The Continental Army
Upon his appointment as commander of the colonial forces, General Washington organized militia companies. Because he had fought alongside the British in the French and Indian War, he knew the contempt the British military showed for colonial officers. It didn't hurt that as a Virginian, he might bind the southern colonies to the New England patriots. If there was to be victory, Washington knew it would take all thirteen colonies working together.
Battles were already underway when Washington appeared at the Second Continental Congress in May 1775, dressed in his uniform of the Fairfax County militia. On June 25, 1775, Washington set out for Massachusetts to take command of the forces. Under great adversity, Washington took what was more or less an armed mob and assembled it into the Continental army with one goal: victory.
At first, Washington found his new army to be in good spirits, as it had inflicted heavy casualties on the British at Bunker Hill. However, the general was appalled at their lack of discipline. What's more, many of the men would end their military service soon, so Washington faced the triple challenge of recruitment, training, and impending battle. Thus, Washington sought longer terms of enlistment from Congress as well as better pay for his troops. But a leery Congress, afraid of moving from one military dictatorship to another, was not easily convinced. So Washington was forced to do the best he could under the circumstances. Considering the problems of troop defection, insubordination, lack of discipline, and a shortage of gunpowder, it's understandable that Washington maintained order at times by flogging troops, or worse. Deserters and repeat offenders were often hanged.
When Washington first took command, there was much strategic planning. On May 10, 1775, at the start of the Revolutionary War, Ethan Allen, an American Revolutionary soldier, led his Green Mountain Boys in an attack to overtake Fort Ticonderoga. These soldiers from Vermont seized the fort and all of its valuable artillery stores without a struggle. They then dragged fifty heavy cannons by sled from Fort Ticonderoga in northern New York to Boston. An astute Washington had the cannons mounted on Dorchester Heights, which commanded the city. Of course, British general William Howe saw this and fled by sea to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he awaited the reinforcement of German mercenaries from Europe. This brought a much-needed reprieve from the occupation of any British troops in the colonies.
Battling for New York
Britain's clear advantage was its navy, for the Americans had none. Sensing the final break even before the Declaration of Independence was signed, in June of 1776, the British sent General Howe to assemble his forces as well as a huge fleet. Howe landed on Long Island, pushing his way to New York City with an army of 30,000 soldiers — more than twice as many men as Washington had. Trying to cope with this mighty force, Washington committed a tactical blunder that nearly cost him the war. He split his troops between Brooklyn on Long Island and Manhattan Island. This weakened the overall American position. By the end of August, the Americans had to retreat to their Brooklyn Heights fortifications.
During the Revolution, when General William Howe and his British forces occupied New York City, they placed an enormous demand on the milk and cream products coming from Long Island. Long Islanders were forced to substitute tomatoes and water broth for the cream in their chowder. Therefore, the proper name for red clam chowder would be Long Island clam chowder, rather than Manhattan clam chowder, as it is called.
Thinking he had them cornered, Howe called off his redcoats temporarily while he planned a potential siege. This proved to be a mistake. Surrender was not on Washington's mind. Though he had no navy to rely on, the undeterred general rounded up every seaworthy vessel he could find and obtained assistance from the experienced boatmen of Marblehead, Massachusetts. In the midst of a raging storm, and a thick fog, he and his men rowed across the East River to safety in Manhattan, losing not one man in his command. But although this served as a brilliant escape, it also meant that an important American seaport had been lost to the British.
The New York fighting wasn't finished. Once again, General Howe took his time, hoping to negotiate a peace agreement. When those attempts failed, Howe landed his force at Kip's Bay, Manhattan, on September 15, accompanied by British warships cruising the East River. Washington, riding among his men, had trouble keeping the troops together. Rather than take advantage of the disarray, Howe displayed his leisurely posture, feeling perhaps a little smug that he controlled most of Manhattan.
A few days after Howe landed in Manhattan, a mysterious fire leveled much of the town. Was it mere coincidence? Some have attributed it to a patriot arsonist, but whatever the fire's origin, it aided the American cause.
Washington's brilliance more than made up for his early strategic errors. As a good military strategist, he had the knack for learning from his blunders. He knew he couldn't battle the British if he didn't preserve his own army first. Washington withdrew his troops for a while, retreating to Harlem Heights, then to White Plains. The British prevailed at a White Plains skirmish. While they allowed Washington's forces to retreat in good order, the British turned their attention south, capturing Fort Washington and Fort Lee on the New Jersey shore just days later.
Things were looking a little bleak for General Washington and his men. In three months, they had lost New York and Long Island, and his army of 19,000 was reduced to fewer than 3,500. Desertion among the troops was rampant, and Washington was facing criticism for his performance. The circumstances became so grim that General Howe declared victory. Even the Congress fled Philadelphia for Baltimore. Such times inspired Thomas Paine to write in
Washington led his contingent across the Delaware River into the relative safety of Pennsylvania. As a precaution, he ordered all boats along the New Jersey side of the river to go with them. Morale was running low as winter set in, and many troops were without proper shoes and clothing. Undeterred, Washington found his answer that frigid December.
When reinforcements arrived, Washington's strategic mind went to work. He knew the British had pulled back most of their troops into New York City, leaving only scattered garrisons of the mercenary Hessian soldiers. Those Hessians nearest to Washington were camped at Trenton.
Remember those Marblehead fishermen who helped with their boats before? Washington called on their tactical aid once again as he launched a surprise attack on the sleeping soldiers, on the morning of December 26. He was fairly certain that these foreign troops, celebrating the holidays away from home, would imbibe heavily, and that this was the optimal moment to attack. Washington gained serious ground by killing, wounding, or capturing every one of the Hessian soldiers while suffering only six casualties among his men. James Monroe was one of the four wounded.
This surprise attack reminded the colonists that victory was still possible. To the British, Washington's victory proved the Continental army was worthy of their respect. British general Charles Cornwallis rushed south from New York City toward Princeton with reinforcements. In early January, he reached Trenton, where he decided to rest.
When the British hanged Nathan Hale for being a spy on September 22, 1776, he uttered the famous line, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” His words might have been inspired by a passage from Joseph Addison's play, Cato: “What pity is it that we can die but once to serve our country.”
Washington slipped past Trenton in the night and attacked the British the next morning. The Americans not only were victorious on the battlefield, but also were able to acquire much-needed supplies. In fact, the British felt so alarmed and threatened that they evacuated most New Jersey garrisons.
With victories in the Battle of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton, and with Philadelphia no longer in peril, Washington moved north to winter quarters in Morristown, New Jersey. There, Washington turned his attention to recruitment.