For the last few weeks we’ve been looking at events in other parts of the world. We last left the Continental Army back in Episode 242, where they were enduring the most brutal winter of the war while camped at Morristown, New Jersey. They were still finding opportunities to attack the British in New York City.
As spring finally came in 1780, the focus on trying to survive the winter could turn to a new focus on how to begin the new fighting season.
One of the bright spots for General Washington was the return of the Marquis de Lafayette. Recall that Lafayette had returned to France more than a year earlier, in early 1779. The young general had spent his time in Europe trying to encourage the king to provide more support for the Continental Army, and also trying to encourage a French invasion of England.
|Lafayette Returns, 1780.
His success in America had permitted him to purchase a colonelcy in the King’s Dragoons, at a cost of 80,000 livres. This also put him back on the active list of the French Army. Even so, his youth and inexperience was not sufficient for France to entrust him with the command of a 6000 man army.
Instead, that honor went to General Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, better known as the comte de Rochambeau. I’ll get into more details about Rochambeau in a future episode, but the man had been a general in the French Army since before Lafayette was born.
Rather than making Lafayette an aide to Rochambeau, the ministry directed Lafayette to return to the Continental Army. There, he could be of service by helping to coordinate actions between the Continental and French armies. Lafayette was a bit disappointed over not receiving command of the French Army, although even he must have seen that as a reach. Instead, he requested that it be made public that he had requested to return to America to rejoin the Continentals. It would seem more honorable if it was his idea.
Lafayette once again put on his Continental uniform. Unlike his last departure for America, when he had to sneak out of the country against the wishes of the King, this time he visited Versailles and received the King’s best wishes with his mission. The King even gave him a personal note to deliver to General Washington, informing Washington that the French army that would arrive soon on American shores.
The last time he left, his wife Adrienne was pregnant with her first child. By the time of his second departure, he stuck around long enough to see the birth of his second child, who he named George Washington de Lafayette.
Lafayette departed months ahead of the French Army with only a few companions aboard the French frigate The Hermione. The voyage got off to a bad start when strong headwinds broke the mainmast and the ship had to return to port for repairs, with three English cutters chasing her.
Again, his reception was very different from his first arrival in America. Three years earlier, he had been shunned and ignored by most Americans, including members of Congress, as an unwanted adventurer. Upon his return, he was the toast of Boston. Congressman Samuel Adams and Governor John Hancock held banquets in his honor. The city celebrated his arrival with fireworks and parades. Even the Congress in Philadelphia passed a resolution celebrating his return.
After several days in Boston, Lafayette departed on May 2, insisting on getting to General Washington without further delay. Much of the city gathered to celebrate the French hero, and to escort him out of the city.
It took Lafayette more than a week to travel from Boston to the Continental Camp at Morristown, New Jersey. Despite clamorous Americans, poor roads, and roving bands of Loyalists looking to intercept him, he managed to make the 250 mile ride in about a week, arriving May 10. Washington was overjoyed with Lafayette’s return.
Lafayette brought Washington the good news that an army of 6000 French soldiers and six ships on the line were following behind him. The King of France had ordered the French army to serve as auxiliaries, under General Washington’s command.
The Continental Army’s leaders spent the next few days making plans on how to use the new reinforcements. The Americans were not sure exactly where the French fleet would arrive, and had to send officers to all the major ports in order to ensure a proper welcome. They also had the difficult task of trying to find the necessary food and supplies to feed and house the French soldiers.
Washington, of course, wanted to attack New York City. He had been eager to return there ever since the British pushed him out in 1776. Now, with the bulk of the British army down in Charleston, and with the addition of the French Army and Navy, the chances of recapturing the city had never been better.
At the same time, the Americans hoped to have some element of surprise. The British would be well aware that a French Army was headed to America, but could only guess at their first target. In order to throw them off the obvious target of New York, the Continentals let it be known that the French Army would be used to take Quebec. This was never a real goal. It was only used as disinformation for the enemy.
Despite Lafayette’s good news the Continentals had some very severe struggles to contend with. Congress had promised France that the Continental Army would have 25,000 soldiers available for a spring campaign. Of the 12,000 or so soldiers that went into winter quarters in Morristown, deaths and desertions had taken the toll. The Army had only about 8000 by spring. Of those, only between 5000 and 6000 were fit for duty.
The men were in miserable condition. They had been on an estimated one-eighth food rations over the winter, often going days at a time with nothing at all to eat. General Washington had ordered a punishment of a minimum of 100 lashes for anyone who left camp looking for food. The lack of adequate clothing led many men to freeze to death. Soldiers did not even receive the paper money they were promised, even though the money was pretty much worthless anyway. It was an absolutely miserable experience.
Even though the majority of soldiers stuck it out, few new recruits were eager to join an army that treated its soldiers so poorly. Recruiting for the spring campaign proved almost impossible. Even states that attempted to draft recruits were coming up short.
Congress had sent a commission to Morristown to curtail the “waste, fraud, and abuse” that must have been the cause of the army’s problems, but found it could do nothing. The committee had tried to meet with Nathanael Greene, the Army’s Quartermaster General. Greene had taken on the job of Quartermaster two years earlier at Valley Forge. He did not want the job and only took it at the pleading of George Washington, who needed someone loyal and capable to take over during the height of the Conway Cabal. Greene did his duty, but continually complained that he wanted to be a line officer and to return to a field command.
When the Congressional Committee came to Morristown, the Quartermaster department was a primary focus. The Committee seemed to think that the problem feeding the army was not that farmers were doing everything possible to avoid accepting worthless paper Continental dollars at face value for their food, but rather that the Quartermaster Corps had too many men on the payroll and that they were probably corrupt. The department was spending over $400,000 per month and had hired more than 3000 men to supply the army with its necessities. Congress believed they could find some fat to cut there.
Although Congress had cleared Greene of any impropriety in several investigations, delegates figured that some of his underlings were up to no good. General Greene refused even to meet with the committee at Morristown unless they were willing to address the larger problems that existed. He was not going to participate in pointless attempts to look for corruption within his department if the committee was unwilling to look at the actual problem of farmers wanting real compensation for the food they provided.
A few months later, based on the Committee’s investigation Congress ended up reforming the Quartermaster Corps, and cutting the jobs of most of the purchasing agents. This caused Greene to fire off a resignation letter, comparing the Congress to officials in London. Although Greene only intended to resign as quartermaster General, and return to duty as a Continental line officer, Congress found his letter so disrespectful, that they considered removing him from the army entirely. It was only the efforts of General Washington that Congress was dissuaded from this course of action.
Meanwhile the soldiers continued to die from cold, hunger, and disease under terrible conditions. Even in the spring, when it got warmer, the deaths continued. In April, before Lafayette’s arrival, French Minister Luzerne and the unofficial Spanish Minister Don Juan de Miralles, came to Morristown to consult with Washington and to see conditions for themselves.
General Von Steuben tried to put together a military parade in their honor, but had trouble assembling even four regiments who were decently uniformed and who had enough men capable of marching, to turn out for the review.
Spanish minister Miralles came down with pneumonia. After ten days of care, he died at Morristown. After his burial in a lavish ceremony, the army posted a guard over his grave to prevent desperate soldiers from digging it up and trying to steal the clothing from the corpse.
If there was one thing that General Washington, Quartermaster Greene, and the congressional committee agreed on, it was that the army was in a truly desperate situation. Nearly everyone aware of the situation expressed surprise at the fact that the soldiers had put up with so much for so long, and had not already mutinied. The committee reported to Congress that the situation could mean the loss of the cause:
Their starving condition, Their want of pay, & the variety of hardships they have ben driven to sustain, has soured their tempers, & produced a spirit of discontent which begins to display itself under a complexion of the most alarming hue. If this spirit should fully establish itself, it must be productive of some violent convultion, infinitely to our prejudice at home, & abroad, as it would evince a want of means, or a want of wisdom to apply them. Either of which must bring our cause into discredit & draw in its train, consequences of a nature too serious to be contemplated without the deepest anxiety.
The suffering and deprivation was universal throughout the army. The soldiers’ frustration finally exploded on the evening of May 25. A detachment from a Connecticut regiment spent the morning digging graves for eleven fellow soldiers who were scheduled to be executed the following day. The duty had put the men in a foul mood. That evening, they began wandering across the parade grounds, talking back at officers and refusing any orders.
A frustrated officer called one of the men a “mutinous dog.” The man shouted to his fellow soldiers, “who will parade with me?” The two Connecticut regiments fell in, shouldered arms, and marched out of camp, presumably headed for home, or perhaps to another part of the line to gather more mutineers. They ignored the screams of officers to halt or turn back.
The officers grabbed one of the men who they thought had given a command, and tried to make an example of him. They were forced to back off when several of the man’s comrades pointed their bayonets at the officers. The officers attempted a mix of threats and enticements of food to get the soldiers to stand down, but they refused. Lieutenant Colonel John Sumner appeared and ordered the men to shoulder arms. The men stood silently and ignored the order as Colonel Sumner launched into a stream of invectives. Frustrated, he simply walked off the field. The brigade commander Return Jonathan Meigs, who I’ve mentioned before led several daring raids against the British, attempted to get the mutineers to stand down. Although he was a popular commander in the Connecticut line, he threatened to force the issue. One account says that a soldier struck him. Another account says a soldier leveled a musket at him and threatened to kill him.
|Mutiny at Morristown
Later, one of the Pennsylvania officers Colonel Walter Stewart approached the mutinous soldiers. Rather than bark orders at them, he simply asked the men what their issues were and why they had not gone to their officers. The men laughed at him. Stewart continued though, pointing out that the officers were suffering as much as the men, that they were hungry too. He went on to say that their conduct this day was only going to injury their own characters: “You Connecticut troops have won immortal honor to yourselves this winter past, by our perseverance, patience and bravery, and now you are shaking it off at your heels.”
This appeal to their honor had some impact on the soldiers. They had cooled off enough that they agreed to return to camp. No one was ever prosecuted over the incident, and according to one of the soldiers, Private Joseph Plumb Martin, whose narrative we have most to thank for a description of this incident, he noted that for the next few weeks, they had no cause to complain for the amount of food that the regiment received. Washington also commuted the sentences of ten of the eleven men who had been condemned to die the following day.
George Washington used the incident to appeal once again to Congress for more support for the army, saying that the mutiny had “given me infinitely more concern than any thing that has ever happened.” He also wrote to Pennsylvania President Joseph Reed saying that if Pennsylvania did not provide everything the army needed, it could undertake nothing.
Washington knew that French reinforcements were expected any day to meet up with an army of 25,000 Continental soldiers, well disciplined, and with the resources necessary to begin the campaign that would hopefully end the war. That spring, on the eve of the arrival of the French army, Washington would have been lucky to be able to field 10,000 soldiers in the northern department, and even those he could not feed, clothe, and arm properly.
In his letter to President Reed, Washington asserted that
In modern Wars the longest purse must chiefly determine the event—I fear that of the enemy will be found to be so—though the Government is deeply in debt & of course poor, the nation is rich and their riches afford a fund wch will not be easily exhausted.
In other words, it was not battlefield victories which would win. It was the willingness of the people to continue paying the costs of war longer than the other side was willing to tolerate. To Washington, and most others, it appeared that the government was reaching its limit. People were unwilling to supply the soldiers, ammunition, food, clothing and other supplies necessary to continue the war.
Washington hoped that a final push in 1780 might be enough to break the will of the British to continue pouring money into the war. America’s greatest chance would come with the arrival of the French, but only if the Continental Army could field a force as large and well supplied as it had in previous years. That was looking increasingly unlikely. Absent a great victory, Washington’s unspoken fear seemed to be that the American people would grow weary of the sacrifice, and return to colonial status in order to end the ongoing conflict. Once again, Washington could only vent his frustration that he would not have the resources he needed to deliver a crushing blow at the right time.
Next week, we head to Charleston, where the British will deliver a crushing blow of their own against the Continental Army’s southern department.
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“From George Washington to Samuel Huntington, 3 April 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-25-02-0196
“To George Washington from Colonel Return Jonathan Meigs, 26 May 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-26-02-0131
“Proclamation of Pardon, 26 May 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-26-02-0124.
“From George Washington to Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., 26 May 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-26-02-0133
“From George Washington to Samuel Huntington, 27–28 May 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-26-02-0138
“From George Washington to the Board of War, 27 May 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-26-02-0137
“From George Washington to Joseph Reed, 28 May 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-26-02-0150
Schenawolf, Harry “Hatter to Hero: American Revolution Colonel Jonathan Meigs’ Incredible Story” Revolutionary War Journal, https://www.revolutionarywarjournal.com/hatter-to-hero-american-revolution-colonel-return-jonathan-meigs-battles-of-quebec-stony-point
(from archive.org unless noted)
Greene, George Washington The Life of Nathanael Greene, Vol. 2, New York: Cambridge Univ. Press 1871.
Lossing, Benson J. The Life and Times of Philip Schuyler, Vol. 2, New York: Sheldon & Co. 1873.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Clary, David A. Adopted Son: Washington, Lafayette, and the Friendship that Saved the Revolution, Bantam Books, 2007.
Cunningham, John T. The Uncertain Revolution: Washington and the Continental Army at Morristown, Down the Shore Publishing, 2007.
Unger, Harlow Giles Lafayette, Wiley, 2002.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.