1775 When Washington, accompanied by the uncertain Charles Lee and Horatio Gates, entered the American lines besieging Boston, he unconsciously marked the start of the United States Army. Although the groups of armed countrymen, scattered in a semi-circle from Charlestown Neck to Boston Neck, were not then known by such a name, they were nevertheless by his coming transformed from separate New England militia into a single force fighting for the rights of all the colonies. The thirteen little governments by this move abandoned their previous rôles of independent pioneers and for the first time united for defense under one properly constituted leader. His arrival, then, is bound up with our first national military establishment, whose growth for the next eight years is a part of him and to a great extent a result of him.
It had taken eleven days for him to make the journey on horseback from Philadelphia, whence he had set out four days after the battle of Bunker Hill and five days after the Continental Congress had selected him as commander in chief.
His election had been a queer one, where violent prejudices had swept aside sound judgment. John Hancock, a wholesale merchant of no military experience, desired the command of the forces. Artemas Ward, a former officer of the French and Indian wars, was, since he was already in charge of the Massachusetts p2 troops, a rival for the office. Hancock, President of Congress and an ardent patriot, appealed to the people of New England. Ward was pushed by Paine, who had been a fellow student at Harvard, and by another member who volunteered the pleasant argument that the soldiers seemed satisfied with Ward. But the southern delegates objected, not because Hancock was a flabby merchant nor because Ward was too fat to mount a horse, but because they would have none of a New Englander. Besides, Hancock was a bit too anxious for the position in the presence of John Adams, whose natural antagonism to the wishes of others was acutely aroused. It was soon felt that the new incumbent would have to be a person who could unite the north and the south, the puritan and cavalier, the forces engaged and not engaged. Washington, a man of quiet manners, a resident of the borderland between the two parties, and the husband of the wealthiest woman in the country, answered the trifling qualifications imposed by the legislators. The more he was mentioned, the more negatively prominent he became particularly because he did not blight any one's whims. He was finally unanimously elected without the slightest question having been raised concerning his fitness as a soldier or commander. It is doubtful if many of the members knew that he had been an expert scout, the hero of Fort Necessity, the aide-de‑camp to General Braddock, and the head of the Virginia militia. It is certain they did not care, any more than they had been interested in the fitness of Ward and Hancock, who possessed none. So, at the very birth of our government, feeling supplanted wisdom, pettishness crowded out calculation, and hot favoritism overruled cold reason. The ominous sound of such legislative talk is going to echo disastrously through the succeeding pages of this story. At this point it remains for us to be thankful that Washington was a meritorious accident. In spite of sewing-society methods he, the preëminent military leader of the country, became commander in chief.
1775 He accepted the honor with expressions of his unworthiness, refused a salary, and set out for Cambridge to meet his command and to attempt to bring order and discipline out of irregularity and insubordination. One year and one day before p3 the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, under the elm which afterwards bore his name, he drew his sword in the presence of his heterogeneous army and formally took command.
Was ever a commander presented with a more motley throng? In the same companies were blue coats faced with buff, black coats faced with red, and hunting shirts of brown trimmed with fringes, streamers and scarlet needlework. The townsman, clad in gay hues and covered with coat or blanket, touched elbows with the woodsman wearing his dull homespun. A company of Stockbridge Indians in feathers, paint and nakedness vied in color with the Connecticut dragoons in vivid red coats not unlike the British. There were long trousers, overalls, and breeches with or without gaiters or with fringed leggings of deerskin. Stuck in the triangular hat were gaudy sprigs of various sizes and shapes. Irish, German, Scottish, Puritan, and Quaker contrasted their Caucasian faces with the shiny African in his powdered wig, while graybeard and child stood side by side. Even the officers had no distinctive uniforms.
Nor did this sundry collection of male beings live in a true camp. That term implies to us regimental blocks of company streets in straight, regular rows, with officers' tents at one end and picket-lines at the other. The soldier of the Boston Siege lived in the open or in a kennel of his own making. The higher officers billeted themselves in near‑by houses, Washington being accorded a deserted Tory mansion. Save in some companies of Rhode Island regiments where tents had been secured, the rank and file contented itself with rolling up a blanket under the trees or stars. When the elements compelled some sort of shelter, it was built according to the caprice and choice of site of the occupant. There were structures of linen, sailcloth, boards, stones, brush, and turf, and all possible combinations of these. There were booths and huts of varying shapes and sizes, with or without windows. Such shacks clung in scattered patches about the various earthworks to be defended.
Cooking was an individual or club performance undertaken at such hours as the stomach dictated. So long as duties were attended, it little mattered how or when nourishment might be p4 prepared. Habakkuk Simpkins, being a reclusive puritan, broiled his steak alone meal after meal, and drank his mug of beer in holy thought; whereas Patrick O'Brien messed in company with a dozen Ezras and Ezekiels and with loud oaths smacked his lips over the savory stew concocted by one of the number.
Everything bespoke irregularity, especially the organizations. Previous to Bunker Hill the barest fractions of commands had reported for duty. The shortages were accentuated by casualties in that battle and sickness afterward. Even had the organizations in the beginning been thoroughly complete, the rolls would have differed remarkably in effective strength, for each state added to the chaos by having its units independently constructed. Massachusetts varied from 590 to 649 men per regiment, whereas Connecticut authorized 1,000. Steuben later declared he saw regiments ranging from 3 to 23 companies. A Massachusetts company consisted of a captain, a lieutenant, and 59 men. A Connecticut company added 11 men, 4 corporals, and a second lieutenant. A Massachusetts general was also a colonel of a regiment. Rhode Island field officers were also captains of companies. When a colonel was absent from his company, it was commanded by a captain lieutenant. The scheme was evidently devised to reduce the number of officers, but it produced discord and placed double responsibility upon officers incapable of handling one organization.
Add to the discouragements attendant upon this conglomerate mass of men, which resembled in discipline, uniform and organization more nearly a Greek ekklesia than an army, was the low type of commissioned officer. The pernicious system by which he was obtained explains his inefficiency. Any popular member of a community who could enlist the necessary quota for a company became a captain; likewise for a regiment, a colonel. The remainder of the company officers were generally elected by the privates; and the field officers, by the company officers. However, in Maryland all the officers were elected by popular vote just as municipal officials at a town meeting. Everywhere rum and bribery played important parts in recruiting and electioneering. By these methods the commander was p5 beholden to the commanded, and the qualifications of an officer were confined to popularity, zeal in raising men, ability to pay the tavern bills and, perchance, some questionable inducements. Just how little military knowledge or training influenced selection can be seen from the account of a New Jersey private:
"After this we chose our officers. When on parade our 1st Lieutenant came and told us he would be glad if we would excuse him from going, which we refused; but on consideration we concluded it was better to consent, afterward he said he would go, but we said: 'you shall not command us, for he whose mind can change in an hour is not fit to command in the field where liberty is contended for.' In the evening we chose a private in his place."
This prudish picture of democratic punishment for vacillation is no less that of the private controlling the officer. Stock-jobbing, insubordination, desertion, and mutiny flowed naturally from such a source. It was difficult for Obadiah Perkins to take orders from Israel Hampton on parade in the evening, after Israel with jollified flow of spirits had lured Obadiah with blunted senses into signing the enlistment blank in the morning. It was easy to slip from under Israel's authority and to go home when the hay was to be put under cover. Who was Israel to instruct him? A creature of his own contrivance. No wonder Obadiah, when on sentry duty, allowed the British to purloin his rifle, or failed to show any courtesy toward his superiors. Scarcely able to read or write, he easily confused the new national freedom with personal liberty, and resented any inroads upon the abandon that had been his with his own dog and gun, in his own woods. Nor was his officer prone to reprimand or punish him when there was a vote to be lost or popularity to be curtailed.
Not stopping in the regiment, this method of election crossed the threshold of Congress and controlled the choice of general officers. Already Washington's election has suggested the personal whims and petty jealousies prevalent in the proceedings of that body. The attributes of the major generals first chosen will reveal somewhat the success of its methods. p6 They were in order of rank: Artemas Ward, already partially described, but in addition accused of cowardice at Bunker Hill; Charles Lee,1 former British officer with service in many European campaigns, who turned out to be more despicable in treachery than Benedict Arnold; Philip Schuyler, politician, delegate to Congress, with former service in the French and Indian wars, a loyal officer but possessed of a demeanor which operated against him; Israel Putnam, a farmer, a former private in the French and Indian wars, of great energy but meager military ability. Not a very promising collection of right-hand men. But Congress afterward, more on account of the inefficacy of its system than any inherent malevolence, accustomed itself to supplanting the worthy with the unworthy, withholding praise from the meritorious and bestowing it upon the inglorious, and even plotting against Washington himself. Little doubt is left that he would have been removed before 1777 had it not been for the universal regard in which the army held him.
So absorbed was he in his huge task, however, that he had little time for self-consciousness or sensitiveness to criticism. The quality and quantity of his supplies, as well as of his men, gave a determined check to any immediate offensive and turned his efforts into channels of desperate reconstruction.
Powder was short.a It is estimated that at the beginning of hostilities there were on sale not a hundred pounds in all the colonies. Thirty rounds per man in the American camp is a high estimate. Washington himself mentions the exploit of maintaining around Boston, within gunshot of the British, a •thirteen‑mile chain of sentries who had not an ounce of powder. Even salutes with the cannon were forbidden on account of the waste.
Lead would have been as rare as powder had not the statue of George III, on Bowling Green, New York, been handily melted down, cooled, dissected, and dealt out in small quantities to the soldiers. They, in turn, during dull afternoons in camp, remelted their weighty allotments in melting pans, poured the contents into bullet molds, and saved the product for individual use. The bullet thus fashioned by hand was suited to the particular p7 caliber of firearm by means of different-sized holes in the bullet mold.
These missiles at close range were possibly as deadly as any small projectile ever contrived. In their construction the junction of two hemispheres of molten metal left a ridged seam which operated much as does the soft-nosed or "dum‑dum" bullet of to‑day. It tore out whole muscles, smashed bones and rent the flesh, leaving large ragged wounds from which were comparatively few recoveries. Aside from the tearing effect, the impact of the bullet was enough to stop a man in motion more effectively than the modern high-velocity projectiles.
During the hot July afternoon, when the soldier had completed molding the bullets for his or his mate's use, he had to turn his attention toward the personal manufacture of cartridges. It was found quite early in the war that there resulted greater speed and safety in loading with a previously prepared casing for the ammunition than with the loose powder and ball. Accordingly, the private rolled, as the cigarette maker does his tobacco, each one of his bullets and an inch or so of powder into paper cylinders about the diameter of the bore of his piece. These he stowed carefully in a leather pouch or box which usually contained places for twenty-three cartridges.
The remainder of the equipment of the individual was mostly what the recruit could bring with him. An enlistment blank enjoined the soldier to "furnish a good firearm, cartouch box, blanket, and knapsack." In lieu of the firearm he was directed to bring a good cutting sword, cutlass, or tomahawk, and later a shovel, spade, pickax, or scythe straightened and made fast to a pole. The powderhorn was included without the saying, for its delicate legend usually revealed the strong personal attachment of the owner. His "cartouch box" slung on one hip, and his powder horn or flask on the other, both suspended by broad straps of leather or web, gave to the Revolutionary volunteer his well-known, cross-belted appearance. Some were fortunate enough to own a wooden canteen resembling a small truncated barrel, or a bayonet fashioned by the nearest smith into a long bulging knife and attached to the individual rifle in the simplest way. During this stationary p8 warfare very few of these awkward drinking vessels or sheathed short swords dangled from the persons of the Americans. Later on, marching and fighting brought about a natural increase.
The main weapon of the Revolution, however, was the firelock or flintlock as it was indifferently called. Its mechanism and peculiarities account largely for the parts played by both sides in subsequent fighting. The fact that Washington lacked from three to four thousand, in order to arm his force completely, reduced his effectiveness to the equivalent of less than twelve thousand.2
The question naturally arises as to why there should exist this lack among people dependent in a great measure upon a firearm for protection and sustenance. The answer resolves itself into that of expense. A townsman looked askance in those days upon a luxury that cost from two to five pounds and represented to him what the purchase of a piano or an automobile means to the average citizen of to‑day.
Those who were the proud owners of a musket or rifle appear to us as scarcely to have possessed a defensive weapon. Its firing device consisted of a •three‑and-a‑half to four-foot barrel along the under side of which ran a steel ramrod; a hammer into which a piece of flint was inserted; a "battery" or upright piece of steel against which the spark was struck; and a flashpan containing loose powder which, upon receiving the spark from the battery, ignited through a small hole the charge in the chamber. Such were the clumsy means of projecting p9 an ounce ball through a short and highly curved trajectory.
Yet the undisciplined woodsman with his •seven-foot, fourteen-pound mass of wood and steel would deliver a bulls'-eye hit in the face of a smashing kick. The farmer was not so accurate at long range, and the townsman was very little better than the present generation as a whole. But as a rule the Revolutionary Army shot well.
Shortly after he took command Washington arranged a spectacular review for the purpose of showing the New England militia the effect of accurate shooting on the part of the woodsmen. A pole was set up and a marksman stepped off 250 paces. The farmer or townsman would scarcely have wasted powder at such a range. But the riflemen from the forest, firing singly, rarely missed the pole.
In one early battle the farmers with their muskets (usually the Brown Bess) finding themselves without bullets, loaded their weapons with scrap iron, nails, or jagged odds and ends of metal, waited until the enemy was within easy range, aimed at the foot or knee, and let the jump of the piece disembowel the victim. Many a Revolutionary soldier was certain to hit a small target at 60 yards. There is one instance of a soldier at that range, while his brother held a board •5 by 7 inches between his knees, fired, without a rest and from the standing position, 8 balls through the target without touching his kinsman. A British officer at Bunker Hill noticed such a person to have brought down 20 epauleted redcoats before the expert rifleman himself fell. But at the same battle it took the American so long to reload that the British rushed in with the bayonet and forced a retreat.
The disadvantage was due to the impossibility of reloading quickly and the lack of bayonets. After his piece was discharged, the soldier, instead of merely pulling his bolt, had to execute tedious motions. He reached in his box for a cartridge, bit from the end enough paper to let out the powder, a small portion of which he shook into the pan, and poured the remainder into the barrel through the muzzle. He then rammed home the bullet and paper sheath. Replacing the ramrod he was again ready to fire.
p10 The proceeding was all the more delayed in the early days of the Revolution when the powderhorn was used instead of the handmade cartridge. If the wind was blowing, it was almost impossible to place any powder in the pan, and if the uneven mixture of sulphur, carbon and saltpeter was damp, there was little reason for putting it into the rifle at all. The barrel, even after a few discharges, became so hot that the weapon was most uncomfortable to hold. The flint, too, was good for an average of only sixty firings.
Added to these handicaps, there were in use in the beginning of the war, no less than 13 different kinds of muskets, three kinds of musketoons and as many kinds of rifles as there were gunsmiths to make them. The calibers varied from thirteen‑gage to thirty‑gage (gage meaning the number of spherical balls to the pound). There were master armorers and private factories at Westfield, Massachusetts, at Rappahannock Forge, Virginia, and at Philadelphia, but no manufacturing arsenals in the present sense of the word. Soldiers side by side in ranks could scarcely use one another's weapons and could not load with one another's bullets.
Necessity naturally led to some sort of precision and uniformity in handling the weapon, if no other reason than the prevention of accidents.
One soldier forgetful of the proximity of his uncorked powderhorn started a conflagration that burned for several hours and caused him discomfort for several weeks. Another having snapped his piece on a "delayed" charge was, upon recocking and firing, promptly kicked to death. John M'Murtry, not realizing that there was a load in his rifle, sent a bullet through a double partition of inch boards, a single board of a berth, the breast of a man named Penn, and left a mark against a stone chimney. Nowadays, we are prone to forget the force of black powder close at hand, and the fact that the Continental developed as great respect for his own rifle as for the enemy.
The drill of the time attempted to systematize loading and to familiarize the enlisted man with the proper use of his serving weapon. But there were as many regulations as there were methods of putting the same regulations into effect. No two companies drilled alike, and all drilled badly. A Marylander p11 in 1776 watching the home contingent on parade that it was the finest body of men he had ever seen out of step. The "Sixty-fourth" edition of the British Manual, the Norfolk Discipline, Timothy Pickering's Easy Plan and Colonel Bland's treatise were all used indiscriminately. They differed to a great extent from each other and were taken up at the whim of the locality. The commands for firing and loading in one set consisted of 19 separate motions as follows:
|1.||Half-cock your firelocks! (1 motion)|
|2.||Handle your cartridges! (1 motion)|
|3.||Prime! (1 motion)|
|4.||Shut your pans! (2 motions)|
|5.||Charge with cartridge! (2 motions)|
|6.||Draw your rammers! (2 motions)|
|7.||Ram down your cartridge! (1 motion)|
|8.||Return your rammers! (1 motion)|
|9.||Shoulder your firelock! (2 motions)|
|10.||Poise your firelocks! (2 motions)|
|11.||Cock your firelocks! (2 motions)|
|12.||Present! (1 motion)|
|13.||Fire! (1 motion)|
It is hardly remarkable that the British routed the dependable Revolutionary marksman while all this was happening. With our overwrought sense of fire effect from magazine rifles, automatics and machine guns capable of deluging the enemy in an instant with mortal sleet, the enforced slowness of the soldier of 1775 is hard to conceive. If we are apt at times to criticize the vigor of Washington in not overwhelming his opponents with a ponderous volume of fire, let us remember the heavy technic through which he had to labor.
The larger weapons of artillery were fewer and less effective than the small arms. At the time of Washington's arrival there had not been much effort to obtain an adequate supply of big guns. Brass and iron cannons were so uncomfortably absent that he, until the few days preceding the British evacuation, was unable to contend with the fire of the enemy. Congress made a mild legal attempt to manufacture a uniform type of p12 these weapons, but the records fail to show any enforcement of the law. Colonel Richard Gridley, left in command of the artillery of Massachusetts, was on account of his senility disinclined to exertion in obtaining cannons and balls elsewhere. The hard service of the "gun pointers," "bombardiers," and "mattrosses," as the enlisted artillerymen were styled, made the work as distasteful as that of a stevedore. In fact the besieging force had to sit calmly exposed to the fire of the besieged. So common did the sprinkle of heavy projectiles become that an order had to be issued to keep the American soldier from attempting to stop the rolling balls with his feet. It appears that more casualties occurred from this characteristic performance than from the accuracy of the enemy.
Beyond the material lack of firelocks, ammunition, equipment, and cannon, that which essentially distressed the commander in chief was the immeasurable deficiency in trained and disciplined manhood.
Peculation and stockjobbery were rife among the officers. Little conception of the dignity and honor necessary to inculcate discipline was found in them. When captain, lieutenant, and ensign placed their salaries in a common fund with the enlisted men, drawing at the end of the month each the same share, the official intent was doubtless generous and democratic, but such officers commonized themselves and made it easy for Lieutenant Jones to filch Private Smith's blanket.
Mediocrity and cowardice were more common than theft and embezzlement even among officers who had never before been intrusted with funds. It can safely be said that a distinction, especially in the New England regiments, between officer and men did not exist. Lieutenant Whitney was tried and convicted later for "infamous conduct in degrading himself by voluntarily doing the duty of an orderly sergeant." A cavalry staff officer was found unconcernedly shaving one of his men while visitors were present in camp. Others were tried for undue brutality in beating their men into insensibility. The attempt at discipline manifested itself either in extreme familiarity or brutality and often both. Cowardice also had been especially manifested at Bunker Hill. One officer before the battle informed his company that he would overtake them directly. p13 He did — the next day. On the authority of General Lee and Captain Chester it is known that during the action many companies had not so much as a corporal to command them. The captain goes so far as to say that "the most of the companies of this Province are commanded by a most despicable set of officers." No doubt he was right but he was scarcely allowing for the fact that much of courage comes with discipline, the self-confidence accompanying the skill, as was demonstrated many times later.
With such a set of officers it is not astonishing that the enlisted men were expressions of a misconstrued liberty or freedom. Men disappeared to their homes at will after Bunker Hill, often having obtained a substitute from home, more often having omitted that courtesy. Washington stated of them that "they regarded their officers no more than broomsticks." Any direction or interference emanating from above was a violation of their personal liberty for which they were fighting. They had come out of their own accord to drive the British from Boston. That work had better be accomplished before December, for then their enlistment would run out and they would depart willy-nilly.
In the face of Washington's earnest entreaty, his appeal to their manhood and patriotism to stay with him only one month longer in order to save the Revolutionary Army from extinction, the Connecticut militiamen callously walked home in a body when their enlistments expired. A large part of the other militia did likewise.
It was not because they were in need that they forsook the cause. The privates of Massachusetts militia were receiving $36 every lunar month as pay, an equivalent of at least $150 in modern purchasing power, and, in addition, the following ration authorized by the Third Provincial Congress:
"One pound of bread, half a pound of beef, and a half pound of pork, and if pork cannot be had, one pound and a quarter of beef; and one day in seven they shall have one pound and a quarter of salt fish instead of one day's allowance of meat. One pint of milk, or, if milk cannot be had, one gill of rice; one quart of good spruce or malt beer; one gill of peas or p14 beans, or other sauce equivalent, six ounces of good butter per week; one pound of good common soap for six men per week; half a pint of vinegar per week per man, if it can be had."
Conceding what he provided for himself, we learn that the private at the outset of the Revolution was receiving more from the states than in 1918 before Château-Thierry. It is a curious fact that these very patriots who resented so thoroughly the mercenary troops sent against them from England were themselves but highly paid hirelings of their own government. Indeed, where a private citizen had been drafted by his own municipality it was common for him to be excused by paying a stipulated sum. Either in shirking or enlisting, the soldier was a commodity. In the average case he appears to have been actuated less by zeal in defense of his country than by greed for reward. His pusillanimous conduct became so common later that Congress could enlist very few recruits in competition with the states which generally paid higher wages and bounty. In an address to the soldiers in November of '75 the General said:
"Never were soldiers whose pay and provision have been so abundant and ample. . . . There is some reason to dread that the enemies to New England's reputation may hereafter say it was not principle that saved them, but that they were bribed into the preservation of their liberties."
Something is to be said on the other side. The Middle States and Virginia responded nobly to a call for volunteers by sending 12 companies of riflemen who enlisted for one year and marched in some cases •800 miles to the siege. These first troops raised by continental authority became the backbone of the force which finally achieved independence. Massachusetts itself furnished more men than any other state during the war. If there was reluctance, much of it can be attributed to the lack of system in these dim beginnings and to the small assets of a people who had not yet become rich by manufacture. Back on the farm there was very little laid by for Mollie and the children. And many of the higher officers who had means and an old‑world intolerance of the lower caste were inconsiderate of a private's position.
p15 The discouragements which beset Washington were of greater magnitude than those General Schuyler, in the North at this time, described as being such that if Job had had to bear them his "name had not been so famous for patience." Ill‑disciplined and cowardly officers, deserting soldiers, and lack of every supply necessary for campaign, placed the commander in chief in the position of a hunter with an empty rifle confronting a grizzly. But to heighten his difficulty telling troubles arose in other quarters.
Sickness was breaking out in camp. Already smallpox was scourging the troops in Boston, and it was a question as to how soon it would enter the American camp. Sanitation was foreign to the militiamen. Dirt and filth were kept down at home through the natural instinct of womanhood, but away from that environment the soldier took little care of his person and personal surroundings. The medical department mostly consisted of a number of jealous, bickering doctors with no chief. Hospitals were but pesthouses where the stricken victim was dropped upon the floor or straw to die or recover at the pleasure of Providence and with the annoyance of quackery. It had not yet become fashionable for women to nurse the soldier. No comforting attentions of feminine care reached his cold, bleak shelter where he groaned through torturous days and nights, awaiting death as a restful deliverance. The effective strength of Washington's army kept dwindling and the attractiveness of the soldier's life before Boston kept diminishing.
1775 In the meantime, Quebec added another loss to the army. Washington, shrewdly estimating Arnold's brilliant ability, gave him 1,050 men for the surprise of the Canadian stronghold. Arnold had pleaded his power to duplicate the surprise of Ticonderoga. Sept. 11
1775 The little force started out with great hopes, crossed Massachusetts and New Hampshire and struck through the Maine wilderness. The unbroken country, inconceivably thick, impeded their march. Supplies gave out, bateaux of provisions were lost, and hunger became so frightful that three dogs, entrails and all, were eaten in one afternoon. Swampy ground, limited shelter, and frozen clothing brought sickness and death. The progress for •83 miles up Dead River is one ghastly tale of misery. The band of about 700 which emerged p16 two months later on the St. Lawrence had undergone frightfulness only to meet defeat. Arnold's message, which should have apprised Montgomery of his presence, fell into the hands of the British commander at Quebec. In the attack the noble Montgomery was killed, Arnold was wounded, and the American force repulsed. Although Arnold showed masterly skill in drawing off his men and escaping to safety, the expedition was none the less a disaster numerically and morally to the incipient Revolution.
Washington felt this defeat acutely, especially since the undertaking had met with his sanction. But long before the news of its result had reached him he had been met with misunderstandings from a more hectoring source.
Congress, •two hundred miles from the seat of activities, at a time when mails were slow and telegrams unknown, questioned the wisdom of a commander who lay with a superior force inactive for months before the enemy. They could not realize that the largest part of his numbers existed only on paper. Neither could they visualize the hampering effect of his disorganization and needs. The populace was crying "On to Boston!" So this little body of delegates, who made laws that could not be executed and raised money that could not be collected, undertook to tell him not only what to do but how to do it. One member suggested, when there was scarcely enough powder all told to fire a full-fledged salute, that he bombard the British ships in the harbor.
Above the calumnies of people and lawmakers Washington kept his temper serene and his energy unflagging. All his efforts bent toward the correction of evils for the sole purpose of taking the offensive. He raised the standards of discipline throughout the command by the establishment of courts and the trial of offenders. In general orders he announced that bravery would meet with reward and cowardice with certain justice, no connections, interest, or intercessions, availing to prevent the strict execution of punishment. He dismissed colonels and captains alike, and brought to time enlisted men as well. The simple process of the martial law of the period partly gave quicker returns than modern technical methods.
Although the punishments of drumming out of camp, the p17 wooden horse, the pillory and flogging by rawhide on the naked back seem to us now to be severe, they were in vogue at that period of the world and seemed proper to the men of that time. Unusual punishments, such as branding on the hand and pouring salt and water on the lacerated back of the victim who had a few hours before received fifty lashes, were other delicate attentions of the law. Washington seems, however, to have discouraged the wooden horse, a peaked device on which the culprit in a sitting posture was strapped so that the end of his spine supported rigidly the weight of his body against the sharp edge. After a very few minutes he fainted and in most cases was injured permanently. Reprimands, extra hours of labor, riding on a rail, and apologies were used for lesser offenses. Sometimes a culprit was made to walk slowly at the point of a bayonet between the lines of his comrades while they smote him with belts, switches or any handy implement on the naked back. Naturally, the stricter enforcement of discipline on Washington's part induced among men, whose previous lives had been expressive of personal liberty, more desertions than before. On the other hand, those who remained were receiving the schooling necessary for the soldier and the future of the Revolution.
1775 Of bringing the besieging force up to adequate strength, Washington finally showed Congress the necessity. A Congressional Committee visited him with the avowed intention of giving him enough men. With representatives from the north-eastern states it came to the conclusion that 20,370 were required to man the lines adequately. Accordingly, 26 regiments were requisitioned: 16 from Massachusetts, 5 from Connecticut, 2 from Rhode Island, and 3 from New Hampshire, with the hope that most of the necessary levies might be obtained by reënlistment of the troops then around Boston. Nov.‑Dec.
1775 One month later the new force totaled 966 men; two months later, 5,917; and three months later only 10,500 of the required 20,370. Jan. 14
1776 In the meantime, 50 men of each regiment had to be granted furloughs in order to induce them to reënlist. Dec. 1
1775 Thus, Washington lost immediately the use of a large proportion of the 10,000. Besides, nearly the whole of the former army around Boston would vanish because of the completion of enlistment at the end of the year. After all this effort to get men, Washington was p18 compelled to call out 5,000 militia and minute men from the adjacent colonies. Many of these refused to come and those who responded would do so only on condition that their service would expire early the next year, or after less than one month's service. Jan. 15
1776 Thus at the beginning of the year Washington had practically no army.
1775 In collecting what he had, his task of selection seemed impossible. He told the President of the Congress early in the fall that
"they (the privates) will not enlist until they knew their colonel, lieutenant colonel, major, and captain, so it is necessary to fix the officers the first thing."
Here Washington had to turn aside from organizing his rank and file in order to determine what officers should be chosen. Congress had sent him blank commissions to be filled out and returned. Before he could make up a single unit he must attempt to sort out a few possibilities from the mass of the unfit. Evidently he called upon his general and field officers for this purpose, as regimental rosters afterwards showed. As a matter of fact these men were scarcely superior to their juniors in character and ability. Some of their remarks foreshadow the "Efficiency Reports" and "Qualification Cards" of the present day, and reveal largely that partiality and animus were not eliminated from the recommendations. First Lieutenant Joseph Youngs is described as "a very low‑lived fellow"; Captain David Hobby, "a bad officer and at present under an arrest and will, in all probability, be cashiered"; Second Lieutenant Elihu Marshall, "a good officer, will make a good adjutant"; Captain Ames Hutchins, "of a low‑turn and had better be dismissed the service." Washington in this way, although possibly by imperfect means, gained some idea of who should be commissioned.
To improve the artillery he succeeded in having appointed Colonel Henry Knox as its chief. That aggressive officer transported, on sleds and trucks over the hills of Vermont and Massachusetts, more than fifty cannons, including mortars and howitzers, captured at Crown Point and Ticonderoga. Shells were obtained from the plundered King's store in New York.
p19 The powder shortage was more distressing and less easily remedied. Washington's reluctance in acknowledging the scarcity is shown in his correspondence where, lest the communication fall into the hands of the enemy, he omits the name of the coveted article in describing its absence. No powder plants turning out tons of ammunition, nor leaden trucks of shot and shell to be kept sedulously from the prying eyes of spies, existed then in the colonies. Explosives came from abroad or were crudely mixed together in the private home. One countryman brought to the hall of Congress a whole barrel of powder he had himself manufactured. The Committee of Safety in Philadelphia published a description of the process of making saltpeter and sent trained men from town to town to instruct others in the art. Washington called upon the adjacent states for as much as they could furnish and kept beseeching Congress incessantly. One Governor, in answer to his request, complained that he had not enough powder to repel even a short attack upon his town. But the uninterrupted pleas began after a time to meet with more response.
The increase of firelocks was not so rapid. This coveted treasure would be carried away by the deserting men and left at home as an asset to the family store along with the spinning wheel and harpsichord. If the soldier by chance felt inclined to reënlist he would do so in another regiment, thereby acquiring a new weapon. Some are said to have accumulated as high as eight rifles in this thrifty way. Washington in the autumn of '75 issued an order for the prevention of this practice by seizing the firelock of the departing soldier and purchasing it if it was fit for use. In spite of his efforts to retain these weapons, two thousand men in the following February lacked arms.
The health of the army was keenly desired by Washington even at that early stage of medical science. He repeatedly issued orders for the cleanliness of the camp and men, and forbade the unlicensed sale of liquor to the soldiers. He requested Congress to regulate the hospitals. The legislators responded by providing him with a medical staff under a director general.
Even the matter of uniform as an aid to military respect p20 was of moment to the Revolutionary leader. Since funds were lacking for the adherence to any widespread order in this regard, he contented himself with the announcement that the commander in chief, generals, aides, field officers, captains and subalterns would wear ribbons and cockades of an appropriate color for each grade.
Congress had actually placed on Washington the burden of making an army as well as manipulating it. He was compelled to build when he longed to fight — to settle the issue. He was forced to be a collector of supplies when he hoped to be a leader of men. He was urged to wage hot war against a well-trained army, while his means were transient bodies of irregulars who went more than they came. The months of '75 passed away in dismissing and commissioning officers, begging for powder, arms, and men, and disciplining those who stayed long enough to be organized.
1776 At the very beginning of the next year Congress made a move which, though not immediately fruitful, was to have a decided effect upon the final outcome of the Revolution. It decided to govern apart from the militia and minute men the little handful of soldiers it had directly raised. Because it made the term of enlistment longer for these continental troops than that which the colonies prescribed for their men, Washington was to have a small, stable nucleus about which he could congregate the constantly changing recruits sent by the governors. In the dark hours to come, it was this constant little band that was to make possible the continuance of the Revolution.
It is interesting to note that on the very day Congress determined upon such a course, there was raised over Boston camp the single flag of the colonies. It consisted of the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew and thirteen alternate white and red stripes. This fluttering hint of unity and autonomy supplanted the various banners of the different localities such as the "Pine Tree" emblem and the British banner on which was written "Liberty and Union."
Such a bright omen of the first day of year of independence was touchingly in contrast to the real state of affairs. While the country was face to face with a stout invader, one p21 American army had casually disappeared from the front, while barely half of the other had reluctantly assembled there. It was fortunate that the enemy remained astonishingly inactive of its own apparent volition. It was also a blessing for the Revolutionists that Howe was so charged with Whig sentiment that he would not attack the untrained, ill‑supplied fragments of provincials whom he could easily have defeated. The 5,000 New England militia called in December would be gone on the 15th of January. The 10,500 of the new force were decimated by furloughs. The man‑power was at a lower ebb than at any period since Washington had assumed command. To add to the tension it was understood that spring would bring reënforcements from England into Boston harbor. The commander in chief beheld six months' anguish and appeals to patriotism consummated in a product of impotence.
1776 Notwithstanding his discouraging outlay, he called a council of war with the hope of some aggressive action. The generals agreed that an attack should be made, but could not conjure up any visions of success. It was finally decided to ask the New England colonies to raise 13 regiments for three months. In response to Washington's call only 10 of those organizations arrived about a month later, 3 being dispatched to lessen the imminent danger of Schuyler in the north.
1776 Slight activity began to express itself along the lines in the shape of sharp skirmishes. But Washington was waiting for powder and ice. With the support of the latter he would cross the harbor and with enough of the former he would deal a hard and unexpected blow. Again he called a council of war, but his project for attack was vetoed because it was thought to be too hazardous. Instead it was decided that Dorchester Heights, which the vacillation of Howe had left unoccupied and whose possession would render Boston untenable, should be seized and fortified.
At once Washington notified the near‑by towns that they should have their militia ready to march at a moment's notice for three days' service. He collected fascines, gabions, hay, barrels, bateaux, floating batteries, bandages, carts, and intrenching tools.
1776 In spite of deserting soldiers and quarreling officers he felt several weeks later that he had enough powder p22 and men to warrant operations. March 2, 3, 4
1776 To disguise his scheme he kept up for several hours on three successive nights a heavy artillery bombardment. So furious did the cannonading appear to one excited spectator that he declared he had seen as many as seven cannon balls in the air at one time!
1776 Late in the evening of the third day General Thomas with 2,000 men went forward to occupy the heights. Working with approximately 800 men in the darkness, he succeeded by silence and exertion in completing two redoubts before dawn. For the expected assault he prepared barrels filled with earth and stones to be rolled from the fortress down the hill upon the enemy. But this device of the days of Xenophon was not to be used.
The British awoke on the morning of the fifth to see a phantom fort in the place of the pastoral hill of the night before. Howe, in speaking of the occurrence elector, stated: "It must have been the 'em of at least 12,000 men."
March 4, 5
1776 He realized that this mirage or reality spelled attack or evacuation for his idle troops. Storms for several days prevented his crossing the harbor in boats to the assault. The delay let the American force so strengthen its works that the British commander assured himself of their impregnability, whereupon he, in turn, called a council of war which came to the conclusion that the evacuation of Boston was the only alternative. A fortnight afterward that decision was converted into action by Washington's fortifying Nook's Hill.
Curious things have happened to troops in their rounds of striking diversities of campaign, but it is safe to say no spectacle in a similar situation ever presented itself to a commander quite like the one Washington viewed from his threatening hill on St. Patrick's Day, 1776.
1776 After having impersonated for eight months the part of a bold and harmless menace, like a child with outstretched arms barring the sidewalk to a man, he witnessed 11,000 hostile troops in neat red uniforms, with bulging knapsacks and polished cartridge boxes crammed with good ammunition, marching peacefully towards their commanding ships off shore. No gun disturbed the quiet; nor confusion, the repose. A few silent cannons pointed from a fortified eminence were literally pushing Howe into the sea.
1776 So it came about that after the British had sailed ostensibly for Halifax, the American commander found in the city large stores of wheat and ammunition together with 250 pieces of artillery. He discovered also that during the whole siege extending over two thirds of a year he had actually lost by death in action less than twenty men. In spite of the desertions, dishonesty, strolling and ill‑disciplined troops, losses by sickness and disaster, the veritable quicksand of disappearing soldiery and lack of the commonest essentials for decent defense, this first venture of the Revolution was such a miraculous success that the Congress voted a medal to the commander in chief. It also gave thanks to God.
1 Not of the Robert E. Lee family of Virginia.
2 "In 1744 a Philadelphian wrote to a member of Parliament that there were sufficient gun makers in the colonies to make 100,000 stand of muskets per year at 28 shillings each, and powder was already made. Yet, although the Revolution was imminent, and the need of a store of firearms apparent, the home consumption was such that the outbreak of hostilities found the colonists poorly provided. This negligence on the part of the colonists seems inexcusable.
"For more than a year the outbreak of hostilities was expected daily. Committees of correspondence had been active, and a union of the thirteen colonies against the mother country was assured; there was no national government, no executive, yet each colony for self-protection should have established armories — and did not. In New England small stores of ammunition and old guns were collected from the people and from old town supplies stored since the French wars or before, but the main reliance seems to have been upon the personal property, arms which existed in almost every household throughout the land." — Charles Winthrop Sawyer, Firearms in American History.
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