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LEE AT PEEKSKILL STANCH ADHERENCE OF HEATH. TO ORDERS
LEE CROSSES THE HUDSON WASHINGTON AT TRENTON LEE AT THE HEELS OF THE ENEMY HIS SPECULATIONS ON MILITARY GREATNESS FORCED MARCH OF CORNWALLIS PUTNAM IN COMMAND
WASHINGTON CROSSES THE DELAWARE
AT PHILADELPHIA — BAFFLING LETTERS OF LEE RECONQUER THE JERSEYS GATES ON THE MARCH QUARTERED AT BASKINGRIDGE SURPRISED AND CAPTURED SPECULATIONS ON HIS CONDUCT.
NOTWITHSTANDING the repeated and pressing orders and entreaties of the commander-in-chief, Lee did not reach Peekskill until the 30th of November. In a letter of that date to Washington, who had complained of his delay, he simply alleged difficulties, which he would explain when both had leisure. His scheme to entrap Rogers, the renegade, had failed; the old Indian hunter had been too much on the alert ; he boasted, however, to have rendered more service by his delay, than he would have done had he moved sooner. His forces were thereby augmented, so that he expected to enter the Jerseys with four thousand firm and willing men, who would make a very important diversion.
"The day after to-morrow," added he, "we shall pass the river, when I should be glad to receive your instructions; but I could wish you would bind me as little as possible; not from any opinion, I do assure you, of my own parts, but from a persuasion that detached generals cannot have too great latitude, unless they are very incompetent indeed.”
Lee had calculated upon meeting no further difficulty in obtaining men from Heath. He rode to that general's quarters in the evening, and was invited by him to alight and take tea. On entering the house, Lee took Heath aside, and alluding to his former refusal to supply troops as being inconsistent with the orders of the commander-in-chief, "in point of law," said he, "you are right, but in point of policy I think you are wrong. I am going into the Jerseys for the salvation of America; I wish to take with me a larger force than I now have, and request you to order two thousand of your men to march with me."
Heath answered that he could not spare that number. He
was then asked to order one thousand; to which he replied, that the business might be as well brought to a point at once. that not a single man should march from the post by his order. "Then," exclaimed Lee, 'I will order them myself." "That makes a wide difference," rejoined Heath. You are my senior, but I have received positive written instructions from him who is superior to us both, and I will not myself break those orders." In proof of his words, Heath produced the recent letter received from Washington, repeating his former orders that no troops should be removed from that post. Lee glanced over the letter. "The commander-in-chief is now at a distance, and does not know what is necessary here so well as I do." He asked a sight of the return book of the division. It was brought by Major Huntington, the deputy adjutant-general. Lee ran his eye over it, and chose two regiments. "You will order them to march early to-morrow morning to join me," said he to the major. Heath, ruffling with the pride of military law, turned to the major with an air of authority. "Issue such orders at your peril!" exclaimed he then addressing Lee, Sir," said he, "if you come to this post, and mean to issue orders here which will break the positive ones I have received, I pray you do it completely yourself, and through your own deputy adjutant-general who is present, and not draw me or any of my family in as partners in the guilt."
"It is right," said Lee;"Colonel Scammel, do you issue the order." It was done accordingly; but Heath's punctilious scruples were not yet satisfied. I have one more request to make, sir," said he to Lee," and that is, that you will be pleased to give me a certificate that you exercise command at this post, and order from it these regiments."
Lee hesitated to comply, but George Clinton, who was present, told him he could not refuse a request so reasonable. He accordingly wrote, "For the satisfaction of General Heath, and at his request, I do certify that I am commanding officer, at this present writing, in this post, and that I have, in that capacity, ordered Prescott's and Wyllis's regiments to march.”
Heath's military punctilio was satisfied, and he smoothed his ruffled plumes. Early the next morning the regiments moved from their cantonments ready to embark, when Lee again rode up to his door. Upon further consideration," said he, "I have concluded not to take the two regiments with me you may order them to return to their former post."
This conduct of General Lee," adds Heath in his memoirs, "appeared not a little extraordinary, and one is almost at a loss
to account for it. He had been a soldier from his youth, had a perfect knowledge of service in all its branches, but was rather obstinate in his temper, and could scarcely brook being crossed in any thing in the line of his profession.'
It was not until the 4th of December, that Lee crossed the Hudson and began a laggard march, though aware of the imminent peril of Washington and his army how different from the celerity of his movements in his expedition to the South!
In the mean time, Washington, who was at Trenton, had profited by a delay of the enemy at Brunswick, and removed most of the stores and baggage of the army across the Delaware; and, being re-enforced by fifteen hundred of the Pennsylvania militia, procured by Mifflin, prepared to face about, and march back to Princeton with such of his troops as were fit for service, there to be governed by circumstances, and the movements of General Lee. Accordingly, on the 5th of December he sent about twelve hundred men in the advance, to re-enforce Lord Stirling, and the next day set off himself with the residue.
"The general has gone forward to Princeton," writes Colonel Reed, "where there are about three thousand men, with which, I fear, he will not be able to make any stand.” 2
While on the march, Washington received a letter from Greene, who was at Princeton, informing him of a report that Lee was at the heels of the enemy." "I should think," adds Greene," he had better keep on the flanks than the rear, unless it were possible to concert an attack at the same instant of time in front and rear. . . . I think General Lee must be confined within the lines of some general plan, or else his operations will be independent of yours. His own troops, General St. Clair's, and the militia, must form a respectable army."
Lee had no idea of conforming to a general plan; he had an independent plan of his own, and was at that moment at Pom ton, indulging speculations on military greatness, and ti lamentable want of it in his American contemporaries. In a letter from that place to Governor Cooke of Rhode Island, he imparts his notions on the subject. Theory joined to practice, or a heaven-born genius, can alone constitute a general. As to the latter, God Almighty indulges the modern world very rarely with the spectacle; and I do not know, from what I have seen, that he has been more profuse of this ethereal spirit to the Americans than to other nations."
While Lee was thus loitering and speculating, Cornwallis,
1 The above scene is given almost literally from General Heath's Memoirs.
2 Reed to the President of Congress.
knowing how far he was in the rear, and how weak was the situation of Washington's army, and being himself strongly reenforced, made a forced march from Brunswick, and was within two miles of Princeton. Stirling, to avoid being surrounded, immediately set out with two brigades for Trenton. Washing ton, too, receiving intelligence by express of these movements, hastened back to that place, and caused boats to be collected from all quarters, and the stores and troops transported across the Delaware. He himself crossed with the rear-guard on Sunday morning, and took up his quarters about a mile from the river; causing the boats to be destroyed, and troops to be posted opposite the fords. He was conscious, however, as he said, that with his small force he could make no great opposition, should the enemy bring boats with them. Fortunately they did not come thus provided.
The rear-guard, says an American account, had barely crossed the river, when Lord Cornwallis "came marching down with all the pomp of war, in great expectation of getting boats, and immediately pursuing." Not one was to be had there or elsewhere; for Washington had caused the boats, for an extent of seventy miles up and down the river, to be secured on the right His lordship was effectually brought to a stand. He made some moves with two columns, as if he would cross the Delaware above and below, either to push on to Philadelphia, or to entrap Washington in the acute angle made by the bend of the river opposite Bordentown. An able disposition of American troops along the upper part of the river, and of a number of galleys below, discouraged any attempt of the kind. Cornwallis, therefore, gave up the pursuit, distributed the German troops in cantonments along the left bank of the river, and stationed his main force at Brunswick, trusting to be able before long to cross the Delaware on the ice.
On the 8th, Washington wrote to the President of Congress: "There is not a moment's time to be lost in assembling such a force as can be collected, as the object of the enemy cannot now be doubted in the smallest degree. Indeed, I shall be out in my conjecture, for it is only conjecture, if the late embarkation at New York is not for Delaware River, to co-operate with the army under General Howe, who, I am informed from good authority, is with the British troops, and his whole force upon this route. I have no certain intelligence of General Lee, although I have sent expresses to him, and lately a Colonel Humpton, to bring me some accurate accounts of his situation. I last night despatched another gentleman to him (Major
Hoops), desiring he would hasten his march to the Delaware, on which I would provide boats near a place called Alexandria, for the transportation of his troops. I cannot account for the slowness of his march."
In further letters to Lee, Washington urged the peril of Philadelphia. "Do come on," writes he; your arrival may be fortunate, and, if it can be effected without delay, it may be the means of preserving a city, whose loss must prove of the most fatal consequence to the cause of America."
Putnam was now detached to take command of Philadelphia, and put it in a state of defence, and General Mifflin to have charge of the munitions of war deposited there. By their advice Congress hastily adjourned on the 12th of December, to meet again on the 20th, at Baltimore.
Washington's whole force at this time was about five thousand five hundred men; one thousand of them Jersey militia, fifteen hundred militia from Philadelphia, and a battalion of five hundred of the German yeomanry of Pennsylvania. Gates, however, he was informed, was coming on with seven regiments detached by Schuyler from the Northern department; re-enforced by these, and the troops under Lee, he hoped to be able to attempt a stroke upon the enemy's forces, which lay a good deal scattered, and to all appearances, in a state of security. “A lucky blow in this quarter," writes he, "would be fatal to them, and would most certainly raise the spirits of the people, which are quite sunk by our late misfortunes." 1
While cheering himself with these hopes, and trusting to speedy aid from Lee, that wayward commander, though nearly three weeks had elapsed since he had received Washington's orders and entreaties to join him with all possible despatch, was no farther on his march than Morristown, in the Jerseys; where, with militia recruits, his force was about four thousand men. In a letter written by him on the 8th of December to a committee of Congress, he says: "If I was not taught to think the army with General Washington had been considerably re-enforced, I should immediately join him; but as I am assured he is very strong, I should imagine we can make a better impression by beating up and harassing their detached parties in their rear, for which purpose, a good post at Chatham seems the best calculated. It is a happy distance from Newark, Elizabethtown, Woodbridge and Bour.cbrook. We shall, I expect, annoy, distract, and consequently weaken them in a desultory war.'
1 Washington to Governor Trumbull, 14th December.