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conduct towards those gentlemen who are or may be in our possession, exactly by the rule you shall observe towards those of ours now in your custody.
“ If severity and hardship 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 ours, 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.”
This is a letter worthy of a little study. The affair does not look very important now, but it went then to the roots of things ; for this letter would go out to the world, and America and the American cause would be judged by their leader. A little bluster or ferocity, any fine writing, or any absurdity, and the world would have sneered, condemned, or laughed. But no man could read this letter and fail to perceive that here was dignity and force, justice and sense, with just a touch of pathos and eloquence to recommend it to the heart. Men might differ with the writer, but they could neither laugh at him nor set him aside.
Gage replied after his kind. He was an inconsiderable person, dull and well meaning, intended for the command of a garrison town, and terribly twisted and torn by the great events in which he was momentarily caught. His masters were stupid and arrogant, and he imitated them with perfect success, except that arrogance with him dwindled to impertinence. He answered Washington's letter
with denials and recriminations, lectured the Amer. ican general on the political situation, and talked about “usurped authority,” “rebels,” “ criminals,” and persons destined to the “ cord.” Washington, being a man of his word, proceeded to put some English prisoners into jail, and then wrote a second note, giving Gage a little lesson in manners, with the vain hope of making him see that gentlemen did not scold and vituperate because they fought. He restated his case calmly and coolly, as before, informed Gage that he had investigated the counter-charge of cruelty and found it without any foundation, and then continued: “You advise me to give free operation to truth, and to punish misrepresentation and falsehood. If experience stamps value upon counsel, yours must have a weight which few can claim. You best can tell how far the convulsion, which has brought such ruin on both countries, and shaken the mighty empire of Britain to its foundation, may be traced to these malignant causes.
“You affect, sir, to despise all rank not derived from the same source with your own. I cannot conceive one more honorable than that which flows from the uncorrupted choice of a brave and free people, the purest source and original fountain of all power. Far from making it a plea for cruelty, a mind of true magnanimity and enlarged ideas would comprehend and respect it.”
Washington had grasped instinctively the general truth that Englishmen are prone to mistake
civility for servility, and become offensive, whereas if they are treated with indifference, rebuke, or even rudeness, they are apt to be respectful and polite. He was obliged to go over the same ground with Sir William Howe, a little later, and still more sharply; and this matter of prisoners recurred, although at longer and longer intervals, throughout
But as the British generals saw their officers go to jail, and found that their impudence and assumption were met by keen reproofs, they gradually comprehended that Washington was not a man to be trifled with, and that in him was a pride and dignity out-topping theirs and far stronger, because grounded on responsibility borne and work done, and on the deep sense of a great and righteous cause.
It was probably a pleasure and a relief to give to Gage and Sir William Howe a little instruction in military behavior and general good manners, but there was nothing save infinite vexation in dealing with the difficulties arising on the American side of the line. As the days shortened and the leaves fell, Washington saw before him a New England winter, with no clothing and no money for his troops. Through long letters to Congress, and strenuous personal efforts, these wants were somehow supplied. Then the men began to get restless and homesick, and both privates and officers would disappear to their farms, which Washington, always impatient of wrongdoing, styled “ base and pernicious conduct," and punished accordingly.
By and by the terms of enlistment ran out and the regiments began to melt away even before the proper date. Recruiting was carried on slowly and with difficulty, new levies were tardy in coming in, and Congress could not be persuaded to stop limited enlistments. Still the task was done. The old army departed and a new one arose in its place, the posts were strengthened and ammunition secured.
Among these reinforcements came some Virginia riflemen, and it must have warmed Washington's heart to see once more these brave and hardy fighters in the familiar hunting shirt and leggings. They certainly made him warm in a very different sense by getting into a rough-and-tumble fight one winter's day with some Marblehead fishermen. The quarrel was at its height, when suddenly into the brawl rode the commander-in-chief. He quickly dismounted, seized two of the combatants, shook them, berated them, if tradition may be trusted, for their local jealousies, and so with strong arm quelled the disturbance. He must have longed to take more than one colonial governor or magnate by the throat and shake him soundly, as he did his soldiers from the woods of Virginia and the rocks of Marblehead, for to his temper there was nothing so satisfying as rapid and decisive action. But he could not quell governors and assemblies in this way, and yet he managed them and got what he wanted with a patience and tact which it must have been in the last degree trying to him to practise,
gifted as he was with a nature at once masterful and passionate.
Another trial was brought about by his securing and sending out privateers which did good service. They brought in many valuable prizes which caused infinite trouble, and forced Washington not only to be a naval secretary, but also made him a species of admiralty judge. He implored the slow-moving Congress to relieve him from this burden, and suggested a plan which led to the formation of special committees and was the origin of the Federal judiciary of the United States. Besides the local jealousies and the personal jealousies, and the privateers and their prizes, he had to meet also the greed and selfishness as well of the money-making, stock-jobbing spirit which springs up rankly under the influence of army contracts and large expenditures among a people accustomed to trade and unused to war. Washington wrote savagely of these practices, but still, despite all hindrances and annoyances, he kept moving straight on to his object.
In the midst of his labors, harassed and tried in all ways, he was assailed as usual by complaint and criticism. Some of it came to him through his friend and aide, Joseph Reed, to whom he wrote in reply one of the noblest letters ever penned by a great man struggling with adverse circumstances and wringing victory from grudging fortune. He said that he was always ready to welcome criticism, hear advice, and learn the opinion of the world.