Sunday, October 6, 2019

Episode 117: Retreat Across New Jersey

The last couple of weeks, I stepped away from the main fighting in New York and New Jersey to discuss other events.  But before that, we left the Continental Army in late November, 1776, in full retreat from New York toward Philadelphia.  The Continentals decided to make a stand at Fort Washington and ended up losing over 3000 soldiers as prisoners of war.  They also had to abandon Fort Lee across the river in New Jersey.

Washington Retreats

The British invasion of New York in the summer and fall of 1776 had pushed the Americans out of the region.  General Howe and Admiral Howe had used slow but steady measures to take the city and the area surrounding it.  As he retreated, Washington had divided his army sending a little over half of his army further into upstate New York in case the British decided to move up the Hudson River and cut off New England from the rest of the colonies.  He put his most trusted General, Charles Lee, in charge of these forces.

Retreats through the Jerseys by Howard Pyle
(from that should be a movie)
After getting pushed out of New York after the Battle of White Plains Washington kept personal command of the remaining forces as they moved into New Jersey.  Washington had planned to combine these men with the more than 3000 men at Fort Washington, but after the British captured the fort and took all those men prisoner, Washington was left with a command of about 3500-4000 soldiers.  Even worse, since it looked like the Americans were beat, many soldiers began abandoning Washington’s army as soon as their enlistments were up, or simply deserting.  They were also unable to recruit much of any local militia to support them.

Clinton Gets Benched

Through late November and early December, Washington’s Army retreated across New Jersey.  Most would have thought that the obvious General to command the forces against Washington would have been General Howe’s second in command, Henry Clinton.  General Clinton had already made multiple suggestions to Howe on the way he could run the campaign and clearly would have wanted the job.  But Howe did not seem interested in any of Clinton’s suggestions.  Part of this may have been due to a desire not to let Clinton win any accolades for the final victory in crushing the Continental Army. It may also have been that Howe did not trust Clinton with an independent command.  Clinton would be much more aggressive in chasing down the Continentals than Howe may have wanted.

Sir Henry Clinton, 1777
(from Wikimedia)
The two men had been going at each other all year, with Clinton barely containing his disdain of Howe’s strategy.  At one point during the Battle of White Plains a frustrated Clinton told General Cornwallis that he would rather have an independent command of only three companies rather than continue to serve under Howe’s command.  Cornwallis passed along these comments to Howe, which only deepened the division between the commander and his second in command.

Clinton had proposed landing a force in northern New Jersey and trying to move around the Continental army’s flank while another force pursued them directly.  The two British forces would possibly surround the Continentals and force a surrender.  But, Howe wanted Clinton nowhere near New Jersey.  He assigned Clinton to the independent command to take and hold a couple of port cities in Rhode Island that the British navy would need for the winter.  This was clearly an insult to Clinton.  There was no serious opposition to this landing and could have been done by a much lower level officer.  I plan to discuss the invasion of Rhode Island in a few weeks, but this move was clearly meant simply to push Clinton aside.

Instead, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, General Howe had given the New Jersey command to General Cornwallis, who had taken Fort Lee without much of a fight and then began to march through New Jersey in pursuit of the remnant of the Continental Army still under Washington’s command.

Washington’s break with Reed

During the course of the retreat, Washington’s situation became more and more desperate.  His force continued to dwindle, primarily from desertion.  No one wanted to be with the army when it finally surrendered.  Washington sent repeated requests to General Charles Lee, encouraging him to move his army into New Jersey so the combined American forces could confront, and hopefully push back Cornwallis’ army.  With the loss of Fort Washington, General Washington had half the force he expected when he first divided his army.

General Lee, however, was in no hurry to give up his independent command and help Washington.  He came up with a series of excuses why he could not move his army.  At the same time, he was telling everyone who would listen just how horrible Washington had been in command of the army in New York and that they really needed a new commander of the army (guess who) if they wanted to win this thing.

Joseph Reed 
Washington was either ignorant of Lee’s machinations, or was simply ignoring them for the good of the army.  Washington respected Lee as one of his best generals.  The men had served together since the 1750’s when they both fought at the Battle of the Monongahela under General Edward Braddock.  Washington knew that officers of lower rank often criticized commanders.  No commander liked it, especially when things were going badly, but they knew it came with the job.  However, a commander did not expect his own assistant to be a part of such criticisms.

One of Lee’s correspondents was Joseph Reed.  Remember, Colonel Reed was the Philadelphia lawyer whom Washington had begged to serve as his aide-de-camp when he first arrived in Cambridge in 1775.  Washington needed a good writer to assist him with correspondence and to assist with the clerical duties of command.  Reed made a quick trip back to Philadelphia to tie up his affairs, then returned and remained by Washington’s side as his aide and secretary ever since.

Washington took very few men into his confidence and rarely discussed his personal thoughts, views, or feelings with much of anyone.  But there were those rare few who entered Washington’s inner sanctum, men he trusted like family to keep confidential anything he told them.  Reed was one of the few in that tight circle.  In short, Reed was one man who the guarded Washington thought he could trust.

When Washington needed to send written orders, it was usually Reed who actually wrote the letter and made sure it got delivered.  In one of Washington’s orders to General Lee, Reed included a personal note which said in part,
I do not mean to flatter, nor praise you at the expense of any other, but I confess I do think that it is entirely owing to you that this army and the liberties of America so far as they are dependant on it are not totally cut off.  You have decision, a quality often wanting in minds otherwise valuable, and I ascribe to this an escape from York Island -- Kingsbridge and the Plains -- I have no doubt that had you been here with the garrison at Mount Washington would now have composed part of the army.
Reed went on to say that Washington needed his experience and judgment to guide him.  There is some debate what Reed hoped to accomplish by this.  It could simply have been that he hoped appealing to Lee’s considerable ego, he might convince the General to do as Washington wanted and join the two armies in New Jersey.  Many historians interpret a more sinister motive.  Washington’s career looked over after the loss of New York.  They think Reed was looking to ingratiate himself with the man who would most likely become the new commander of the Continental Army.

Lee responded to Reed with a letter that put his ego on full display.  When the letter arrived in Washington’s camp, however, Reed was away.  Washington, desperate for news about Lee’s expected arrival, opened the letter and read it.  It began with Lee responding to Reed’s earlier note to him.
I receiv’d your most obliging flattering letter lament with you that fatal indecision of mind which in war is a much greater disqualification than stupidity or even want of personal courage accident may put a decisive Blunderer in the right but eternal defeat and miscarriage must attend the man of the best parts if curs’d with indecision.  
Charles Lee (from Wikimedia)
Washington knew that most of the country doubted his leadership ability following the loss of New York.  He knew that Lee was clearly attacking Washington’s indecision in evacuating New York City, White Plains, and Fort Washington in his comments.  Washington also already knew there was talk of replacing him with Lee as commander of the Continental Army.  But to see his most capable general corresponding with his most trusted aide to badmouth his abilities hit Washington hard.

Washington forwarded on the letter to Reed with a note apologizing for opening his personal correspondence and saying he thought it had been related to official business and without further comment.  Washington took no further action on the matter, but ended his confidential relationship with Reed.  From that point on, their work together became cold and formal.  Whatever his original intentions, Reed obviously saw that what he had done was seen as an act of betrayal.  He tried to repair the relationship.  The two continued to work together, but the bond of trust and confidence was gone forever.

If I had to identify a time when in Washington’s life when he probably felt the lowest, this would probably be it.  His army, his officers, even his most trusted aide, had lost confidence in him.  Congress was openly critical, and his failures as a military commander were only mounting.

Leaving New Jersey

Even worse, General Lee still refused to leave New York to come to Washington’s assistance.  Enlistment expirations and desertions now meant that his army had fallen below 3000.  As I said, Cornwallis had been pressing Washington rather hard as the two armies maintained a running battle across New Jersey.

Retreat from New Jersey (from Wikimedia)
On December 1, Cornwallis caught up with Washington’s army at the Raritan River and was ready to order the final death blow to the Continental Army.  As Cornwallis prepared his orders for the following day’s attack, a courier arrived from orders from General Howe. Those order told him to halt his advance immediately and await reinforcements.

For nearly a week, Cornwallis’ army sat obediently on the banks of the Raritan River as they watched the Continentals slip away once again.  Finally, Howe arrived a single brigade of reinforcements.  The army once again began its advance.  But now they were moving at Howe’s snail-like pace.  Washington’s battered and shrinking army reached Trenton and crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania.  Washington attempted to collect every boat along the river to prevent the enemy from crossing.  This might have slowed up the British for a few days, but in truth, it seems that  Howe had no interest in pursuing the army any further that year.  It was already December and well past time to move into winter quarters.

Many Tories and British officers at the time, as well as later military historians, have criticized General Howe for slowing down the attack on the Continental Army fleeing across New Jersey.  The Raritan River, actually more of creek, was easily fordable, knee deep in many locations.  Washington could not have made a serious stand there if Cornwallis had stormed across the river backed by his artillery.

Washington’s rear guard would have been no match for the British.  Indeed, Washington by this time commanded less than 3000 men as desertions continued to decimate his ranks.  So why did General Howe order Cornwallis to stop?  There are several reasonable explanations that do not indict Howe as incompetent or secretly supporting the American cause as some have said.

As a matter of military strategy, it is important not to let they armies get strung out too far.  Howe would not want to give Washington a chance to ambush a large advance guard that had gotten too far ahead of the main force.  Washington had done that on a smaller scale at White Plains. Even a minor victory could provide hope that would slow down the disintegration of the Continental Army.  That appears to be Howe’s ultimate goal.  Everyone decides the British Army is invincible, just gives up, goes home, accepts a pardon, and the war is over.

Howe’s Proclamation

Even before the Continental Army had left New Jersey, the Howe brothers issued another Proclamation of Conciliation on November 30.  The proclamation called on the Continental army to disburse, for the Continental Congress to disband and offering amnesty to all rebels who signed an oath of allegiance to the King within 60 days.

Gen. William Howe
(from Wikimedia)
From the beginning, the Howes had made clear to the ministry back in London that they were much more interested in a political settlement in America than crushing the colonists in military defeat.  Howe could have taken Clinton’s advice and sailed the British Navy up the Delaware River before pushing Washington’s army across New Jersey.  This could have caught Washington between the British army and navy and forced a surrender.  But that did not seem to be Howe’s goal.  He wanted the Continental Army to run away and look powerless.  He did not want to appear himself as a ruthless military tyrant.  He wanted to be a liberator and peacemaker.  With the British victories in New York, it was clear that the Americans could not stand up to the British Army.  The time to convince people come back and obey the King and Parliament was when it looked like there was no better alternative.

Given the state of affairs, many took this offer seriously.  It did not appear that the Continental Army would survive the winter.  If Britain really was about to crush this rebellion, better to protect one’s personal property and even one’s life by taking advantage of the amnesty offer.  Thousands of people across New York and New Jersey flocked to British outposts to take the oath.  Allegedly among those taking the oath, Richard Stockton from New Jersey, who had signed the Declaration of Independence only a few months before.  Some, historians, however, argue that he simply signed a parole agreement after being captured agreeing to play no further role in the rebellion.  I want to discuss Stockton in more detail next week, but either way, it was not exactly a vote of confidence for an American victory.  Other patriot leaders also seemed to doubt for the future.  John Dickinson moved out of Philadelphia and advised his family members to stop accepting Continental dollars.

Washington’s Army 

The remnant of Washington’s Army, if it could still be called an army, had been through hell.  Over the course of the retreat, they had been forced to give up most of their tents and other supplies.  Many were without shoes and had been wearing the same clothes for months without washing.  Many of them were rags simply falling off their bodies.  The men were dirty, unshaven and in most cases looked like they could barely walk, let alone fight.

To give you some idea, Charles Wilson Peale, the famous artist, commanded a company of Philadelphia militia that came out to assist with the Continentals entering Pennsylvania.  He describes seeing, “the most hellish scene I have ever beheld.” As, lines of ragged men plodded past him, Peale noted, “a man staggered out of line and came toward me.  He had lost all his clothes.  He was in an old dirty blanket jacket, his beard long and his face full of scars, which so disfigured him that he was not known by me in first sight.”  It was only when the soldier spoke to him that he realized it was his own brother James.  Those who had not yet abandoned the army mostly looked like desperate beggars in rags, not like an army.

Congress Runs Away

The Continental Congress in Philadelphia was not exactly a profile in courage during this time.  Fearing the British might still try to capture Philadelphia, and without any faith in Washington to defend them, Congress chose to run away.  On December 12, Congress adjourned and voted to move to Baltimore until the threat passed.  One delegate, Robert Morris, opted to stay in Philadelphia where he lived and had his business.  Morris essentially acted as a one man Department of War and Department of Treasury, providing Washington what little assistance he could as the rest of Congress fled to the south.

Robert Morris
Congress reconvened in Baltimore, on December 20, 1776, and would remain there for a little over two months.  In 1776, Baltimore was not the shining model city that it is today.  Members complained about the garbage everywhere and the terrible smell.  There were no decent public buildings in which to meet. Congress had to rent a large home downtown, belonging to Henry Fite where they would convene until February.

Shortly after reconvening, Congress passed a resolution giving Washington full authority to do whatever he wanted regarding the operation of the war.  In other words, they handed him near dictatorial powers.  Congress did not plan to be available for consultation or much of anything else as it went on the run.  I’ll discuss the Continental Congress’ time in Baltimore in a future episode.  At least Congress did not try to change commanders at the time.  Whatever their concerns about Washington’s leadership, they knew enough not to try to change commanders in the middle of this retreat.

This also meant that Washington was on his own.  His army continued to shrink.  The Continental armies to the north led by Generals Lee and Gates seemed uninterested in coming to his assistance.  Congress showed no faith that he could protect Philadelphia. Only Howe’s reluctance to cross the Delaware River in December seemed to save the Continental army from complete annihilation.

Next week, I want to focus on two important prisoners captured during this retreat: Congressman Richard Stockton and General Charles Lee.

- - -

Next Episode 118: Capture of Stockton and Lee

Previous Episode 116: American Terrorist in Britain

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Further Reading


Lee Letter to Reed, Nov. 24, 1776:

Lee Letter to Washington, sent along with the Note to Reed, Nov. 24, 1776:

Washington, note to Reed, Nov. 30, 1776:

Lee Letter to Washington, Dec. 4, 1776:

Washington, letter to brother Samuel, Dec. 18, 1776:

Fleming, Thomas “The Enigma Of General Howe” American Heritage, Feb. 1964:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

The Detail and Conduct of the American War, under Generals Gage, Howe, Burgoyne, and Vice Admiral Lord Howe, (original reports and letters) The Royal Exchange, 1780.

Carrington, Henry Battles of the American Revolution, 1775-1781, A.S. Barnes & Co. 1876.

Collins, Varnum L. A Brief Narrative of the Ravages of the British and Hessians at Princeton in 1776-1777; a contemporary account of the battles of Trenton and Princeton, Princeton University Library, 1906.

Drake, Samuel A. The Campaign of Trenton 1776-77, Lee and Shepard, 1899.

Force, Peter American Archives, Series 5, Vol 3, Washington: St. Claire Clarke, 1837.

Johnston, Henry The Campaign of 1776 Around New York and Brooklyn, Long Island Historical Society, 1878.

Martin, Joseph Plumb The Adventures of a Revolutionary Soldier, 1830 (This is a copy of the original print, but in poor quality.  You can borrow a better quality copy or listen to a free audio copy of the book) or see below in "books worth buying" section.

Reed, William B. (ed) Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed, Vol. 1, Lindsay and Blakiston, 1847.

Ross, Charles Derek (ed) Correspondence of Charles, first Marquis Cornwallis, Vol. 1 J. Murray, 1859.

Stryker, William Battles Of Trenton And Princeton, Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1898.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Atkinson, Richard The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, Henry Holt & Co. 2019

Dwyer, William The Day Is Ours: How a Ragged Rebel Army Stood the Storm and Saved the Revolution,  Viking, 1983.

Fischer, David Hackett Washington’s Crossing, Oxford Univ. Press, 2004.

Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.

Lefkowitz, Arthur S. The Long Retreat, The Calamitous American Defense of New Jersey 1776, Upland Press, 1998 (book recommendation of the week).

McCullough, David 1776, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Schecter, Barnet The Battle for New York, New York: Walker Publishing, 2002.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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