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Washington's war

"Washington's war" Continued...

Issue: "The Road to Cana," Feb. 23, 2008

Washington's dogged generalship, in comparison with British sloth, again made a difference eight days after the battle of Trenton, when Lord Charles Cornwallis' army pinned Washington's forces against the Delaware River. Cornwallis liked his relaxation and is reputed to have said, "We've got the old fox safe now. We'll go over and bag him in the morning." During the night the American army slipped around the British left flank and was able to rout a British regiment at Princeton.

The following winter, though, was snow-full and victory-less. At Valley Forge in 1777-78, few soldiers had coats, half were without blankets, and more than a third were without shoes. The winter of 1779-80 in Morristown, New Jersey, was even worse. Hungry men surrounded by snow at one point had rations only one-eighth of the normal amount. Finances also were a problem. Rarely during the war were Washington's men paid on time or in full.

And yet, most did not give up. When he furloughed militia soldiers to go home to harvest crops, enough came back to hold the British at bay year after year. Washington, it turned out, was the ideal leader for an army of volunteers: Some who wanted to leave stayed on so as to avoid disappointing him. When others were depressed, Washington buoyed them with his faith that "a superintending Providence is ordering everything for the best . . . in due time all will end well." In 1779, as the war wore on, he bucked up himself: "I hope I shall always possess a sufficient degree of fortitude to bear without murmuring any stroke which may happen."

That fortitude looms even larger when we look at Washington's opponents. Gen. Sir William Howe, based in New York, commanded the main British army through much of the war. He showed little interest in moving to attack Washington, in part because he was absorbed with his mistress, Elizabeth Loring, the wife of a British commissary officer who sought promotion. Worried American Tories even circulated a song: "Awake, arouse, Sir Billy, / There's forage on the plain. / Ah, leave your little filly, / And open the campaign." But Howe waited.

If we follow the chain of command back across the Atlantic, differences between Washington and the lords of London become even more evident. John Montagu, the First Lord of the Admiralty, had a live-in lover, Martha Ray. Entranced with her also was a young ensign, James Hackman, who shot her in the face when she refused to elope with him. Montagu, informed of her death as the British were beginning the campaign that ended in their defeat at Yorktown, flung himself on his bed and cried, "Leave me alone, I could have borne anything but this!"

Contempt for Montagu became open in London as the war wore on. Charles Churchill described him best in the third act of his play, The Duellist: Montagu was "Too infamous to have a friend, / Too bad for bad men to commend." Journalists frequently portrayed Montagu as mixing Admiralty business with personal interest. One satirist had Montagu saying "enchanting devil" as he watched a young woman leave his office, and then immediately turning his attention back to the bribes he used to sustain his sugar-daddy habits: "I must now to business; and try to raise a sum, by advancing some worthless scoundrel over the head of a hundred men of merit."

Montagu's womanizing also affected his relations with officials who reported to him. He made one mediocre officer, James Gambier, a rear admiral; Gambier had pimped for him and threatened blackmail. Some talented officers resigned because, as Captain John Leveson-Gower put it, Montagu "never had any decency." According to the Dictionary of National Biography, "many officers of character and ability . . . refused to accept a command while he remained at the admiralty."

British Secretary of State George Sackville-Germain was responsible for the land war against the Americans, yet he was a homosexual often more preoccupied with his own affairs than with military matters. For example, the British plan for 1777 was to send one army south from Canada and one north from New York City, with a meeting up the Hudson River that would supposedly cut off New England from the other colonies. But Sackville-Germain made a crucial error because of his desire to get into bed with a lover: He hurried off to a country weekend after signing the dispatches to be sent to Canada but not those to New York, and they never were sent.

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