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"I am by no means insensible to the situation of the people on the coast. I wish I could extend protection to all, but the numerous detachments necessary to remedy the evil would amount to a dissolution of the army, or make the most important operations of the campaign depend upon the piratical expeditions of two or three men-of-war and transports.
His refusal to grant the required detachments gave much dissatisfaction in some quarters, until sanctioned and enforced by the Continental Congress. All at length saw and acquiesced in the justice and wisdom of his decision. It was in fact a vital question, involving the whole character and fortune of the war; and it was acknowledged that he met it with a forecast and determination befitting a commander-in-chief.
WASHINGTON'S OBJECT IN
SICKNESS IN THE TOWN A STARTLING DISCOVERY
THE great object of Washington at present, was to force the enemy to come out of Boston and try a decisive action. His lines had for some time cut off all communication of the town with the country, and he had caused the live stock within a considerable distance of the place to be driven back from the coast, out of reach of the men-of-war's boats. Fresh provisions and vegetables were consequently growing more and more scarce and extravagantly dear, and sickness began to prevail. "I have done and shall do every thing in my power to distress them," writes he to his brother John Augustine. "The transports have all arrived, and their whole re-enforcement is landed, so that I see no reason why they should not, if they ever attempt it, come boldly out and put the matter to issue at once."
"We are in the strangest state in the world," writes a lady from Boston, "surrounded on all sides. The whole country is in arms and intrenched. We are deprived of fresh provisions, subject to continual alarms and cannonadings, the Provincials being very audacious and advancing to our lines, since the arrival of Generals Washington aud Lee to command them."
At this critical juncture, when Washington was pressing the siege, and endeavoring to provoke a general action, a startling fact came to light; the whole amount of powder in the camp would not furnish more than nine cartridges to a man!1
A gross error had been made by the committee of supplies when Washington, on taking command, had required a return of the ammunition. They had returned the whole amount of powder collected by the province, upward of three hundred barrels; without stating what had been expended. The blunder was detected on an order being issued for a new supply of cartridges. It was found that there were but thirty-two barrels of powder in store.
This was an astounding discovery. Washington instantly despatched letters and expresses to Rhode Island, the Jerseys, Ticonderoga and elsewhere, urging immediate supplies of powder and lead, no quantity, however small, to be considered beneath notice. In a letter to Governor Cooke of Rhode Island, he suggested that an armed vessel of that province might be sent to seize upon a magazine of gunpowder, said to be in a remote part of the Island of Bermuda. "I am very sensible," writes he," that at first view the project may appear hazardous, and its success must depend on the concurrence of many circumstances; but we are in a situation which requires us to run all risks. . . . Enterprises which appear chimerical, often prove successful from that very circumstance. Common sense and prudence will suggest vigilance and care, where the danger is plain and obvious; but where little danger is apprehended, the more the enemy will be unprepared, and, consequently, there is the fairest prospect of success.'
Day after day elapsed without the arrival of any supplies; for in these irregular times, the munitions of war were not readily procured. It seemed hardly possible that the matter could be kept concealed from the enemy. Their works on Bunker's Hill commanded a full view of those of the Americans on Winter and Prospect Hill. Each camp could see what was passing in the other. The sentries were almost near enough to converse. There was furtive intercourse occasionally between the men. In this critical state, the American camp remained for a fortnight; the anxious commander incessantly apprehending an attack. At length a partial supply from the Jerseys put an end to this imminent risk. Washington's secretary, Reed, who had been the confidant of his troubles and anxieties, gives a vivid
1 Letter to the President of Congress, August 4.
expression of his feelings on the arrival of this relief. "I can hardly look back without shuddering at our situation before this increase of our stock. Stock did I say? it was next to nothing. Almost the whole powder of the army was in the cartridge-boxes."
It is thought that, considering the clandestine intercourse carried on between the two camps, intelligence of this deficiency of ammunition on the part of the besiegers must have been conveyed to the British commander, but that the bold face with which the Americans continued to maintain their position, made him discredit it.
Notwithstanding the supply from the Jerseys, there was not more powder in camp than would serve the artillery for one day of general action. None, therefore, was allowed to be wasted; the troops were even obliged to bear in silence an occasional cannonading. "Our poverty in ammunition," writes Washington, "prevents our making a suitable return.'
One of the painful circumstances attending the outbreak of a revolutionary war is, that gallant men, who have held allegiance to the same government, and fought side by side under the same flag, suddenly find themselves in deadly conflict with each other. Such was the case at present in the hostile camps. General Lee, it will be recollected, had once served under General Burgoyne, in Portugal, and had won his brightest laurels when detached by that commander to surprise the Spanish camp, near the Moorish castle of Villa Velha. A soldier's friendship had ever since existed between them, and when Lee had heard at Philadelphia, before he had engaged in the American service, that his old comrade and commander was arrived at Boston, he wrote a letter to him giving his own views on the points in dispute between the colonies and the mother country, and inveighing with his usual vehemence and sarcastic point, against the conduct of the court and ministry. Before sending the letter, he submitted it to the Boston delegates and other members of Congress, and received their sanction.
Since his arrival in camp he had received a reply from Burgoyne, couched in moderate and courteous language, and proposing an interview at a designated house on Boston Neck, within the British sentries; mutual pledges to be given for each other's safety.
Lee submitted this letter to the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, and requested their commands with respect to
1 Reed to Thomas Bradford. Life and Correspondence, vol. i.,
the proposed interview. They expressed, in reply, the highest confidence in his wisdom, discretion and integrity, but questioned whether the interview might not be regarded by the public with distrust; "a people contending for their liberties being naturally disposed to jealousy." They suggested, therefore, as a means of preventing popular misconception, that Lee on seeking the interview, should be accompanied by Mr. Elbridge Gerry; or that the advice of a council of war should be taken in a matter of such apparent delicacy.
Lee became aware of the surmises that might be awakened by the proposed interview, and wrote a friendly note to Burgoyne declining it.
A correspondence of a more important character took place between Washington and General Gage. It was one intended to put the hostile services on a proper footing. A strong disposition had been manifested among the British officers to regard those engaged in the patriot cause as malefactors, outlawed from the courtesies of chivalric warfare. Washington was determined to have a full understanding on this point. He was peculiarly sensitive with regard to Gage. They had been companions in arms in their early days; but Gage might now affect to look down upon him as the chief of a rebel army. Washington took an early opportunity to let him know, that he claimed to be the commander of a legitimate force, engaged in a legitimate cause, and that both himself and his army were to be treated on a footing of perfect equality. The correspondence arose from the treatment of several American officers.
"I understand," writes Washington to Gage, "that the officers engaged in the cause of liberty and their country, who by the fortune of war have fallen into your hands, have been thrown indiscriminately into a common jail, appropriated to felons; that no consideration has been had for those of the most respectable rank, when languishing with wounds and sickness, and that some have been amputated in this unworthy situation. Let your opinion, sir, of the principles which actuate them, be what it may, they suppose that they act from the noblest of all principles, love of freedom and their country. But political principles, I conceive, are foreign to this point. The obligations arising from the rights of humanity and claims. of rank are universally binding and extensive, except in case of retaliation. These, I should have hoped, would have dictated a more tender treatment of those individuals whom chance or
war had put in your power. Nor can I forbear suggesting its fatal tendency to widen that unhappy breach which you, and
those ministers under whom you act, have repeatedly declared your wish to see forever closed. My duty now makes it necessary to apprise you that, for the future, I shall regulate, all my conduct toward those gentlemen who are, or may be, in our possession, exactly by the rule you shall observe toward those of ours, now in your custody.
"If severity and hardships mark the line of your conduct, painful as it may be to me, your prisoners will feel its effects. But if kindness and humanity are shown to us I shall with pleasure consider those in our hands only as unfortunate and they shall receive from me that treatment to which the unfortunate are ever entitled."
The following are the essential parts of a letter from General Gage in reply.
"SIR, To the glory of civilized nations, humanity and war have been compatible, and humanity to the subdued has become almost a general system. Britons, ever pre-eminent in mercy, have outgone common examples, and overlooked the criminal in the captive. Upon these principles your prisoners, whose lives by the law of the land are destined to the cord, have hitherto been treated with care and kindness, and more comfortably lodged than the King's troops in the hospitals; indiscriminately it is true, for I acknowledge no rank that is not derived from the King.
My intelligence from your army would justify severe recriminations. I understand there are of the King's faithful subjects, taken some time since by the rebels, laboring like negro slaves to gain their daily subsistence, or reduced to the wretched alternative to perish by famine or take arms against their King and country. Those who have made the treatment of the prisoners in my hands, or of your other friends in Boston, a pretence for such measures, found barbarity upon falsehood.
"I would willingly hope, sir, that the sentiments of liberality which I have always believed you to possess, will be exerted to correct these misdoings. Be temperate in political disquisition ; give free operation to truth, and punish those who deceive and misrepresent; and not only the effects, but the cause, of this unhappy conflict will be removed. Should those, under whose usurped authority you act, control such a disposition, and dare to call severity retaliation, to God, who knows all hearts, be the appeal of the dreadful consequences," etc.
There were expressions in the foregoing letter well calculated to rouse indignant feelings in the most temperate bosom. Had Washington been as readily moved to transports of passion as