Home » BORN IN BATTLE: American Revolution » Text » III. THE ANVIL OF NECESSITY


                        From Quebec to the Siege of Boston

death of montgomery

The sword was to be forged on the anvil of necessity.
–George Washington


While redcoats and Rebels cared for their wounded and buried their dead in the aftermath of the Battle of Bunker Hill, news of the first pitched battle of the war was making its slow way to the seats of power, on horseback to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia and on shipboard to the ministry in London. For the time being, the soldiers on both sides of the contest had done their violent best and were resting uneasily on their arms. Now it fell to the statesmen to define the nature of the struggle and to establish the policy to carry it on. What Great Britain would do next was uncertain, but it was hard to believe that it would be a move toward reconciliation. Bunker Hill had been the bloodiest day for British arms since the Battle of Minden back in the Seven Years’ War–still a byword for “dear-bought victory.” Then as now, national honor–especially wounded honor–was a powerful force in the shaping of policy. Treason was the word British Tories were using to describe the American troubles, and some were already looking forward to the day when the severed heads of American Rebels decorated the naked poles of London’s Temple Bar. If the Americans resolved to continue the struggle, they would fight, as George Washington later wrote, “with halters about their necks.”

Those halters awaited not only soldiers in the field but the forty-eight delegates in the State House in Philadelphia as well. And it would be hard to exaggerate either the gravity of their responsibility or the complexity of the problems they now confronted. First, unlike Great Britain, the revolted American provinces were not a nation or anything like a nation. The Continental Congress professed to act in the name of the “United Provinces,” but the only real consensus was a will to resist further threats to their rights under the British Constitution. At this point–and for some time to come–most would have been fully satisfied by an honest assurance that Parliament would respect the integrity of the colonial charters and their popular assemblies. For one thing, in their political life the colonies had been bound far more closely to London than to each other for more than a century. For another, in their economic life they were open competitors, each pursuing their best interests as they understood them. In Congress, it was not immediately clear what sort of commonality might embrace hard-scrabble New Hampshire farmers, Back Bay merchants, tidewater planters, and the restless pioneers eager for land beyond the mountains. Thus far, they were held together only by a growing disaffection for the rule of King George, but even here American opinion was a muddle. Some still held him to be “the best of kings” and were willing to count themselves his loyal subjects–if only he would recall the “ministerial army.”

Some few in Congress, however, already despaired of the benign intentions of the king and the wise governance of his ministry. Chief among them were John Adams of Massachusetts and Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania. Adams, confiding to his diary thoughts he dared not utter openly, believed that Congress ought to “declare the Colonies free, sovereign and independent states.” The means to achieving that end were equally clear to Adams: Congress must authorize the states to form new governments, adopt the New England army as its own, and find a capable hand to lead it. Franklin–intelligent, restrained, rational–had long been a voice of moderation in the trans-Atlantic dispute. Indeed, as America’s colonial agent, he had spent the last year in London using all his considerable powers of persuasion to resolve the crisis. His best energies, however, had come to nothing. The failure of negotiation and the consequent bloodshed finally convinced him that Britain meant to conquer a peace on its own terms. For Franklin, already an old man, this conclusion weighed heavily on both head and heart. His son William was the royal governor of New Jersey and determined to remain so. After a long painful conversation with him, Franklin declared, “I am for independence.” There would be no peace in the imperial household, he was sure, and now no peace in his own.

In this conviction Franklin was well ahead of the thinking of many of the delegates. The most insistent and articulate spokesman of those who favored a moderate course was his fellow Pennsylvanian, John Dickinson. Although privately pessimistic about its chances, Dickinson proposed–again–a petition to the king for peaceful redress of colonial grievances. Nor would he be bullied into war by hot-headed Yankees like John Adams. He would take the Pennsylvania delegation out of the room if it came to that, and who knew how many of the other mid-Atlantic colonies would follow. This much Adams well understood. At the same time, he sensed that Dickinson and others like him were in fact beginning to wonder whether reconciliation was still possible. (Congress finally approved Dickinson’s “Olive Branch Petition” in mid-summer, but by the time it reached London in August it was a dead letter. King George had already issued his Proclamation of Rebellion, making explicit his royal resolve to bring American “traitors to justice.”) Moving this diverse and contentious congress toward a common purpose, Adams saw, was like driving “a Coach and six–the swiftest Horses must be slackened and the slowest quickened, that all may keep pace.” New England’s horses were swift enough; they had after all an army in the field. The trouble for Adams and his faction was how to spur the middle and southern colonies along at their pace.

In the end the touch of the spur, naturally enough, came from New England, where the Massachusetts Provincial Congress petitioned the Continental Congress for the legal authority to form a government. The Massachusetts men were not, by their lights anyway, wild-eyed revolutionaries. They were insisting, as they had for a decade, on the rule of law. In Philadelphia the delegates were quick to see the profound implications of such a petition: if they could grant such authority to Massachusetts, Congress must be, in the name of the people they represented, the legitimate depository of political power. Congress would in effect be a federal government, and that was revolutionary. Debate on the measure was sharp and hotly partisan, and in the end the delegates, confronting a tumultuous present and a perilous future, tried to steer a middle course. They affirmed the Massachusetts measure–but only until such time as “a governor of His Majesty’s appointment will consent to govern the colony according to its charter.” It was not quite a manifesto. But if this congress could make a government in Massachusetts, it could also make an army.

On 14 June it did just that by the simple expedience of adopting the New England troops already in the field as “the American continental army.” To support the effort in New England, Congress also authorized the raising of ten rifle companies from Pennsylvania and Maryland and two light infantry companies from Virginia. The issue of who should command “all the continental forces, raised, or to be raised, for the defense of American liberty” was an open question and the subject of behind-the-scenes politicking for some time. Since the struggle was, at this point anyway, a New England war, some thought Artemas Ward–a Yankee in command of Yankees–the logical choice. But John Adams, already looking ahead to a genuinely national effort, wanted a Southerner. Now he rose and told his fellow delegates that there was among them that morning “a gentleman whose skill and experience as an officer, whose independent fortune, great talents and excellent universal character would command the approbation of all America and unite the cordial exertions of all the colonies better than any person in the Union.” John Hancock in the president’s chair had a fleeting moment of pleasure as he supposed that he was indeed that excellent gentleman Adams had not yet named. His self-satisfied smile turned immediately to undisguised chagrin as he saw George Washington–in his buff and blue uniform–slip tactfully out of the room.

Discussion followed, followed in turn by a night of more argument and arm-twisting. The next day the delegates were unanimous: Washington would be their commander-in-chief. In the struggle ahead they would “maintain him and assist him, and adhere to him, the said George Washington, Esq., with their lives and fortunes.” For Washington, now forty-three, it must have been a poignant moment. In youth, his eager desires for worldly fame and military glory had not come to much, though he had served capably enough in the Virginia militia. Those ambitions had given way in his middle years to the sober responsibilities of a well-to-do Virginia planter. Indeed, it had been twenty years since he last heard a shot fired in anger. In the long peace that followed the end of the last French war he had not so much as drilled a militia company. Now that the opportunity for glory had come again, he was not at all certain he wanted it–or the immense responsibility. He was committed to the Patriot cause, that went without saying. Like most of the men in the room, he had come–slowly and reluctantly–to believe that Great Britain was working a deliberate “plan at the expense of law and justice to overthrow our constitutional rights and liberties.” The defense of American liberty was a “glorious cause.” But the price of failure was dishonor and “slavery.”

And the painfully real possibility of failure was very much on his mind that morning. As he wrote in after time: “It was known that the resources of Great Britain were, in a manner, inexhaustible, that her fleets covered the ocean and that her troops had harvested laurels in every quarter of the globe. Not then organized as a nation, or known as a people upon the earth, we had no preparation… The sword was to be forged on the anvil of necessity.” Some part of him honestly wished to refuse this “momentous and important trust,” convinced it was far beyond his ability and experience. He would in a dark hour to come fantasize about shouldering a musket as a private soldier or even slipping away to the solitude of the Allegheny wilds. But his sense of honor was a hard, troubling, and compelling reality. In the end he accepted because he could not refuse. To the gathered delegates the reluctant warrior spoke very briefly. He vowed to “exert every Power I possess” in this cause, but he added: “Lest some unlucky event happen, unfavourable to my reputation, I beg it may be remembered, by every gentleman in this room, that I, this day, declare with the utmost sincerity I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.” He was even franker with fellow Virginian Patrick Henry: “From the day I enter upon the command of the American armies, I date my fall and the ruin of my reputation.” Three days later he wrote a tender letter to his wife, Martha, this also full of anxiety and self-doubt. He was in effect apologizing to her for accepting “a trust too great for my capacity” and lamenting the “real happiness” he would forfeit in his absence from her. But he struck a new note as well, suggesting that he was becoming reconciled to a fate he could not escape. A “kind of destiny… has thrown me upon this service,” he wrote. “I shall hope that my undertaking it is designed to answer some good purpose.”

Washington casts so large a shadow on the American heritage that it is often difficult to see the real dimensions of his character. One popular view, an inheritance of the nineteenth century, is the stern and silent Father of his Country, marbled over with flawless virtue: an American icon. Of course, the iconoclasts have been busy in recent years, seeking to diminish him and dismissing him as a hypocritical slave-holder and ruthless “speculator in Native American lands.” The man himself, however, is infinitely more interesting. For one thing, he was simply a powerful physical presence. At six-two he stood a head taller than most men. Though narrow in the chest and shoulders, he was big-boned and heavily muscled, and even in walking quietly out of a room he gave the impression of determined strength. In an age that valued horsemanship, Thomas Jefferson thought him “the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback.” He had a strong square head, a fair complexion slightly scarred by smallpox, and sharp blue-grey eyes. His hair was auburn, but, like his contemporaries, he tied it in a queue and powdered it for formal occasions. As most people know, he had bad teeth, and in the course of his life he was fitted with dentures made variously of lead, ivory, and animal bone. Partly for this reason, one imagines, he spoke little. Jefferson noted that he had never heard Washington speak for five minutes at a time in Congress, but always to the central point and always with sound judgment. Some thought him aloof, but to most he was a good-natured, amiable, occasionally witty companion. Still, he was no hail-fellow-well-met. Having outgrown an awkward youth, he carried himself with a grave and graceful dignity. Beneath the calm appearance, however, powerful passions were kept in check by an equally powerful will. The painter Gilbert Stuart, having studied his subject well, wrote: “All his features were indicative of the strongest passions, yet, like Socrates, his judgment and self-command made him appear of a different cast in the eyes of the world.”

These observations of course Stuart made well after Washington had weathered the storm now breaking over America. In 1775 many might properly wonder–as Washington did himself–if his education and experience prepared him for so large a responsibility. Born in 1732 to Augustine Washington and his second wife, Mary Ball, he was of the gentry without being of the first circle. Though two older half-brothers had been educated in England, George received the adequate but fairly sketchy education of a Virginia planter’s son. He had not seen much of the world. With his half-brother, Lawrence, he had gone once to Barbados, but except for his journeys to Philadelphia for the congresses of ’74 and ’75, he had been north of the Potomac River only three times, once as far as Boston; by land, he had never been south of Virginia. Indeed, Virginia had been the stable center of his worldly experience. The early deaths of his father and older brother had made him master of ten thousand acres and some fifty slaves, and a fortunate marriage made him richer yet. Having been disappointed in love at least twice as a young man, he courted and married a wealthy widow, Martha Dandridge Custis, in 1758. If not the great passion of his life, it was by all accounts a happy and affectionate marriage. Since his marriage, he had followed the quiet life of a country squire, managing men and land with common sense, straightforward justice, and a steady hand. His public life was confined to conscientious service in the House of Burgesses.

In presenting Washington to Congress, John Adams had celebrated his “skill and experience” as an officer. It was hardly the time to add that his combat experience had been fairly limited and all of it in the west where French and English power had collided in the Ohio River country a generation before. In 1753, Virginia’s acting governor Robert Dinwiddie had sent the young man 500 miles into the wilderness on a diplomatic mission. He was to deliver a polite ultimatum to the French forces there to quit English territory, which the French promptly and politely rejected. A year later Washington returned, now a lieutenant colonel with two companies of raw Virginia militia. His mission was to reinforce a British fort on the Monongahela River as a check to further French encroachment. Advancing as far as Great Meadows on the river, he learned of a French camp just ahead, and on the morning of 28 May, acting on his own authority, he attacked. In fifteen minutes of fighting Washington’s command killed ten Frenchmen and took ten prisoners–a brisk fight and a tidy little victory. Unfortunately, one of the dead was Coulon de Jumonville, not a soldier at all but an emissary on a diplomatic mission. In his baptism of fire, Washington had accidentally started the French and Indian War.

This first taste of battle seems to have exhilarated the young man. As he wrote home to a younger brother, “I heard the bullets whistle, and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound.” This letter was later published and ultimately made its way to George II, who merely sniffed, “He would not say so had he heard many.” And perhaps Washington himself was rethinking the charm of battle just then. A month later a large French command bent on vengeance and lead by Jumonville’s brother caught up with him. Washington threw up hastily–and, as it turned out, unwisely–a crude work he called Fort Necessity. Poorly posted on low ground, he was in danger of being washed out of his own lines by the least rain no matter what the French did. On 3 July the French struck in a driving rainstorm. An hour’s fighting cost Washington 30 dead and 70 wounded. He had blundered badly and been soundly whipped. On the fourth of July 1754 he surrendered his command. If there was any consolation in this defeat, it was that he had been allowed to march his survivors away with the full honors of war. But even in this was a bitter sting: in signing the surrender agreement, he had admitted, in his ignorance of French, to the assassination (l’assassinat) of Jumonville, an enormous propaganda victory for the French. He had shown steady courage, that was clear, but also bad judgment concerning his enemy’s subterfuges. When the troops returned to Virginia, Washington, who had been briefly promoted to full colonel was reduced to a captain’s rank. In response, he resigned in disgust.

But defeat and disgust had not extinguished his dream of military glory. A year later, in the spring of ’55, he marched west once more, this time with British Major General Edward Braddock, a column of two-thousand Regulars, and a detachment of Virginia militia. (Always sensitive to slights to his “reputation,” he would go now as a civilian volunteer, thus avoiding the touchy issue of rank.) When Braddock’s column was still a few miles short of the French fort at Duquesne, it was suddenly and savagely attacked from ambush by the French and their Indian allies. The Regulars fought on as best they could, trying to maintain their formal lines of battle, but they were slaughtered by their unseen assailants. Braddock fell, shot through the lungs, along with a thousand of his comrades. And it might have been worse yet, but this was a good day for the young Washington. He rode into the thick of the fight and helped rally the survivors, doing his part to keep a bloody defeat from becoming an utter massacre. Braddock was buried in secret not far from Fort Necessity, the scene of Washington’s last stand, and the column limped back toward Virginia. This defeat, however, did not mean disgrace for Washington. His cool-headed battlefield courage made him a full colonel once more, and Dinwiddie made him commander-in-chief of all Virginia’s militiamen. The regular army commission he hoped for (and in fact politicked for) never materialized, however, for the British would never forget or forgive his blunder against the French. Two immediate lessons from this experience would stay with him. The first concerned the British Regulars: though they were fit, disciplined, and effective troops, their commanders were by no means prepared to campaign in the immense distances of North America. The second concerned the American militiamen: three years of leading these men on the frontier showed him that they were not really ready to fight anywhere. They were, in his judgment, ungovernable in camp and unreliable on the battlefield.

Now in the turbulent summer of 1775, twenty years after that dark day with Braddock in the wilderness, “a kind of destiny” called him to lead those unsteady militiamen against seasoned Regulars. If he was uncertain about the will and the capacity of Americans to wage this war, he was under no illusions about the power arrayed against him. But he carried with him a further and deeper lesson that would serve him well in the years ahead. Based in part on his own experience and in part on some limited reading in the works of the European authorities, it was an understanding of the very nature of the armies even then coming to grips on the slopes of Breed’s Hill. This understanding was both informed and intuitive and it might be put simply: first, the British Regulars were precisely that–regular–a conventional eighteenth-century army. From the early seventeenth century to the emergence of Napolean, European armies were small, professional, and very, very expensive to raise and maintain. The expense–the relative expense–was in part due to the limited means the dynastic state possessed to wring taxes from a still powerful aristocracy. It was also the consequence of the peculiar social composition of these dynastic armies. Leadership came from the circles of that hereditary aristocracy, generally men of ability who embraced the profession of arms as both birthright and honorable calling. The rank and file, however, came from the very bottom of society–the unemployed and the dispossessed. The growing middle classes were naturally exempt from conscription. Since they generated wealth for (and paid taxes to) the dynastic state, they were too valuable to be squandered on the field of battle. Frederick the Great of Prussia, for example, supposed that if too many people knew a war was going on, the war was a failure. It was, some would argue, a cynical political, economic, and social equation, but it also put severe limits of the destructiveness of war. The idea of total war, aiming at the annihilation of the enemy state, had not yet darkened the mind of man. Britain, for example, had recently won a world war–the Seven Years’ War–but France lived on. Bruised in pride and compelled to surrender some of the choicest prizes in the imperial game, she had spent a decade resting and refitting, and now waited to see whether this new North American conflict would make her old enemy vulnerable.

Still, to make soldiers of the desperate off-scourings of the social order was a time-consuming, labor-intensive, and above all brutal business. Press gangs swept up men one step from the prison house or the poor house and recruited them with ruthless efficiency: “By lies they lured them, by liquor they tempted them, and when they were dead drunk they forced a shilling [the king’s bounty] into their fists.” It took at least two years, often a good deal longer, to turn these desperate souls into soldiers. No one thought to appeal to the enlisted man’s patriotism or sense of national honor because quite simply the nation-state in its modern sense did not yet exist. Having no stake in the struggles of his lords, only savage discipline kept him in the ranks at all. The British soldier’s life was frankly held to be a “dog’s life at eightpence a day.” He was, in a nasty American epithet, a “bloody back”: both for his red coat and the frequent floggings he endured in the correction of trifling offenses. In Prussia the principal duty of the native half of the army was, it seemed, to keep the foreign half from deserting. Given this very limited (and very expensive) military instrument, wars were likewise limited and fought for narrow dynastic purposes. Indeed, historians often describe this period as the Age of Limited Warfare, an age that would come to a bloody end when Napoleon in effect put an entire nation under arms.

The implication for the aristocrat who commanded the conscript army was quite clear: he would do well to preserve this army so difficult to raise and train. If he had no particular regard for the foot soldier’s humanity, he had to admit he would be hard to replace. Preserving an army meant maneuver, careful maneuver, as much to avoid decisive battle as to seek decisive advantage. Daniel Defoe, back at the close of the War of the Dutch Alliance in 1697, had been struck by the spectacle of 50,000 armed men “standing at bay within view of one another” with hardly a shot fired in anger. Indeed, it seemed to him that the whole point of campaigning lay in “dodging, or as it is genteelly called, observing one another.” Battle, thought one German officer, was the remedy of the desperate. For Washington, it might be possible to bleed the British army into defeat without even letting a great deal of British blood. In 1775 the entire strength of the British army, with its world-wide commitments, was only 50,000 effectives. Then, too, enough artful dodging on his part might in the end frustrate the British will to continue the contest. If he could keep an army in the field long enough, he could win simply by not losing. These were, in 1775, possibilities, perhaps pipe dreams. The immediate reality, however, was hard-edged and inescapable. If Washington was going to defeat or even stalemate a regular army, he would have to raise and train a regular army of his own and, sooner or later, be able to confront the redcoats on their own terms.

And this recognition forced on Washington a sobering appraisal of the American army as it now stood before Boston. They were above all citizen-soldiers. This much Washington accepted in principle. Indeed, on his way to the front, he had made the point publically and deliberately. “When we assumed the soldier,” he said in New York, “we did not lay aside the citizen.” The trouble with the militiamen, as Washington saw it, was that they were citizens first–self-reliant and self-interested citizens–and soldiers second. The combination of vigorous popular democracy and real economic opportunity meant that the social distance between the richest and the poorest was not so great as in Europe, and upward mobility was an honest possibility even for the poorest. (Benjamin Franklin’s rise in the world was simply one shining instance of the promise of American life.) The consequence was a rough equality throughout the colonies and particularly in New England. And if that strikes us as the great achievement of America’s daring social and political experiment, it was an unsettling idea for Washington. For it was precisely this kind of leveling democracy that made armed mobs and not regular armies. “Discipline,” Washington wrote back in 1757, “is the soul of an army,” and there was precious little of it in the camps now circling Boston.

Washington rode quietly into those camps on 2 July 1775. Inside of a week, he had made a full and frank evaluation of the army and its dispositions, and his conclusions were not promising. In merely logistical matters the army lacked the powder and guns to mount a sustained defense if the British did try to break out of Boston. (He would soon discover, to his speechless astonishment, that there were just thirty-six barrels of powder in his magazine–scarcely enough to provide ten rounds a man!) But the problem was deeper than logistics, and it went to the soul of the army: Washington found officers who could not command and men who would not obey. “The abuses in this army,” he wrote to Richard Henry Lee in Virginia, “are considerable and the new modelling of it, in the face of an enemy, from whom we every hour expect an attack, is exceedingly difficult and dangerous.” These abuses were hardly to be wondered at given the realities of a militia system in which private soldiers elected their officers. As he wrote with some bitterness: “there is no such thing as getting officers of this stamp to exert themselves in carrying orders into execution–to curry favor with the men (by whom they were chosen…) seems to be one of the principal objects of their attention.” Nor was he kinder in his assessment of the enlisted men. The Yankees were, he wrote in an unguarded moment, “an exceedingly dirty and nasty people,” money-grubbing, unreliable, indifferent to duty, and characterized in sum by “an unaccountable kind of stupidity.” Though this was a slur that he would later regret and never repeat, Washington was not entirely unfair: these men had not even mastered the simple science of tending properly to their latrines. But of these men he would have to make an army, and it would have to be built on new principles. Somehow Washington would have to reconcile this rugged democracy with military discipline. He would do so from the top down and the bottom up.