In another installment of #TrentonTuesday, we look at the desperate situation George Washington found himself at in December of 1776. With the Delaware River serving as a barrier between his army and the British and Hessians, Washington was hoping to stave off the entire dissolution of the army. He had already seen his army melt away from over 23,000 to just about 5,000 soldiers due to battle casualties, disease, and desertion. By January 1, 1777, the enlistments of many of those remaining soldiers would be up, and he would lose the basic core of his army. Washington wrote on December 18 to his brother John Washington about how his army had “less than 3,000 men fit for duty owing to the dissolution of our force by short enlistments—the enemies numbers by the best accounts exceeding ten, and by others 12,000 men.” He added that “between you and me I think our affairs are in a very bad way.”
He needed to recruit more soldiers. In the same letter to his brother, Washington wrote that “In a word my dear Sir, if every nerve is not strained to recruit the new army with all possible expedition I think the game is pretty near up.” Here was the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army writing that war was nearly lost.
Washington even feared for his personal safety and that of his home Mount Vernon in Virginia. In a letter to his cousin and caretaker at Mount Vernon, Lund Washington, he wrote directions to begin evacuating things at his home. Washington wrote on December 17: “I would look forward to unfavorable events, and prepare accordingly in such a manner however as to give no alarm or suspicion to any one; as one step towards it, have my papers in such a situation as to remove at a short notice in case an enemy’s fleet should come up the River—When they are removed let them go immediately to my brother’s in Berkeley [present day West Virginia].”
Washington was far from the only one to have such a dismal view of the American situation. Congress itself seemed to think the cause of independence a lost one. The Continental Congress fled the city of Philadelphia to Baltimore, and Philadelphia was placed under martial law. As Congress packed its bags on December 12, it gave Washington “full power to order and direct all things relative to the department and the operations of war.” Later that month it gave him power to recruit an entirely new army as well.
Washington now had an unprecedented amount of power—too much power in the minds of many patriots, who believed the very reason they were fighting the war was to liberate themselves from the tyranny of an authoritarian monarch. Washington, though, understanding this, was careful wielding this heavy power. Washington could have used this power to recruit an army loyal to Washington himself and could have used it to his own ends. Instead, he acted with the nation and its liberties in mind. Washington, intently aware of the dangers of this power, informed Congress “instead of thinking myself free from all civil obligations by this mark of their confidence, I shall constantly bear in mind that as the sword was the last resort for the preservation of our liberties, so it ought to be the first thing laid aside when those liberties are firmly established.” The future of the nation, though, was now inexorably linked to Washington and his actions for better or for worse.
Despite his anxiety, Washington still saw hope for the country, supported by his belief in the cause. He wrote his brother: “You can form no idea of the perplexity of my situation. No man, I believe, ever had a greater choice of difficulties and less means to extricate himself from them. However under a full persuasion of the justice of our Cause I cannot entertain an idea that it will finally sink though it may remain for some time under a cloud.”
This November, join Emerging Revolutionary War for our bus tour as we go to see the spots where Washington felt this immense pressure and where he ultimately made some of the boldest moves of the war that changed the course of American history.