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It is worth while to pause a moment and compare this battle with the rout of Long Island, the surprise at the Brandywine, and the fatal unsteadiness at Germantown. Here, too, a check was received at the outset, owing to blundering which no one could have foreseen. The troops, confused and without orders, began to retreat, but without panic or disorder. The moment Washington appeared they rallied, returned to the field, showed perfect steadiness, and the victory was won. Monmouth has never been one of the famous battles of the Revolution, and yet there is no other which can compare with it as an illustration of Washington's ability as a soldier. It was not so much the way in which it was fought, although that was fine enough, but its importance lies in the evidence which it gives of the way in which Washington, after a series of defeats, during a winter of terrible suffering and privation, had yet developed his ragged volunteers into a well-disciplined and effective army. The battle was a victory, but the existence and the quality of the army that won it were a far greater triumph.
The dreary winter at Valley Forge had indeed borne fruit. With a slight numerical superiority Washington had fought the British in the open field, and fairly defeated them. "Clinton gained no advantage," said the great Frederic, "except to reach New York with the wreck of his army; America is probably lost for England." Another year had passed, and England had lost an army,
and still held what she had before, the city of New York. Washington was in the field with a better army than ever, and an army flushed with a victory which had been achieved after difficulties and trials that no one now can rightly picture or describe. The American Revolution was advancing, held firm by the master-hand of its leader. Into it, during these days of struggle and of battle, a new element had come, and the next step is to see how "Washington dealt with the fresh conditions upon which the great conflict had entered.
On May 4th, 1778, Congress ratified the treaties of commerce and alliance with France. On the 6th, Washington, waiting at Valley Forge for the British to start from Philadelphia, caused his army, drawn out on parade, to celebrate the great event with cheers and with salvos of artillery and musketry. The alliance deserved cheers and celebration, for it marked a long step onward in the Revolution. It showed that America had demonstrated to Europe that she could win independence, and it had been proved to the traditional enemy of England that the time had come when it would be profitable to help the revolted colonies. But the alliance brought troubles as well as blessings in its train. It induced a relaxation in popular energy, and carried with it new and difficult problems for the commander-in-chief. The successful management of allies, and of allied forces, had been one of the severest tests of the statesmanship of William III., and had constituted one of the principal glories of Marlborough. A similar problem now confronted the American general.
Washington was free from the diplomatic and
political portion of the business, but the military and popular part fell wholly into his hands, and demanded the exercise of talents entirely different from those of either a general or an administrator. It has been not infrequently written more or less plainly, and it is constantly said, that Washington was great in character, but that in brains he was not far above the commonplace. It is even hinted sometimes that the father of his country was a dull man, a notion which we shall have occasion to examine more fully further on. At this point let the criticism be remembered merely in connection with the fact that to cooperate with allies in military matters demands tact, quick perception, firmness, and patience. In a word, it is a task which calls for the finest and most highly trained intellectual powers, and of which the difficulty is enhanced a thousandfold when the allies were, on the one side, an old, aristocratic, punctilious people, and on the other, colonists utterly devoid of tradition, etiquette, or fixed habits, and very much accustomed to go their own way and speak their own minds with careless freedom. With this problem Washington was obliged suddenly to deal, both in ill success and good success, as well as in many attempts which came to nothing. Let us see how he solved it at the very outset, when everything went most perversely wrong.
On July 14th he heard that D'Estaing's fleet was off the coast, and at once, without a trace of elation or excitement, he began to consider the possibility of intercepting the British fleet expected to arrive shortly from Cork. As soon as D'Estaing was within reach he sent two of his aides on board the flagship, and at once opened a correspondence with his ally. These letters of welcome, and those of suggestion which followed, are models, in their way, of what such letters ought always to be. They were perfectly adapted to satisfy the etiquette and the love of good manners of the French, and yet there was not a trace of anything like servility, or of an effusive gratitude which outran the favors granted. They combined stately courtesy with simple dignity, and are phrased with a sober grace which shows the thoroughly strong man, as capable to turn a sentence, if need be, as to rally retreating soldiers in the face of the enemy.
In this first meeting of the allies nothing happened fortunately. D'Estaing had had a long passage, and was too late to cut off Lord Howe at the Delaware. Then he turned to New York, and was too late there, and found further that he could not get his ships over the bar. Hence more delays, so that he was late again in getting to Newport, where he was to unite with Sullivan in driving the British from Bhode Island, as Washington had planned, in case of failure at New York, while the French were still hovering on the coast. When D'Estaing finally reached Newport, there was still another delay of ten days, and then, just as he and Sullivan were preparing to attack, Lord Howe, with his squadron reinforced, appeared off the harbor.