February 19, 2012


When George Washington Became Great: Those were the times that tried men's souls. (MYRON MAGNET, Winter 2012, City Journal)

Meanwhile, Congress had written new roles for him and his army, and Washington had to establish them credibly in the eyes of the British commanders he faced, including General Thomas Gage, the commander in chief and governor of Massachusetts, who had served with him in the French and Indian War 20 years earlier. Little more than a month after taking command, Washington wrote Gage that he had heard reports that American soldiers captured at Bunker Hill, even "those of the most respectable Rank, when languishing with Wounds and Sickness," had been "thrown indiscriminately, into a common Gaol appropriated for Felons." Just be aware, he wrote, that we'll treat British POWs exactly as you treat Americans. You choose: either "Severity, & Hardship" or "Kindness & Humanity." Gage replied that of course he mixed up officers and enlisted men promiscuously, "for I acknowledge no rank not derived from the king." This was the wrong response, especially to a newly minted commander in chief who, as a mere colonial officer two decades earlier, had resented having to defer to officers with less merit than he but with royal commissions.

"You affect, Sir, to despise all Rank not derived from the same Source with your own," Washington thundered back, asserting a new, democratic understanding of legitimacy and worth. "I cannot conceive any more honourable, than that which flows from the uncorrupted Choice of a brave and free People--The purest Source & original Fountain of all Power." Furthermore, you claim that you've shown "Clemency" by not hanging my men as rebels. But it remains to be seen "whether our virtuous Citizens whom the Hand of Tyranny has forced into Arms, to defend their Wives, their Children, & their Property; or the mercenary Instruments of lawless Domination, Avarice, and Revenge best deserve the Appellation of Rebels." A higher authority than you will decide. "May that God to whom you then appealed, judge between America & you!"

Lord North, the prime minister, got the point, noting that "the war is now grown to such a height that it must be treated as a foreign war." Others were slower on the uptake, and Washington had to assert his new character strenuously at least once more. When Admiral Lord Howe, the British naval commander, and his brother General William Howe, who had led the assault up Bunker Hill and then replaced Gage as commander in chief, wanted to negotiate with Washington in New York in July 1776, they sent an envoy with an invitation addressed to "George Washington Esq., etc. etc." Washington's aides wouldn't take the letter, saying that "there was no such person in the Army," and indeed, "all the world knew who Genl Washington was." Some days later, the Howes sent another message addressed to "His Excellency, General Washington," asking him to meet their envoy to discuss a parley. But when the envoy arrived at the meeting with the original, misaddressed letter, Washington refused it with frigid politeness, the gentlemanly savoir faire of which he underscored by inviting the ambassador "to partake of a small collation" before he dismissed him. "I would not upon any occasion sacrifice Essentials to Punctilio," Washington reported to John Hancock, president of Congress, "but in this Instance . . . I deemed It a duty to my Country and my appointment to insist upon . . . respect."

Good fortune as 1776 dawned finally gave Washington the means to stage a spectacular coup de théâtre in Boston. A month before Bunker Hill, Connecticut militia captain Benedict Arnold, along with Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys, had rowed across Lake Champlain to the New York side and seized the lightly manned British Fort Ticonderoga, with its rich cache of arms and ammunition. In an almost superhuman feat, Colonel Henry Knox, a hulking, 300-pound, stentorian-voiced Boston bookseller who had taught himself gunnery from his shop's stock of artillery manuals, had gone to Ticon- deroga on Washington's orders and dragged 55 mortars and cannon, weighing some 120,000 pounds, on ox-drawn sleds through 300 miles of snowy mountains and frozen rivers, presenting them to Washington on January 17. He happily discovered that Washington had acquired 2,000 muskets and two tons of ammunition, separately captured in the meantime.

Washington crowned Knox's feat with a suitably dramatic finale. Across a narrow strip of Boston Harbor and looking down upon the city from the south towered Dorchester Heights--sheer cliffs over 100 feet high (though now leveled and part of South Boston). The British had carelessly failed to occupy this territory, and if Washington could get Knox's guns up there, he would command Boston in a military checkmate. But how to do it without the British overpowering him in the process?

Out of tree trunks, poles, baskets of earth, and hay bales, Washington built portable fortifications, like a stage set. On the night of March 2, he began a deafening cannonade of Boston from various places away from Dorchester Heights, and this diversion continued incessantly through the night of the 4th, when, as a bright moon shone on the Heights but unusual warmth swathed harbor and city in fog, oxen dragged the heavy weapons and prefabricated fortifications on straw-muffled wheels up a slope frozen firm, while the diversionary bombardment masked what little noise the operation made. When the British awoke on the morning of the 5th, they found themselves pinned down under the many guns of a fortress instantly conjured up, it seemed to one British officer, by "the Genii belonging to Aladdin's Wonderful Lamp."

Both Washington and General Howe wanted to attack at once, but a fierce rainstorm and prudent second thoughts held them back. Seeing his position now untenable, Howe resolved to leave the city. He, too, tried the theatrics of a diversionary cannonade, but Washington glimpsed the "hurry, precipitation and confusion" of his preparations, and he gloated that when the British sailed away on March 17, they left behind £30,000 to £40,000 worth of cannon and provisions, he estimated, along with a wilderness of destroyed baggage wagons and artillery carriages drifting in the harbor. The town itself "has shared a much better Fate than was expected," and Washington was pleased to write Hancock that his house had "receiv'd no damage worth mentioning" and that "the family pictures are all left entire and untouch'd." As for Boston's Loyalists: "no Electric Shock--no sudden Clap of thunder--in a word the last Trump" could have "Struck them with greater Consternation" than the thought of facing "their offended Countrymen." Many fled by any vessel they could find; one or two committed suicide.

For Washington, those countrymen had universal praise for a miraculous, morale-boosting achievement. To one who called him "the savior of your country," the theatrical general replied by paraphrasing his favorite line from Addison's Cato: "To obtain the applause of deserving men is a heartfelt satisfaction, to merit it is my highest wish."
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Posted by at February 19, 2012 6:46 PM

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