10. Wily Washington & Bungling Brits

By November, 1776, Washington’s army, defeated in the Battles of Long Island and White Plains, was finally compelled to abandon New York, which the British then occupied with a heavy concentration of forces. As the Americans  retreated south across New Jersey into Pennsylvania, Howe decided to follow. He positioned his troops around Princeton, New Jersey, hoping to lure Washington’s smaller force  into making a frontal European-style assault which he was confident he could defeat.  Washington, however, had another, cleverer plan. On Christmas night, he made that legendary boat ride across the icy Delaware River, surprised Howe’s unsuspecting Hessian mercenaries indulging themselves in holiday reverie, and routed them.

The Americans then advanced a few miles further south to Trenton. General Howe, alarmed but still confident,  thought to trap Washington by pinning him against the Delaware River, and so began to move his army also to Trenton. But once again Howe was foxed by wily Washington. As the first units of Howe’s force were deploying before him, Washington with his army sneaked out of Trenton that night, circled behind Howe, and on January 4, caught the other British brigade just leaving Princeton to join Howe, and routed it in a short, sharp fight. With half his force so dispersed, Howe had no choice but to hightail back to New York.

Frederick the Great of Prussia, no stranger to the arts of war, is said to have claimed in admiration, that Washington’s feats between December 25, 1776, and January 4, 1777 were the most brilliant of any recorded in military history. It’s also worth noting that the New England regiments in Washington’s army, though their term of service had officially expired in December,  elected to extend their enlistments and stick with Washington for another six months.

With that, Washington retired with his army to winter quarters in Morristown, New Jersey. Meanwhile, General Howe, much chastened by his embarrassment at Princeton,  contrived a bold plan of his own, to capture Philadelphia, the head if not the heart of the American rebellion. In his haste to restore his  personal glory, he left some unfinished business in New York that would forever consign him among the great losers of history – as we shall see. Notwithstanding, he  secretly moved his own army by ship from Sandy Hook, NJ on July 23, 1777, and sailed south toward Delaware Bay, disembarked his troops and advanced upon the City of Brotherly Love.  Washington hurriedly tried to stop him.  On September 13,  he confronted Howe’s army along Brandywine Creek south west of the city, and was defeated. Philadelphia was lost and Congress was forced to flee west to Lancaster, and then York, Pennsylvania. In early October, Washington attempted once more to drive the British out, attacking Howe at Germantown, but was again repulsed.

With the winter of 1777-1778 approaching, Washington moved his dispirited army across the Schuylkill River to spend the season at Valley Forge, twenty miles north of the Philadelphia. Here as we know, his soldiers suffered miserably, from hunger and disease as well as bitter cold.

Nonetheless, during those chilly months of 1777 and 1778, the troops were kept from idleness by a harsh Junker drill-master whom Washington had invited to help shape up his soldiers. His name was Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus Von Steuben, who managed to instill a measure of Prussian-style discipline in the American army that would pay off dramatically during the next five years.

On the other hand, back in warm and cozy Philadelphia, General William Howe was quite enjoying himself in the social swirl that continued to function even under British occupation. He was often entertained in the elegant home of wealthy Edward Shippen,  becoming friendly with his attractive but vain daughter, Peggy. Another frequenter of the Shippen manor, perhaps with a crush on pretty Peggy was a young British major named John Andre.  General Howe meanwhile was pursuing his own affair with a mistress he had imported from New York, Mrs. Betsy Loring, the wife of a New York loyalist and commissioner in Howe’s army. It has often been said, but with no solid proof, that Howe was so smitten by her charms, that he squandered his opportunity to crush Washington’s weakened army at Valley Forge – as a cynical poet rimed at the time.

Sir William he, snug as a flea,
Lay all this time a snoring,
Nor dreamed of harm as he lay warm,
In bed with Mrs. Loring.

While in New York that summer, Howe had been privy to a grand scheme concocted by General John (“Gentleman Johnnie”) Burgoyne (handsomely portrayed below by Sir Joshua Reynolds) who was currently operating in Canada, tightening up the defenses after Benedict Arnold’s defeat on Lake Champlain. Since Washington’s army was wandering west of the Hudson River, and the head of the great water routes south was now back in British hands, Burgoyne thought the opportunity ripe to split the colonies apart. He would ferry a large force of ten thousand men south on Lake Champlain, attack and retake Fort Ticonderoga, and then move down to Albany – and there join another large British army which, according to the plan, would have moved up the  the Hudson River from New York. It would be a neat replay of the old French strategy: gain control all three-hundred thirty miles of the north-south lake and river route from Canada to Manhattan,  and you create a cordon sanitaire that quite isolates and renders indefensible the whole of hotbed New England–  what a fitting end to their damnable revolution!

Next installment: BENEDICT ARNOLD: HERO OR VILLAIN?

This entry was posted in History. Bookmark the permalink.