Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.
Okay, so I did in fact survive my week with the boy. So we are back. When we left off last time, the Americans had just ‘Burgoyned‘ the British up at Saratoga. Seriously, ‘to Burgoyne someone’ briefly entered the American vocabulary. The British surrender had profound consequences for the course of the war: it forced the British to rethink what they were doing; it led the Americans to briefly consider replacing General Washington with Horatio Gates as commander in chief. But of course, the most profound consequence was that it caused the French to enter the war. So the first thing we need to do today is hop over to Paris.
As I mentioned a few episodes back, the French had been covertly assisting the American since about the spring of 1776. As you can imagine, young King Louis XVI was not super keen about funneling money to a bunch of republican radicals. But his Foreign Minister, the Comte de Vergennes (God help us when we get to the French Revolution) persisted and finally was able to carry the King along by pointing out that without French assistance, it was likely that Britain and her colonies would eventually reconcile, and that would not be good for France. So the King authorized money to be funneled to the Americans through a dummy corporation set up in Paris and run by Connecticut merchant and emissary from the Second Continental Congress, Silas Deane. Now, on the whole, Silas Deane did a pretty good job for his country. The money and supplies did start flowing, but he also had a tendency to mix the public accounts with his private accounts, if you catch my drift. Deane would eventually come under heavy fire for his sloppy bookkeeping, though he would find a credible defender in Benjamin Franklin, who was practical enough of a man not to quibble over a little patriotic graft. That’s what it took to keep the wheels greased.
While Deane was funneling most of the covert French money to the American war effort, the Second Continental Congress was busy trying to secure a formal alliance. Now, as I mentioned when discussing the Declaration of Independence, there was a serious debate over whether independence must precede the alliance or the alliance independence. With the independence firsters winning the day. But with independence now declared, it was time to vigorously pursue that European alliance, which was frankly fraught with danger. The Americans were bargaining from a very weak position, and it was likely that the French, for example, would demand trade monopolies with American ports as the necessary incentive to joining the war. But the last thing the Congress wanted was to just swap out the British for the French. So sticking point number one was the American insistence that they be allowed free trade with all of Europe, not just those countries that helped them. This is of course not what the French wanted to hear.
With the economic incentives going nowhere, the Americans were able to make a headway with a more straight up realpolitik incentive. If we win, it’ll be really bad for your mortal enemy, the British Empire. This argument was already being championed by Vergennes and more or less became the foundation upon which the alliance was ultimately built. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
But as 1776 continued to unfold, the French looked less and less likely to jump in. I mean, this is when Washington is getting chased out of New York and hopes for American success ebbed mightily. So in late 1776, the Congress dispatched the most influential and respected man they had, Benjamin Franklin, to go work his magic. And work it he did. Benjamin Franklin was a prominent merchant, a scientist, now living a life of gentlemanly leisure in fine Philadelphia style. But when he stepped off the boat in France, he was wearing his beaver pelt hat, his glasses and low key country clothes. And from that moment on, he played the part of the frontier New World rustic to perfection. Wherever he went, he utterly charmed French society with his intelligence, his wit, and his quaint American style. It was all a show, of course, but it was one the French seemed to delight in partaking in. Franklin and the French pretty much fell in love with each other, and Franklin would spend the next decade among them.
But all the charm in the world couldn’t solve the insurmountable hurdle to French involvement, the not unreasonable belief that the American simply couldn’t win the war. And what I mean by that is that the French had no interest in fighting the Americans war for them. And until the Americans proved that they could hold their own and just needed some help to get over the top, the French refused to go beyond covert payments.
The other big French concern, though, was that the Americans were planning to simply use them as leverage in their negotiations with the British Ministry. So French involvement had to be about breaking the British Empire apart, not helping to knit it back together. The Declaration of Independence went a long way towards mollifying that fear, but it was almost impossible to tell from Paris whether that declaration represented the will of the people or the will of a tiny click of super radicals.
So this is where Franco-American relations stood when news of Saratoga arrived in December 1777. Word of Burgoyne’s defeat frankly stunned the French government and along with reports of the failed but professionally ambitious effort by Washington and Germantown, led the French to quickly start talking formal alliance. For one, the Americans had just clearly proved that they were fighting a real war with real armies and could really win. For another, Burgoyne’s surrender opened the very real possibility that the war weary British might bag it and come to terms with the Americans. If the French didn’t act now, this golden opportunity to divide the British Empire might pass them by. And indeed, at that very moment, the British Ministry was in fact putting together a peace envoy that would sail for America in the spring.
So in February 1778, various treaties commercial, political, military started getting signed by the French government and the American representatives. These made their way to the Congress in May 1778, just ahead of the British envoys, who, yes, offered peace terms. But those fell short of recognizing independence. Congress spurned the British overtures and took the deal with France. By June 1778, France and Britain were officially at war, and suddenly it was a whole new ballgame.
So that covers the French reaction to Saratoga. But what about the British?
As I said, the French were really concerned that Burgoyne’s defeat meant that the British would soon be throwing in the towel. And indeed, Saratoga did pretty fundamentally rock the boat back in London and invite some major criticisms of the Ministry. By this point, Lord North was sick of being Prime Minister and looking for a way out, but he was trapped in office by King George, who was starting to really dig his heels in on crushing the Americans at all costs, not backing down and not giving in to weak-willed backbenchers in Parliament, who were taking unpatriotic potshots at his government.
With the King’s full speed ahead attitude aside, there were serious questions about how the war was being waged. The spring of 1778 is approaching, so we’re now three years past Lexington and Concord, and not only are the colonial still fighting, but we just lost 10,000 guys in upstate New York, so what the heck is going on over there? Obviously, it was time for heads to start rolling. And obviously the first man led to the scaffold was General William Howe. He had long faced understandable criticisms for his less than zealous conduct in the colonies. Time and again, the Americans had been beaten, only to slip away. Then, of course, there was his decision to head for Philadelphia, when he should have been coordinating with Burgoyne. And then there was his conduct in Philadelphia over the winter. He spent the months in such lavish and carefree ease that Washington remarked that Howe did not capture Philadelphia so much as Philadelphia captured Howe. So in March 1778, Howe was recalled, though he wouldn’t leave until May, and Henry Clinton was promoted to Commander in Chief, which brings us to the third of our triumvirate of reputation.
Henry Clinton was born in maybe 1730, though apparently we don’t really know. But whatever the real date, he was the youngest of the three main British generals. His father was an Admiral in the Navy, had been appointed governor of New York when young Henry was about 12 and so the whole family picked up and moved to America. Clinton started up the ranks of the army while living in New York, but there’s only so far you can go in the colonies, just ask George Washington, and he returned to Britain in 1749. Clinton wound up serving in Germany during the Seven Years War, and he became well acquainted with a number of the officers who wound up serving on both sides of the American Revolution, including Charles Lee and the man who was about to become his second in command, Lord Cornwallis. Clinton and Cornwallis were thus long-time comrades at arms when the Revolutionary War broke out. But whatever friendship they shared was about to be destroyed by the stress of trying to defeat this confounded rebellion. In less than a year, they will barely be on speaking terms.
But the change in top commanders was only part of the British Ministry’s refocused war effort. With nothing in the north having thus far worked at all, the Ministry decided to literally come at this from a different angle and head for the southern colonies, where loyalists were supposedly plentiful. The new plan was to win over the south without too much difficulty and then push steadily north until the rebellion was choked out. But as we’ve seen, running a war from 3,000 miles away is really hard. And though reports of strong loyalist sentiment in the south were true, those reports failed to mention that there was also strong patriot sentiment. Patriot sentiment that existed for its own reasons, independent of any grievances of the New Englanders or the Middle colonists. So, as we will see next week, the plan to win the south would prove no less difficult than any other attempts the British made to win the war, because despite the persistent belief in London that this whole rebellion was the work of a small band of hardcore radicals, support for the American war effort was in fact both deep and widespread and plentiful in the south.
But, of course, as the Ministry was trying to alter its focus, it was hit with the broadside that the French were joining the Americans. So, in response, British eyes moved even further south, down to the West Indies, where plans were hatched to start attacking French colonial holdings and make them rue the day that they stepped into this Anglo family squabble. But that meant that they also now had to keep an eye on the home islands, lest the French take advantage of British concentration of forces in the Americas to attack across the English Channel. But the Ministry was divided on how seriously to take this threat, and so, once again, they started pumping out orders that wound up being both incoherent and insufficient, because they now had four things they were trying to do at once: (1) defend the home islands, (2) try and prevent the French from sending a fleet to America, (3) attack French positions in the West Indies, and, of course, (4) defeat the American rebels. But they did not really have the resources to do all of this at once. And so every time they focused on one thing, they wound up neglecting another. This is, for example, how the French fleet was able to cross the Atlantic more or less unopposed, because running a tight blockade would pull too many ships out of the Channel. And it’s why Henry Clinton started getting orders to transfer men down to the West Indies, men he really shouldn’t be transferring if they actually expected him to win the war against the rebels.
While all of this was unfolding in the courts of Europe over the winter of 1777-1778, George Washington and his beleaguered army were suffering at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. 18 miles northwest of Philadelphia, Washington selected the spot for a variety of reasons: was on easily defensible high ground, It was distant enough to be out of the way of both the British and potentially disgruntled civilians, while simultaneously being close enough should the latter need protection from the former.
General Howe had more or less holed up in Philadelphia in October, but in early December, he marched out to try to steal a victory before the year was out. But finding the American position at White Marsh too strong, he retired for the year and, as it would turn out, for the war. With the British now officially snug in their beds, Continentals went off to Valley Forge to sleep on the ground.
The army that straggled into the absolutely nothing they found at Valley Forge numbered about 11,000. And when I say nothing, there was just nothing. The first thing they had to do was construct little rudimentary huts that they could cram themselves into. The floor was bare ground. The beds were bare ground. For nourishment, soldiers lived pretty much nonstop on a delicacy dubbed ‘fire cake’, which was flour mixed with water and heated on rock. That’s it. Flour and water, for months on end. And there were a few times, especially in February 1778, when even the flower ran out and they just had nothing.
Washington spent the winter begging, pleading, and demanding more and better supplies from both the civilians in Congress, the officers running his supply chain, but kept getting nothing. The Congress more or less punted its responsibilities and simply authorized Washington to commandeer what he needed. But Washington was basically too smart to fall into that trap.
As we’ve seen, George Washington is a mixed bag when it comes to his generalship, but one thing he never lost sight of was that he was fighting a political war and could not afford to alienate the population. He was, for example, really super hard, like summary execution, hard on looters and thieves in his ranks. Resorting to forced requisitions might temporarily strengthen his army, but it also might permanently weaken the overall war effort.
That he held as firmly as he could to this principle in the face of his own army’s deprivation and the knowledge that many of the locals were, as we speak, selling supplies to the British in Philadelphia is nothing short of remarkable. It’s not to say he wasn’t basically running on liquid fury during the month at Valley Forge, just that his composure through it all is damn near superhuman.
If there was a silver lining to the winter at Valley Forge was the arrival of the Prussian Baron Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben, who showed up with a glowing letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin and a resume that said former lieutenant general and aide-de-camp to Frederick the Great, which, WOW!, that is an impressive resume! Except, yes, it’s completely made up.
Steuben does appear to have briefly served in Frederick’s army maybe 20 years before the revolution broke out, but that was about it. He was, however, charismatic and knowledgeable about how to run an army, so when he met Benjamin Franklin in France, Franklin helped him exaggerate his credentials in order to get Washington’s attention. And once he had Washington’s attention, the small matter of the bold face lies he told to get him there became insignificant, because Washington was desperate for someone who knew how to drill an army, and Steuben knew how to drill an army.
The Baron was given command of a model company whose example would then be used to teach the rest of the army. Unfortunately, Steuben did not speak English, and no one in camp spoke German. But he did speak French, as did an American officer, so Steuben took to calling instructions in French and having the French immediately translated into English. Now, this, as you can imagine, was an awkward way of doing business. But luckily, when the troops messed up, Steuben would descend into these red faced fits laced with heavy doses of German cussing, which the men found understandably hilarious. So the drilling with the Baron lightened the mood of an otherwise dreary camp.
The men also came to love him, because, despite his temper, Steuben never tried to play the martinet with them. After making the keen observation that in Europe, you tell a soldier, “do this”, and he does it, but in America, you have to say, “do this, here’s why you do it”, and then they do it. In short order, the men learn what the Baron had to teach them, and they all knew why they were doing it. The men spending the winter in Valley Forge were, for the most part, all veterans of the previous year’s campaigns. And they had discovered at both Brandywine and Germantown, the discipline in the field was often the difference between life and death. They were eager to master what the Prussian officer taught in between his fits of incomprehensible German profanity.
Now, since we’re on the subject of European officers serving in the American army, we should probably introduce another man who, like Thomas Paine, will be joining us for the French Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette. No, I am not going to try to wrestle his full name to the ground.
Lafayette was an idealistic 17 year old noble when the American Revolution broke out and an idealistic 19 year old noble when he disobeyed a direct order from King Louis and hopped on a ship to seek fame, glory, and honor in the struggle for American independence. Now, I haven’t talked about this, but when he first arrived, Lafayette was just another in an endless line of French soldiers of fortune who showed up on Congress’s doorstep looking for fame, glory, and honor. They all expected to be made Major Generals and given fat salaries by these amateur colonials, but mostly they were just a nuisance that the Americans could not afford. Washington utterly detested them.
But Lafayette turned out to be different because, yes, he expected a rank befitting his noble status, but he asked for no salary. No salary? Okay, well, you can be a major general then, we don’t have to pay you, right?
When Lafayette showed up in Washington’s camp in August 1777, so this is just before Brandywine, Washington was annoyed that he had yet another pompous French officer to placate, but as they reviewed the camp and Washington apologized for its sorry state, Lafayette allegedly said, ‘I come here to learn, not to teach’, which pretty much won over Washington, and we don’t have to pay you, right?
From then on, Lafayette was in Washington’s inner circle, though it wasn’t really clear what his rank was. Congress thought the generalship had bestowed on this French teenager honorary, but Lafayette believed that he really was a Major General, would be given a field command as soon as General Washington decided that he was ready for it, which, of course, further ingratiated him with Washington. Lafayette fought at and was wounded at Brandywine, but delivered exemplary service when he held the rallying point that made an orderly retreat possible.
Now, as we go forward, Lafayette will continue to serve with distinction, even as he makes his mistakes along the way. And he’s gone down in American history as a fairly beloved hero of the Revolution. His return tour through the States in 1824 was a national sensation that stands as a whole historical episode in its own right. And it’s why there’s a Lafayette Square or park or circle or avenue in practically every American city. Which is all fascinating to me just now because I’m pretty deep into reading about the French Revolution, and really, no historian of the French Revolution has anything good to say about the Marquis de Lafayette. Generally, [he] gets ridiculed as a vainglorious, incompetent jackass. It’s really quite something how different the treatment of Lafayette becomes depending on which revolution we’re talking about.
Now, the other thing Washington had to deal with while huddled in Valley Forge was a nascent movement to have him replaced a Commander in Chief. Let’s face it, he had basically nothing to show for his years on campaign but the small island of Trenton in a sea of defeats and retreats. Sure, he’s kept his army together, even though we don’t feed it or give it clothes or shelter, but we need a man who can win a battle, you know, like Horatio Gates. And this very loose movement is known to history as the Conway Cabal, gets its name from an Irish brigadier general named Thomas Conway, who had been fighting under Washington during the campaigns in Pennsylvania and was fairly well disgusted with what he decided was Washington’s rank amateurism.
Shortly after Germantown, Conway began lobbying Congress for a promotion to Major General and used the opportunity to criticize Washington relentlessly. He also wrote to other leading officers and congressmen who shared his attitude, including Horatio Gates. But all of this carping came to nothing. Washington still had plenty of friends who informed him of everything everyone had been saying. When their words hit the sunlight, Conway lost his command, and Gates denied furiously having any part of it. And that was the end of the only real attempt to get rid of Washington during the war. Whatever his failings, he was the keystone of the whole project – always had been and now always would be.
When the spring of 1778 finally arrived, Washington couldn’t wait to get his newly drilled army into the field, and it looked like his new counterpart, Henry Clinton, was going to give him a fat opportunity right away. With the French fleet on the way, Clinton decided that trying to hold Philadelphia was pointless, and it was time to head back for the far more defensible New York City, staged to move to the southern colonies from there. At the end of May, Washington sent out Lafayette with 2,200 men to scout around Philadelphia and keep an eye on the British so he would know the minute that they tried to march away. Lafayette’s first taste of an independent command nearly ended in disaster when he was almost trapped at Baron Hill, but he definitely maneuvered his men out of danger before the walls closed in. He did report there was no doubt that the British were preparing to evacuate Philadelphia. The question: what would the Americans do about it?
Almost alone among his senior commanders, Washington wanted to attack. The most prominent dissenter to this idea was the recently returned from British custody, Charles Lee. Now back at the table, Lee basically said, if the British want to leave without a fight, we should build them a road paved with gold. It seems clear by this point that Lee has pretty much lost faith in the American ability to actually defeat the British. And there is good reason to believe that he spent his time in British custody, providing his captors with all kinds of information about his supposed comrades. But Washington would not back down, and he was supported by both Steuben and Lafayette. The slow moving and heavily laden British caravan would be a sitting duck, ripe for the plucking.
Now, all things being equal, I think Washington’s instincts were exactly right. His big mistake, though, was putting Charles Lee in anything resembling a key role.
After putting the men who were too sick to travel and about 3,000 terrified loyalists on ships to New York, Henry Clinton set out with somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 men and about 1,500 carts on June 18, 1778. The train moved slow, even by the standards of the day. This was, after all, the entire operational infrastructure of the British army. As it plotted through New Jersey, Washington gathered his 13,000 men and led them out of Valley Forge in pursuit. Clinton did not want to wind up like Burgoyne, and he worried endlessly about getting attacked. Doubly so because he believed erroneously, as it turned out, that Horatio Gates would be coming down from the north. So when he spied a river crossing he didn’t like the look of, he turned off the most direct route to New York and instead put himself on a road that would lead him through Monmouth Courthouse. Critically, the road he was now on forced him to bunch his army in a single file, with a small vanguard out in front, the baggage in the middle, and a strong rear guard led by Lord Cornwallis – really, the bulk of the army.
On June 26, the British reached Monmouth Courthouse, which is about halfway to New York. The American army was now just 10 miles to the west, but the next day, both sides rested in the scorching June heat. Washington, though determined to get at the British, sent forward an advanced army of about 5,000 men under the command of, wait for it, General Charles Lee, and more or less ordered Lee to pin down the rear guard if they tried to move.
I say more or less ordered, because Washington had also said that if there was some dire emergency that Lee could pull back. What Washington meant was, “If you get there and it turns out that the entire British army is masked in a line waiting to mow you down, then, no, I’m not ordering you on a suicidal attack”. But what Lee appears to have heard is, “Don’t attack if you don’t feel like it.” And as we’ve already noted, Lee was not into this plan at all. He had initially refused the command of the forward army, but when Washington offered it to Lafayette, Lee’s ego bristled, and he decided to take the advanced force after all. But he was going to be on a sharp lookout for any dire emergencies.
On the morning of June 28, Lee moved forward with his attack. But before he moved, he broke up his forces while simultaneously giving his officers no clear instructions about what they were supposed to be doing. The Battle of Monmouth Courthouse has a lot of moving parts, so I’m going to simplify all of this as much as possible. When the first batch of Americans made contact with the British rear guard, a bout of intense fighting commenced. And, oh, look, a dire emergency! Lee ordered the forward units to pull back, and they were still in good order, but the other scattered units didn’t know what was happening. They saw the retreat, and everyone started to break and run. As Washington came up the road, he was flabbergasted to suddenly find himself consumed by a wave of fleeing soldiers. He was doubly flabbergasted to find General Lee among them.
In what appears to be practically the only time in recorded history this ever happened, George Washington lost his temper and cursed Lee with every curse word in the book, and George Washington does not curse. Lee tried to sputter his excuses, but Washington relieved him of command, rerouted the fleeing units, and got them to hold the line while the rest of the American army set up for a pitch battle. Meanwhile, Lee was already back working on the defense that would get him absolutely nowhere, with the court-martial he faced in August. Washington made damn sure that this was the end of General Charles Lee.
When Cornwallis came on in hot pursuit of the fleeing rebels, he suddenly hit a solid wall of continental forces. He made a run at the American left, but was pushed back. He made a run at the American right, but was pushed back there, too. In the center, the American line, protected by a hedgerow, repulsed three successive attacks until the fourth finally forced them to abandon their position and fall back. But the mutual heavy beatings precluded any further advances by either side, and after a few hours of shelling each other, Cornwallis led his men back up the road. Washington wanted to press on, but darkness forced him to hold still.
So the Battle of Monmouth was basically a draw, though I think technically the British get the tactical victory, because Cornwallis was able to prevent Washington from capturing the train and the British were able to complete their run for New York. But at the same time, the Americans held the field of battle. They had been hit head on by the cream of the British regular army and stood firm. It had taken a few years, but Washington finally had the army he had always dreamed of, which is why it’s so kind of tragically hilarious that the Battle of Monmouth was the last major battle George Washington would take part in until Yorktown, fully three years away, seriously.
Next week, we will begin to see why Washington wound up on the bench as the British follow through on their plan to move the war south. There, they expected to be welcomed with open arms by a loyal population. But when they got there, it turned out that those reports of loyalists were only half right. And what was actually going on in the south was fairly bitter, little civil war between loyalists and patriot militias and the British regular forces were about to find themselves trapped in the middle of it.
Return to The American Revolution >>
Leave a Reply