Hudson Highlands with 4K men, Lee in Westchester with 7k to block approaches to New England, Greene in NJ centered around Fort Lee, and Magaw in Manhattan around Fort Washington. Feelings were bullish, mostly in that Howe had not done much with his large force.
But, Howe had other plans. He attacked the last point the rebels had a hold of on Manhattan, Fort Washington. In a devastating, 4 pronged attack, he captured the fort and took most of the garrison prisoner. He fort was to be renamed Fort Knyphausen, after the Hessian commander. Howe had 458 casualties, with 77 killed. For the Americans, 59 killed, 96 wounded, and 2830 captured. Many provisions and guns were lost as well. The prisoners were marched back to New York and kept in unfavorable conditions. Over the next 18 months, 2/3s of those captured would be dead from disease, exposure, or malnutrition.
The British did not rest for long after their capture of Fort Washington. They crossed the river upstream and moved down to capture Fort Lee, a vulnerable bunker of earth. Greene, commander of Fort Lee, had already moved much of his force back deeper into NJ, but at the notification of approaching redcoats hurried his remaining men out of the fort, leaving it to be captured without a struggle by the British and Hessians.
A Quaker in Paris
Franklin crossed back over as a diplomat to obtain some ships, muskets, bayonets, and ammunition from France.
While the British navy was remarkable and tough to contend with, private privateers had been authorized by colonial governments and Congress to attack enemy ships. The British navy, while massive, had trouble blockading or controlling the 3,000 miles of coast. Spread thin, privateers made quick work of merchant ships and isolated ships, scoring large prizes and helping disrupt shipping lines and supplies transportation more than the Continental Navy could.
Beaumarchais, a man of many talents and fairly well-known in 18th century France, writer of The Barber of Seville, ran the French government front set up to ship military supplies to America without explicitly involving the French, which was headquartered in France at Hotel des Ambassadeurs de Hollande. Him and other leaders, such as the French foreign minister de Vergennes, had eyes on a protracted British-American war because it would potentially weaken England, the bitter rival of France, as it dealt with the punitive measures and humiliating defeat from the Seven Years War.
However, aid would not come so quickly. France had to send any aid in a clandestine manner as to not raise suspicion and potentially embroil it in a war. It was still weak from its last war with England, and was wary of upstarts like Austria, and mindful of the Portuguese on the doorstep of Bourbon Spain.
Washington scrambled toward the Delaware River, with of force of 3,000 or so men, not stopping to prey back the British on his heels for fear of being overwhelmed. He stopped in Trenton, across the river from his foes. New Jersey, rife with loyalists, was left for the British to occupy without a fight.
Once in New Jersey, Howe planned to use the various towns like Newark, Elizabeth Town and New Brunswick for winter quarters. The British pillaged the towns, harmed men, women, and children, and razed houses. The insults to Jersey turned previously subdued observers (and militias) to Continental Army supporters and troops.
General Lee was moving from his post in Westchester to meet with Washington at Trenton. Lee had begun to harbor resentment against Washington, accusing him of indecision and figuring he himself could do better. This was revealed to Washington when Washington opened a note intended for his aide Reed. He realized both Lee’s thorniness and Reed’s disloyalty.
Lee swung west and intended to go south to avoid the large British forces. He camped three miles from his troops with a small guard force at the tavern of widow Mary White - it was rumored he had a rendezvous with a woman. The British sniffed him out, and captured him without much of a fight. For the British, this capture represented the removal of the most feared rebel General from the battlefield, and was the cause for much celebration.
The Smiles of Providence
The capture of Lee had led much of the Continental army to be despondent. Howe and other leaders had retired to New York, closing down operations during the winter season.
Washington and his general counsel decided on a plan to assault Trenton, which housed Hessians under command of General Rall. On Christmas Eve, Washington transported horses and artillery across an icy, nearly uncrossable Delaware River. His soldiers marched south through the night, and then north of Trenton split into two forces, one led by Sullivan from the northwest and the other with Greene, Knox, and Washington for the north. Sullivan cut off escape routes to the south, Knox’s artillery sprayed the town, and the assault worked fantastically, lasting less than two hours and capturing 900 hessians while killing / injuring around 100.
Excitement and confidence in the army and the cause was renewed with the affairs at Trenton. The spirit of the army and country was ebbing, but the daring assault on Trenton reignited the passion for independence in a few short days.
The Day is Our Own
With the end of 1776 came the expiration of many enlistments. Washington and generals pleaded for troops to stay, offering monetary prizes and promise of loot.
To write the wrongs of Rall and the Hessians, Cornwallis turned back from leaving for England and came to NJ. He attacked Trenton with a slightly larger force than the Continentals had. Washington took up his defenses on the east side of the Assunpink Creek, which ran alongside Trenton, causing the bridge from Trenton over the creek to be a bottleneck of attack and defense.
After nightfall, and inflicting proper damage on the British, Washington’s genius emerged. Rather than holding the defensive position, which could be flanked by Cornwallis’ men, or moving south to Bordentown, Washington proposed moving East back to Princeton from whence Cornwallis had come. Leaving some troops behind to imitate a large army entrenching, Washington’s troops moved up toward Princeton heading for northeast and then back northwest, skirting the eyes of Cornwallis. They caught some reinforcements heading to Trenton by surprise, bottled some troops up in the college house that would eventually surrender, and after capturing the town destroyed the south bridge that Cornwallis would need to cross to move back.
Quickly after taking the town and burning materiel they could not take, Washington turned his forces northeast toward Morristown before Cornwallis could stumble back to Princeton. There was a though to turn and attack the weak garrison at New Brunswick, but the men were tired and needed to recuperate.