Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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By Judy Leithe 

The British Army, under General William Howe, had occupied the American Capital of Philadelphia, from the fall of 1777 through the spring of 1778, causing the Continental Congress to flee to the safety of York, Pennsylvania.  Howe and his officers took over the most exclusive homes in the city and lived in luxury, while the rest of the city was ravaged by the rank and file British soldiers. 

In the meantime at Valley Forge, General Washington's army was receiving intense military training by the highly-disciplined, Baron von Steuben.  No army could match the minutemens' independent spirit, loyalty, and accuracy with their long-rifles.  Now, they could perform with the precision of a well-trained military force. 

By May, word reached Washington, as well as the British, that the French Parliament had declared their alliance with the American cause -- although tangible assistance wouldn't arrive until mid-summer.  However, the British immediately realized that their vast fleet of war ships would be challenged by the French Navy, both at sea, as well as by what their long-time enemy would now be supplying the Americans in terms of artillery, soldiers and, funding.

In his definitive biography of George Washington, "Washington -- A Life," Ron Chernow gives an example of the Culper Spy Ring's intricate detective work, which helped Washington interpret various British movements: 

On June 16 Washington received a clue that the British stood on the verge of leaving Philadelphia: (the officers) have asked for the immediate return of their clothing from the laundry.  Two days later, ten thousand British and Hessian troops began shuffling across New Jersey toward New York, slowed by a baggage train of fifteen hundred wagons that stretched for twelve miles. 

On June 18, 1778, within hours of the British evacuation of Philadelphia, General Benedict Arnold and his troops reclaimed the city, which allowed the Continental Congress to return to the U.S. Capital, as well.  Because of his two prior leg wounds, which left him with a noticeable limp, Arnold had appealed to Washington for a new assignment -- that of Military Governor of Philadelphia.  In his new role, Arnold wasted no time taking part in the lavish social scene of the elite, while his Commander, General Washington, led his army out of Valley Forge in pursuit of the departing British Army.

Washington's second in command had been General Charles Lee, who foolishly allowed himself to be captured by the British in December of 1776.  While in captivity, Lee apparently ridiculed Washington's leadership and, shared strategic military information with his captors, in exchange for comfortable lodgings.  Washington had been aware of Lee's inflated ego, but this treasonous behavior was unknown to him.  In the spring of 1778, word came of Lee's release from prison.  Always attentive to decorum, Washington rode out to meet him, and the two generals rode into the Valley Forge camp together. 

As the plan was laid out to track down and engage the British as they marched toward New York, Lee first declined to lead an advance corps of 6,000 men into battle.  However, when Washington chose twenty-year-old, Major General Lafayette to take his place; Lee, fearing losing his position to a junior officer, decided to participate in the attack, whereupon, Washington divided the unit into two parts, to be led by each officer. 

On the morning of June 19th, the Continental Army began taking their leave of Valley Forge.  There was an unmistakable sense of gratitude and esteem emanating from General Washington, as he inspected his army as they marched smartly to the cadence of fifes and drums.  Without radios or phones, music was the only way of communicating with large armies on the move. 

Washington's generals, filled with pride over their re-trained troops, were eager to confront the British; among them, the ever-pugnacious, Major General "Mad Anthony" Wayne, upon whose leadership Washington could rely.  Conversely, at the point of engagement with the British, General Lee's commands to his troops were confusing and caused them to think he wanted them to retreat.

As Washington encountered some of Lee's men as they fled, he ordered them to stand by and wait to regroup with the rest of their unit.  When Washington said to the soldiers, "Can you fight?" they responded with resounding cheers.

When Lee rode up, Washington shouted, "What is the meaning of this, sir?"  Lee stammered that he thought the troops weren't able to stand against the British.  This comment enraged Washington, who replied, "You damned poltroon!  They are able, and by God, they shall do it."

The Battle of Monmouth, the largest and fiercest battle of the Revolution, claimed hundreds of lives on both sides.  Many soldiers also perished from the relentless heat, including Washington's horse, which collapsed underneath him.  By nightfall, it was clear to the British Commander, Henry Clinton, that, even though he had a larger army, the Americans were causing too much damage to his troops, who were too exhausted to continue to fight.  Washington also recognized that his men were spent so, he decided not to push them into pursuing the British the next day.  Both sides had a sense of victory, while the battle was considered a draw.