The south in flames

Portrait of General Nathanael Greene  by Charles Willson Peale

When the war began in 1775, the British had little military presence outside Boston. Thus, outside of New England, militant patriots quickly sent the royal governors packing, and established new governments. From the British point of view, rebellious forces had overthrown legitimate government and were oppressing loyal British subjects. For the British to govern, they would have to successfully invade and occupy.

Fort Ticonderoga’s cannon and Washington’s army forced the British to retreat from New England to Nova Scotia. Saratoga and the resulting French alliance rendered Howe’s occupation of Philadelphia meaningless and swiftly impossible (as troops were now needed elsewhere), which reduced the British  presence in the middle colonies to the greater New York City area. Could they recoup in the South? Well, they tried, and tried hard.

For the British, the war in the south was a bitter experience. For one thing, their expectations of extensive Loyalist recruitment throughout the area were disappointed. The South Carolina back country was, in fact, largely loyalist. But three years of patriot intimidation and control, had made loyalists chary of coming forward to aid the troops that might (and, in less than three years, did) leave them high and dry, with a choice of persecution or emigration.

Then there were the frustrations of chasing bands such as those of Francis Marion, “the swamp fox,” and other natives who knew every back trail of their native land, and were ideally poised to hit and run away. This was guerrilla warfare, in an age before guerrilla warfare was recognized.

And perhaps more frustrating than anything else was to thoroughly defeat two American generals and win battle after battle, at one time capturing 5,000 men in one operation, and then, facing Nathanael Greene, win victory after victory, with each one leaving you closer to defeat.

British strategy was elementary for a naval power. Use the Navy to capture a port for a secure base, and fan out from there. But after the failure of an attempt to capture Charleston, South Carolina, in June, 1776, they made no new attempt in the Carolinas for three more years.

In December, 1778, 3,500 troops brought down from New York captured Savannah, Georgia. The following month, additional troops joined them, by land, from St. Augustine, Florida. Out of the combined force, 1,000 men were sent to capture Augusta, and took it, but then had to abandon it when General Benjamin Lincoln, who commanded the Continental Army in the south, sent militia from North and South Carolina.

In October 1779, a combined French and Continental Army attack on Savannah failed catastrophically — 901 American and French casualties, as opposed to 54 for the British. Sir Henry Clinton, with Savannah secure, moved against Charleston early in 1780, blockading the harbor, trapping Lincoln was in the city with about 5,000 Army and militia troops, and cutting off supplies. After a siege of several weeks, on May 12, 1780, Lincoln had to surrender, and Clinton had won the greatest British victory of the war. After the fall of Charleston, the American war effort in the state was reduced to partisan warfare such as by Francis Marion, the “swamp fox,” with fewer than 100 men.

Clinton now had the South’s biggest city and seaport. He had numerical superiority, and, for a change, the taste of success. He passed control of the British effort to Lord Cornwallis, and in mid-August Cornwallis decisively defeated General Horatio Gates, who had replaced Lincoln, in the Battle of Camden. So far so good for the British.

But then Washington replaced Gates with always reliable Nathanael Greene.

Greene gave General Daniel Morgan 1,000 men, and Morgan crushed Banastre Tarleton’s troops at the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781.  Then Greene fought “the race to the Dan (River),” a series of skirmishes as the Continental Army retreated northward in the face of superior numbers. The British won every skirmish, but they couldn’t trap or destroy Greene’s army, and every fight cost them casualties — about 2,000 men, in all – that they couldn’t replace.

As the ratio changed, there came a time when Greene felt able to stand against Cornwallis. For the British, the Battle of Guilford Court House was another tactical victory and strategic defeat. Cornwallis held the field, but he took so many casualties that he had to retreat to the coast – Wilmington, North Carolina — for reinforcements and resupply. And at this point, Cornwallis decided to attack Virginia, as that is where most of Greene’s supplies were coming from. Without informing Clinton, who was still his commander, Cornwallis marched from Wilmington into Virginia and joined the army that was already raiding there (that army having as one of its commanders Benedict Arnold).

As soon as Cornwallis abandoned inland North Carolina, Greene began to reconquer South Carolina. By June, 1781, the British presence there had been reduced to Charleston and Savannah.

Meanwhile Cornwallis, as all the world knows, received orders to construct a fortified naval post on the Virginia peninsula. He chose Yorktown, which would have been perfectly safe had the British fleet not been defeated in the Battle of the Chesapeake. Washington came hurrying down from the north, and the Continental Army and their French allies put Yorktown under siege. On October 19, 1781, it was all over. Even though Sir Henry Clinton still commanded a British army in New York, he had no idea what to do with it. Hardly mattered. Yorktown was the last straw. A new ministry decided that Britain would have to get out of the situation it was in. If that meant letting the colonies go, so be it.

The south’s ordeal was over.

The world turned upside down

When General John Burgoyne surrendered his army at Saratoga, he had the military band play a popular English tune titled “The World Turned Upside Down.” The significance was obvious — to him, to his army, to the colonials who were receiving the surrender. And yet none them, not the most astute, could know the half of it.

What they could see was upside-down-cake enough. An army of British regulars, competently commanded, had been defeated on the field of battle, not once, not twice but (counting Bennington) three times. Two and a half years earlier, at Lexington and Concord, these colonials had been unable to stand up to British regulars in a dress-order fight. And all along the long retreat back to Boston, they had fought in the manner learned from Indians, sniping from cover. Cowardly, the British had thought them.

No more. After the battle, one British office was quoted as follows: “The courage and obstinacy with which the Americans fought were the astonishment of everyone, and we now became fully convinced that they are not that contemptible enemy we had hitherto imagined them, incapable of standing a regular engagement, and that they would only fight behind strong and powerful works.”

Saratoga was actually two battles. We won’t go into military detail. They’re easily available to those interested. But here’s how the surrender happened.

Burgoyne was coming down from Montreal, intending to link up with Howe coming up from New York and St. Leger coming east along the Mohawk River. He easily re-captured Fort Ticonderoga in early July. But things went downhill from there.

In mid-August in the Battle of Bennington, Vermont, Burgoyne lost nearly 1,000 men from a detachment that was trying to capture badly needed supplies. A couple of weeks later, he learned that St. Leger’s army would not be joining his from the west, and that neither would William Howe’s army from the South. (The Tories, in despair at Howe’s dilatory tactics, called him “William Howe, Lord When?)

Nonetheless, he got his army across to the west side of the Hudson just a few miles from Saratoga, on his way to Albany. If he could capture Albany, he would have safe winter quarters for his army. Otherwise, he had no safety south of Montreal, and winter was on its way.

He thought retreat would be shameful; he tried for Albany, instead, and the result was two battles, fought eighteen days apart on the same ground, near Saratoga.

On September 19, 1777,  the first battle, called the Battle of Freeman’s Farm, saw 9,000 American troops fight 7,200 British. It was a murderous fight, with Morgan’s sharpshooters — Kentucky riflemen – picking off British officers and artillerymen all day long. At the end of the day, the British were the victors, in that they held the field, but the battle was ruinous to the British.

Burgoyne thought help was coming. As usual, he got no help from anyone. With supplies short, and the Americans being reinforced continually, the situation could only get worse. He attacked again on October 7, in the battle called Bemis Heights. By this time, losses to casualties and desertions had reduced the British army to 6,600 men, while reinforcements had swelled American numbers to more than 12,000. Valor and professionalism could do only so much, and the last straw, the charge  that broke their position, came under the inspired, reckless, and utterly insubordinate leadership of Benedict Arnold. (Arnold had been relieved of command by General Gates, but couldn’t keep out of the fight.)

This time Burgoyne was forced to retreat. Ten days later, surrounded and outnumbered, short of food and ammunition, with no help coming from any of those who should have been providing it, and surrounded by American forces that had grown to more than 15,000 men, he surrendered.

Casualties of the two battles were small by the standards of our calloused age, but they were high enough — 90 dead and 240 wounded for the Americans, 440 dead and 695 wounded for the British. Besides their heavy casualties, the British of course also lost 6,200 men captured.

More than the fate of a British army had been turned upside down. Saratoga showed the French court that Americans could fight pitched battles and win. The resultant French alliance distracted the British, overtaxed their resources, landed French soldiers on American soil, and overturned British command of the Chesapeake for just long enough to insure the surrender of a second British army and end the war.

Ironically, it may have been alliance with the long-hated French that turned Arnold’s mind to treason. The injury he suffered at Bemis Heights incapacitated him for several months, during which he became heavily involved with the Tory community of Philadelphia, and one thing led to another.

In Bernard Shaw’s play “The Devil’s Disciple,” Burgoyne announces that he will have to surrender, and Shaw has someone ask him what history will say. Shaw’s Burgoyne says, “history will lie about it as usual.” A character delivering lines in a play is not biography, but one can imagine Gentleman Johnny saying them. (He himself, by the way, was a playwright as well as a general.) Burgoyne deserved better treatment than he received – from his fellow generals, his government, his contemporaries, and from history. Nonetheless, it was his hard fate to be the man in command when his military band noted that everything had been upended.

Revolutionary changes

Truly revolutionary change doesn’t happen every day, or every year, or every decade, or even every lifetime. The American Revolution, far from being a once-in-a-lifetime event, was a once- in-several-lifetimes transformation, and naturally it knocked everybody off balance, even if they were working body and soul to help it happen.  We forget, sometimes, that it was the Revolutionary War. It was the war for independence from Great Britain, yes, but that isn’t all it was. The thing to remember – the key that unlocks a lot of riddles about those times – is that the generation of ’76 thought of themselves as continuing the process of climbing out of the superstitions and encumbrances of the Middle Ages.

As John Adams justly said later, the real revolution took place in the hearts of the people before the war began. That’s why the war began. It wasn’t just about England. It was about literacy, and feudalism, and the Enlightenment, and Protestantism, and unfair trade conditions, and chronic debt, and manifest destiny (though no one had yet used that phrase), and slavery, and the creation of heaven on earth.

Ideologically, (though that word had not yet been invented, oh happy times):

  • Catholicism. They were virulently anti-Catholic in the same way that some people in the 20th century were virulently anti-Communist, and for the same reason: They feared Catholicism as a belief-system likely to be manipulated by a foreign power for its own subversive purposes. They also assumed that its mystical elements were superstition.
  • As they left off theology, they put on worship of materialism, without quite realizing it. In New England especially, where literacy was virtually universal, the unstated assumption was that the past thousand years had been ignorance and superstition, but now men were remembering how to think and investigate and deduce, and all would be well.
  • Feudal institutions. Primogeniture (the oldest son inherits), entail (the inheritor can’t divide the property), church establishment (taxpayers, whether or not they are members of the Anglican church, support it financially). All these feudal remnants tended to increase social stratification at the expense of individual freedom.
  • Titles. Hereditary titles were clearly tied to monarchy and to feudal divisions of society into nobility and commoners. Although few lords ever settled in America (Lord Fairfax being a conspicuous exception), the existence of a legally recognized order of nobility impacted the Americans and hampered them in their new pursuit of equality under the law.

And, on a more mundane level:

  • Debt. The Virginia planters were in a trap set from London. Legally, they could sell tobacco only to England, and only through one outlet. Naturally, that put all the economic power in the hands of the buyer. They were convinced (perhaps rightly) that it was deliberately done to keep them economically enslaved.
  • Trade. New England merchants, too, chafed at the constraints imposed by England’s mercantilist regulations. They knew they could make much more money by trading wherever there was a market, and creating new markets wherever they discovered opportunities – but at every step, English laws blocked the way. Even their extensive smuggling could only do so much to overcome the effect of British trade regulation.
  • Slavery. The Somerset decision, that we will have to look at after a while, seemed to threaten emancipation throughout the British Empire. The Southern colonies – South Carolina and Georgia particularly – did not care to run the risk.
  • Expansion. No sooner were the French expelled from the Ohio Valley than England declared the trans-Appalachian area closed to colonization. British statesmen in their wisdom thought this would solve a couple of problems – it would preserve a homeland for the Indians, and it would channel British colonists north toward Canada and south toward Florida. The problem was, the colonists wanted to follow the prime farmland and hunting grounds, and they were on the other side of the Cumberland Gap.

The revolution was a radical rethinking of the life and society that was going to emerge from the war. And just like every revolution, it affected different temperaments and different interests differently. A revolution is a tram line into the unknown, and with every mile traversed, some look back at the distance covered and decide they’ve ridden far enough, and others say to themselves, “if we stop here, all our sacrifices will have been in vain.” And they’re all in the same car. Decisions on how far it goes and whether it stops affect them all.

This is an inadequate analogy, because in real life, even if you stop the car, you’re going to find that the landscape around you continues to change. And if you have been scared enough by what has already happened, life after the car stops is not going to calm you down much – especially since that very stoppage is going to inflame some of your fellow passengers. In revolutionary times, everyone around you except those of your own party seems asleep, or insane.

Thus, some didn’t want to go down this pathless path; they were called Tories. Others were eager to escape the dead hand of the past; they called themselves patriots, and Sons of Liberty, until the revolution went farther than they were comfortable with, at which time they were called Tories or renegades or monocrats or God knows what. And many people – at least a third, but perhaps many more – just wanted to be left alone to live their lives. But if that’s what they wanted, they picked an exceptionally bad time to be born. Like it or not, understand it or not, America was in the process of experiencing revolutionary changes that would transform it utterly beyond recognition.

Adams, scribbling for his country

Scribbling for his country

He was short and stout, loquacious and irritable, a lawyer rather than a soldier. He was as smart as anybody he ever met, he read as voraciously as Jefferson, he had the moral courage of Washington, and he could work like ten men. His judgment was usually good, often exceptional – he was among the first to see that the colonies had no middle ground between submission and “independency”; he was the man who picked Washington for command; he was the man the new state governments turned to for advice on how to shape their legislatures and their courts.

He longed to be popular, but he didn’t have the trick. His personality seems to have been all downright planes and angles, with little softening. Who knows how different his life would have been, if he had been born the strong silent type, tall and handsome, with a few drops of diplomacy in his makeup, and Washington’s iron self-control? But that wasn’t his life. He was born – he made himself – honest John Adams, unable to truckle, to prevaricate, or to insinuate.

The odd thing, the sad thing, is that the extent and importance of his work for the revolution is nearly forgotten except by historians. Even at the time, he could feel it happening. He himself had proposed George Washington for the leadership of the Continental Army, and he knew it was the right thing to do, but he couldn’t help feeling a little envy when he saw the fame Washington won in the field. Pity the poor scholar, he said in effect somewhere, “scribbling for his country.”

That scribbling for his country had an enormous effect. Let us, for the moment, forget about his courageous defense of the British soldiers accused of murder in the Boston Massacre, and leave aside his entire political and diplomatic career. If he had never sailed for Europe, if he had never become vice-president or president, his impact on our history would still be as considerable, if not as obvious, as that of Washington or Jefferson, Madison or Hamilton.

In his old age, a friend recalled to him the days of the Continental Congress, when, he said, “you and Thomas Jefferson thought for us all.” So he did. He was a constitutional lawyer and a careful scholar, who marshaled historical examples to carry his points, and showed a continent how to reshape its legislative and judiciary institutions to function without kings.

The forerunner was 1772, in his work “Two Replies of the Massachusetts House of Representatives to Governor Hutchinson,” in which he wrote that the colonies were not, and never had been, subject to Parliament, but to the king. Then he wrote Novanglus (Latin for New England, of course),  subtitled A History of the Dispute with America, From Its Origin, in 1754, to the Present Time.  Here, using his extensive knowledge of English and colonial legal history, he systematically described the origins, nature, and jurisdiction of the unwritten British constitution, and argued that the colonies were connected to Great Britain only through the King, hence were sovereign over their own internal affairs.

These writings made his name among patriots. Massachusetts sent him to the Continental Congress as one of its representatives. There, in June, 1775, he nominated Washington to lead the new army. But he performed an even greater service in responding to requests from other representatives on how to reshape their state governments into republican institutions. His advice came out as “Thoughts on Government,” a pamphlet printed in April, 1776 that became a recognized authority, referred to by those who formed every state government. Among his recommendations, new for the time, were bicameral legislatures and a clear separation of executive, legislative, and judiciary powers. (Sound familiar?)

When it came time for the Declaration of Independence, a majority of the five-man committee thought Adams should be the one to write it, but Adams persuaded them to choose Jefferson instead. Then Adams argued for it in Congress until it won adoption.

That wasn’t the end of his scribbling, however. In September and October, 1779, between his first and second trips to France as envoy, he was one of three men who drafted the constitution of Massachusetts. That constitution included several firsts. It was the first to be written by a special committee and ratified by the people, and the first with a bicameral legislature, and a distinct executive with a partial veto (requiring a two-thirds vote to override), and a separate judicial branch.

From London in 1787, Adams published A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, defending bicameral legislatures in state governments and arguing for a system of checks and balances. “Power,” he wrote, “must be opposed to power, and interest to interest,” and it is said that Adams did as much as anyone to put the idea of “checks and balances” on the intellectual map. What is even more to the point in our day (because unpopular and often undreamed of) is his contention that any good government must recognize that every political society will include social classes. Hence, a stable government would be one that found a way to balance the principles of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy (that is, Yeats’ “the one, the few, and the many”).

In Thoughts on Government, Adams said that “the very definition of a republic is an empire of laws, and not of men.” He did as much as any one man could to help bring that republic into being. Even disregarding his services as war minister, diplomat, vice president and president, John Adams did as much for his country as any other man of his generation, scribbling.

Two great generals

Only three major generals fought the entire revolution from 1775 to 1783. One, you’ve heard of. But the other two, Henry Knox and Nathanael Greene – although famous in their day – have been more or less forgotten over the years. Before we pursue our story backward toward our origins, let’s take a moment to pay them tribute.

1) Bookseller in arms

Henry Knox was not quite 25 in 1775. His father had died when Henry was only nine, and three years later young Henry, as the oldest son, had to leave the Boston Latin School for a job as bookstore clerk to support his mother. Growing up, he became a tough street fighter, and, at age 18, he joined a local artillery company. In 1772 he co-founded the Boston Grenadier Corps and served as its second in command. Meanwhile, in 1771, he opened his own bookshop, the London Book Store, in Boston, and stocked books on military science and always had questions for soldiers who came into his shop.

In 1774, he married Lucy Flucker, the daughter of Boston Loyalists, and made a happy marriage that survived until his death. The following April, the couple sneaked out of Boston after the battles of Lexington and Concord. In his absence, his bookshop was looted, everything being stolen or destroyed, but it hardly mattered. He joined the militia forces besieging the city, and found his true calling. Serving under General Artemus Ward, he planned and constructed fortifications, and he directed cannon fire at Bunker Hill. When General Washington arrived in July, he approved of the work Knox had done, and the two men developed a mutual liking, and John Adams got the Second Continental Congress to commission him.

Before his commission even arrived, he persuaded Washington to send him to Fort Ticonderoga to bring its cannons to Boston, to bring the siege of Boston to a successful end. He got to Ticonderoga on December 5, put together what became known as the noble train of artillery, and used oxen to haul sleds loaded with 60 tons of cannons and other armaments 300 miles to the siege camps around Boston. This involved not only crossing the Berkshire mountains, but crossing iced-over rivers, which of course meant that often enough cannons broke through the ice and had to be retrieved. The difficulties he and his men surmounted were formidable, but even though it took six weeks to do what he had thought would take only two, every cannon arrived, and once they did, the siege could end only one way.

Almost captured in New York, Knox managed logistics in crossing the Delaware before the battle of Trenton, and was promoted to brigadier general for getting the men and equipment across without loss, and then back across the river with prisoners, supplies and all the boats, again without loss. He improved the Army’s ability to manufacture artillery, raised an additional battalion of artillerymen, and established the Springfield armory in the winter of 1777-78 while the army was in winter quarters. The next winter, he established the Continental Army’s first school for artillery and officer training that is considered to be the precursor to West Point. Knox was particularly commended for his role in collecting and directing artillery at the siege of Yorktown, and was promoted to major general in 1782, becoming the army’s youngest major general. After the war ended, he became Secretary of War under the Confederation Congress, and, a few years later, continued as Washington’s first Secretary of War. It was a long journey for a bookseller with a taste for artillery.

2) Self-taught soldier

Nathanael Greene was 32 when the war began in 1775. Starting out as a private in the militia – below which it is not possible to go! – he fought his way up to major general in the regular army, and proved himself to be a gifted and dependable officer. In the last years of the war, his ingenious campaigns turned the war in the south from a shambles into a complete success, leading, slightly indirectly, to the surrender at Yorktown.

Did he see much action? Just call the roll: the siege of Boston and, much later, of Ninety-Six, and the battles of Harlem Heights, Fort Washington, Trenton, Brandywine, Germantown, Monmouth, Rhode Island, Springfield, Guildford Court House, Hobkirk’s Hill and Eutaw Springs.

Self-educated, with special interest in mathematics and law, Greene in 1770 took charge of the family-owned foundry just prior to his father’s death. In 1774, he married, and he also helped organize a local militia, and he began to learn the art of war from volumes on military tactics that he purchased.

Apparently that study paid off. In May, 1775, he was promoted all the way from private to Major General of the Rhode Island Army of Observation. In June the Continental Congress appointed him a brigadier of the Continental Army. The following Spring, after the British evacuated Boston, Washington assigned him command of the city, and in August, he became one of four new major generals.

I pass over the first years of his military career only because he made so critical a contribution in the final years. Suffice it to say, in those years he never lost Washington’s confidence. He accepted the post of Quartermaster General at Valley Forge (and did a good job in hard circumstances) only on condition that he retain the right to command troops in battle. As noted above, he did. But it was in the south that he made an enduring name.

In October, 1780, he was named to command the southern army, and in December he took command at Charlotte, North Carolina. The summer had seen a succession of disasters, culminating in the virtual destruction of the southern army under Horatio Gates. When Greene took command, it was weak and badly equipped and was opposed by a superior force – so Greene divided his troops!

This forced Cornwallis to divide his, as well, with the result that the more mobile and flexible Americans began outmaneuvering and outfighting them. At King’s Mountain, the entire British force was either killed or captured! At Cowpens, under General Daniel Morgan (who deserves an entry of his own), nearly 90% of the British troops were killed or captured!

Morgan and Greene’s force together numbered only 2,000 men. But Greene used long marches to divide, elude and tire his opponents. He and Morgan retreated north of the Dan River, then crossed back into North Carolina a week later. On March 15, 1781, the battle of Guilford Court House pitted Greene’s army against that of Cornwallis. In this battle, as in every pitched battle Greene fought in the south, the British kept the field. But Cornwallis lost so many men that he withdrew toward Wilmington, North Carolina. Then, when he marched north to Virginia, Greene set out to reconquer the south. This he did. By the end of the war, the British forces in the south held little more than the besieged city of Charleston. Greene had vindicated Washington’s faith.

As Greene put it, “We fight, get beaten, rise, and fight again.”


Washington’s ordeal

Like General Eisenhower 160 years later, General Washington was often criticized for not having qualities he didn’t have, when what counted was the fact that he – and nobody else – had exactly the qualities needed. Indeed, the qualities the two generals lacked, and those they had, were much alike. Neither one was a great tactician, certainly not equal to some of their subordinates. But the two men had character, and staying power, and the ability to make discordant elements work together until victory.

Washington’s war built on things he had learned 20 years earlier as a young colonial attached to the British army deployed against the French and Indians in western Pennsylvania. Not only did that early war give him the opportunity to prove his own courage to himself, it showed him what armies were like in victory and – more importantly – in discouragement, or in retreat. He observed the British military mentality from the inside, and never forgot what he had learned.

Beyond these intangibles, he learned military basics: organization, logistics, tactics, and strategy. It would be impossible to say that any one of these was more important than any other. As commanding officer of an improvised army, he was going to need to know all of it. Also, even though he never commanded more than a modern-day regiment in that early war, he formed an unfavorable opinion of militia that led him to insist on creating a professional army, as the only force that could be relied upon,

Washington was an aristocrat, not a man of the people. Between his inheritance and his fortunate marriage to a 28-year-old widow, he was one of the richest men in Virginia. In another man with another disposition and temperament, this might have become a major negative. In Washington, it was a tremendous plus. His natural reserve, his immense dignity, and his habitual self-control combined to make him a man who effortlessly inspired the respect of his men, his officers, and even the government functionaries who plagued him.

That didn’t make anything easy.

A patriot from the very beginning, he took an increasingly prominent role in resistance to Parliamentary actions, beginning with the Stamp Act and progressing until, in 1774, he was chairman of the meeting in which Virginians called for a Continental Congress to be convened, and he was one of those selected as a delegate to that first Congress, that met in Philadelphia.

When the Second Continental Congress met, after the battles of Lexington and Concord, he attended in military uniform, a not too gentle hint that he was ready to go to war. And really, who else was there? He was a known patriot; he had military experience; he was a distinguished member of the highest circles of society in what was by far the most populous colony. When the Congress created the Continental Army in June, John Adams nominated the impressive Virginian to be commander in chief. The move was partly political, of course. The New Englanders needed Southern support against the British; the army having a Virginian commander would make it less likely that Boston would be left to its own resources. But still, the question remained: Who else was there? Washington said that he was not equal to the post, and may well have felt it and meant it, but who else came even as close to being equal to it as he did? And everybody knew it. Throughout the long war, Congress, even in the days when it was most dissatisfied with the commander it did have, was never able to find another of equal promise.

His war started off with the same problems that would plague him for the whole eight years. The army around Boston was untrained and, underequipped, lacking even such essentials as an adequate supply of gunpowder. How do you fight battles without gunpowder? The answer is, you don’t. You keep the army in being and wait for better days. In 1775, the army eventually did get a barely adequate 1250 tons of powder, mostly from France, and the following Spring it finally got some artillery courtesy of captured Fort Ticonderoga. But those long months of enforced inactivity were a preview of coming attractions.

On Long Island a few months later, not yet having had experience with how the British could use sea power, he put the army in an indefensible position and nearly lost it. Then, in a daring and clever overnight operation, he saved the army – and all its equipment – and lived to fight another day. After losing another, highly expensive,  battle in November, he then retreated across New Jersey until turning around on Christmas day, as we all know. And so it went for the whole war. Hold the army together, strike when it seemed possible, retreat when necessary, wait for better days.

For eight long years.

It has been said that for Washington to win the war, he had to accomplish three kinds of tasks.

1) He had to fight without losing his army, and this he did. Many times defeated, he was never required to surrender his army. That was more than two highly trained and skilled English generals were able to say for themselves.

2) A larger task, he had to organize the army, train it, find competent leaders for it, get it supplied and fed and supported, always with grossly inadequate resources.

3) A larger task yet, he had to be the revolution. He had to be, and did become, the symbol of determined resistance, the linchpin who kept them all in harness — the army, the militias, the state governments, the Congress, and eventually his French allies. To do this required all the strengths of character for which he later became famous.

All that, he did. And then he did the thing that astonished the courts of Europe. First he quelled the mutiny of his officers at Newburgh; then – the war over – on December 23, 1783, he resigned his commission as commander-in-chief, and went home. King George III, hearing of this, called Washington “the greatest character of the age,” and for once the unfortunate king got it right.

The Proclamation of 1763

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 began the process of turning the British Empire’s total victory over the French into the loss of the American colonies. But why?

Originally I would have said something like this: “The British government, in its blindness, totally disregarded the legitimate interests of the American colonists and began the process of alienation that culminated in the American Revolution.” That’s the way American history often paints it. But from London, each disastrous move seemed reasonable, even logical, because, as the saying goes, where you stand depends upon where you sit. The frontier problems King George tried to address were much the same as those that would face another George – Washington — thirty years later.

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The Treaty of Paris that ended the French and Indian War in 1763 left the British in uncontested possession from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, and from the Gulf of Mexico to the northern and western limits of settlement in Canada. But of that vast territory, the British American had settled – even loosely — only the areas between the ocean and the Appalachians. From the mountains to the Mississippi, and throughout most of what had been French Canada, those actually in possession were American Indians.

British North America regarded the Treaty of Paris as the green light for expansion into the trans-mountain territory. But their imperial leaders weren’t so sure that was a good idea, because they had additional, somewhat contradictory, responsibilities. The French had considered the Indian nations centered on the Great Lakes to be valuable allies. Could the Indians be reconciled? It had to be considered. In October, King George surprised the colonists with his Royal Proclamation of 1763, forbidding settlement beyond the mountains.

In those days, Indians were not the remnant peoples they became a hundred years on. In 1763, and still during George Washington’s presidency, they were nations, and although they were outnumbered, the technological gap was not so large as it became (that is, they were not so impossibly outgunned) and they were neither desperate nor helpless. In fact, the Indians helped precipitate the proclamation.

While the king and his ministers were wrestling with the problem of reorganizing the governing of North America, they learned of the outbreak of the rebellion led by Pontiac, an attempt to prevent the British from occupying the lands formerly claimed (but not settled) by France. Pontiac’s War would continue for three years and end in the defeat of the Indians, but its largest impact may have been the impetus it provided for the Royal Proclamation.

King George decreed that, at least for the time being, no more settlement would be allowed west of the Appalachians. Any lands whose rivers flowed into the Atlantic were open to colonial settlement. Lands whose rivers flowed into the Mississippi were reserved for the Indian nations. Furthermore, the act prohibited purchase of Indian land by anyone other than government officials – that is, Crown officials, not colonial officials.

However, like his royal predecessor King Canute, King George was able to command the tide to halt, but was unable to enforce it. Unlike Canute, who staged his little show as a lesson to the flatterers of royalty, George appears to have expected to have his way. He didn’t.

That proclamation, like so many temporizing acts of statesmanship, sought not to prevent change but to delay it, in the hope of making it more manageable. With time (London hoped) the Indians would learn to live with the British as they had lived with the French – as long as their lands were not flooded by European immigrants. But while this setting aside of what was called the Indians Reserve appears to have been meant only to buy time, that isn’t what it looked like to the land-hungry colonials. They had been raised to fear the French-Indian combination that had resulted in so many backwoods massacres. They had fought hard against the French, and had helped defeat them. Were they now to be deprived of the fruits of their victory?

The clamor for revision or withdrawal of the proclamation began pretty fast, and it encompassed not only settlers who were already beyond the mountains, but prominent public men, and land speculators, not only in North America but in the home islands. It wasn’t long before the boundary line was moved westward, first in the Treaty of Sort Stanwix (1768), then in the Treaty of Lochaber (1770), until the area open to British American settlement extended Virginia into what later became the states of Kentucky and, still later, West Virginia.

But the damage to relations between mother country and its American colonies had been done. The colonists – particularly colonial land speculators, which in those days meant nearly anybody with a little extra money —  resented the British government’s refusal to permit new settlements. The proclamation ignited suspicions that were repeatedly fueled by further actions in the years to come, actions that seemed eminently reasonable to the Crown officials who promulgated them, but cumulatively seemed, to the colonists, clear evidence of a deep-laid plot to suppress and oppress the colonies for the greater good of the home island.

Suspicion usually trumps reason, and so it proved in the 1700s. But although the American Revolution ended Great Britain’s authority to intercede in matters between the former English colonists and the Indian nations of the interior, the new government found that the problems the proclamation tried to address still had to be confronted. A series of laws and court decisions attempted to protect Indian lands from encroachment, and declared that only the federal government could buy Indian land, but in the end hunger for land and resources trumped governmental regulations every time. In the long run, the United States government’s policies were not much different from those of King George, and not much more effective.