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Howe, "that the powers I am invested with were never calculated to negotiate a reunion with America, under any other description than as subject to the crown of Great Britain. But I do esteem these powers competent, not only to confer and negotiate with any gentlemen of influence in the colonies upon the terms, but also to effect a lasting peace and reunion between the two countries, were the tempers of the colonies such as professed in the last petition of Congress to the king.'
A hope of the kind lingered in the breast of his lordship when he sought the proposed conference. It was to take place on the 11th, at a house on Staten Island opposite to Amboy; at which latter place the veteran Mercer was stationed with his flying camp. At Amboy the committee found Lord Howe's barge waiting to receive them; with a British officer of rank, who was to remain within the American lines during their absence, as a hostage. This guarantee of safety was promptly declined, and the parties crossed together to Staten Island. The admiral met them on their landing, and conducted them through his guards to his house.
On opening the conference, his lordship again intimated that he could not treat with them as a committee of Congress, but only confer with them as private gentlemen of influence in the colonies on the means of restoring peace between the two countries.
The commissioners replied that as their business was to hear, he might consider them in what light he pleased; but that they should consider themselves in no other character than that in which they were placed by order of Congress.
*Franklin's Writings, v. 103.
Lord Howe then entered into a discourse of considerable length, but made no explicit proposition of peace, nor promise of redress of grievances, excepting on condition that the colonies should return to their allegiance.
This, the commissioners replied, was not now to be expected. Their repeated humble petitions to the king and Parliament having been treated with contempt, and answered by additional injuries, and war having been declared against them, the colonies had declared their independence, and it was not in the power of Congress to agree for them that they should return to their former dependent state."
His lordship expressed his sorrow that no accommodation was likely to take place; and, on breaking up the conference, assured his old friend, Dr. Franklin, that he should suffer great pain in being obliged to distress those for whom he had so much regard.
"I feel thankful to your lordship for your regard," replied Franklin, good-humoredly; "the Americans, on their part, will endeavor to lessen the pain you may feel by taking good care of themselves."
The result of this conference had a beneficial effect. It showed that his lordship had no power but what was given by the act of Parliament; and put an end to the popular notion that he was vested with secret powers to negotiate an adjustment of grievances.
* Report of the Comm. to Congress, Sept. 13, 1776.
Movements of the Enemy-Councils of War-Question of the Abandonment of the City-Distribution of the Army-Ships in the East River-The Enemy at Hell Gate-Skirmish at Turtle Bay-Panic of the Connecticut Militia-Rage and Personal Peril of Washington-Putnam's Perilous Retreat from the City -British Regale at Murray Hill
SINCE the retreat from Brooklyn, Washington had narrowly watched the movements of the enemy to discover their further plans. Their whole force, excepting about four thousand men, had been transferred from Staten to Long Island. A great part was encamped on the peninsula between Newtown Inlet and Flushing Bay. A battery had been thrown up near the extremity of the peninsula, to check an American battery at Horen's Hook opposite, and to command the mouth of Harlem River. Troops were subsequently stationed on the islands about Hell Gate. "It is evident," writes Washington, "the enemy mean to inclose us on the island of New York, by taking post in our rear, while the shipping secures the front, and thus by cutting off our communication with the country oblige us to fight them on their own terms, or surrender at discretion; or by a brilliant stroke endeavor to cut this army in pieces, and secure the collection of arms and stores, which, they well know, we shall not be able soon to replace.
The question was, how could their plans be most success
*Letter to the President of Congress.
fully opposed? On every side he saw a choice of difficulties; every measure was to be formed with some apprehension that all the troops would not do their duty. History, experience, the opinion of able friends in Europe, the fears of the enemy, even the declarations of Congress, all concurred in demonstrating that the war on the American side should be defensive; a war of posts; that, on all occasions, a general action should be avoided, and nothing put at risk unnecessarily. "With these views," said Washington, "and being fully persuaded that it would be presumption to draw out our young troops into open ground against their superiors, both in number and discipline, I have never spared the spade and pickax."
In a council of war, held on the 7th of September, the question was discussed, whether the city should be defended or evacuated. All admitted that it would not be tenable, should it be cannonaded and bombarded. Several of the council, among whom was General Putnam, were for a total and immediate removal from the city; urging that one part of the army might be cut off before the other could support it; the extremities being at least sixteen miles apart; and the whole, when collected, being inferior to the enemy. By removing, they would deprive the enemy of the advantage of their ships; they would keep them at bay; put nothing at hazard; keep the army together to be recruited another year, and preserve the unspent stores and the heavy artillery. Washington himself inclined to this opinion. Others, however, were unwilling to abandon a place which had been fortified with great cost and labor, and seemed defensible; and which, by some, had been considered the key to the northern country; it might dispirit the troops and enfeeble the cause. General Mercer, who was prevented by illness
from attending the council, communicated his opinion by letter. "We should keep New York if possible," said he, "as the acquiring of it will give eclat to the arms of Great Britain, afford the soldiers good quarters, and furnish a safe harbor for the fleet."
General Greene, also, being still unwell, conveyed his opinion in a letter to Washington, dated September 5th. He advised that the army should abandon the city and island, and post itself at King's Bridge and along the Westchester shore. That there was no object to be obtained by holding any position below King's Bridge. The enemy might throw troops on Manhattan Island from their camps on Long Island, and their ships on the Hudson, and form an intrenched line across it between the city and the middle division of the army, and support the two flanks of the line by their shipping. In such case it would be necessary to fight them on disadvantageous terms, or submit.
The city and island, he observed, were objects not to be put in competition with the general interests of America. Two-thirds of the city and suburbs belonged to tories; there was no great reason, therefore, to run any considerable risk in its defense. The honor and interests of America required a general and speedy retreat. But as the enemy, once in possession, could never be dislodged without a superior naval force; as the place would furnish them with excellent winter quarters and barrack room and an abundant market, he advised to burn both city and suburbs before retreating.*
Well might the poor, harassed citizens feel hysterical, threatened as they were by sea and land, and their very defenders debating the policy of burning their houses over their
* Force's Am. Archives, 5th Series, ii. 182.