« ZurückWeiter »
again, with the same pressure both from his own spirit and from public opinion, Washington had said No. On his own ground he was more than ready to fight Howe, but despite the terrible temptation he would fight on no other. Not the least brilliant exploit of Wellington was the retreat to the shrewdly prepared lines of Torres Vedras, and one of the most difficult successes of Washington was his double refusal to fight as the year 1777 drew to a close. Like most right and wise things, Washington's action looks now, a century later, so plainly sensible that it is hard to imagine how any one could have questioned it; and one cannot, without a great effort, realize the awful strain upon will and temper involved in thus refusing battle. If the proposed attack on Philadelphia had failed, or if our army had come down from the hills and been beaten in the fields below, no American army would have remained. The army of the north, of which men were talking so proudly, had done its work and dispersed. The fate of the Revolution rested where it had been from the beginning, with Washington and his soldiers. Drive them beyond the mountains and there was no other army to fall back upon. On their existence everything hinged, and when Howe got back to Philadelphia, there they were still existent, still coherent, hovering on his flank, cooping him up in his lines, and leaving him master of little more than the ground his men encamped upon, and the streets his sentinels par trolled. When Franklin was told in Paris that Howe had taken Philadelphia, his reply was, “Philadelphia has taken Howe.” But, with the exception of Franklin, contemporary opinion in the month of December, 1777, was very different from that of to-day, and the cabal had been at work ever since the commander-inchief had stepped between Conway and the exorbitant rank he coveted. Washington, indeed, was perfectly aware of what was going on. He was quiet and dignified, impassive and silent, but he knew when men, whether great or small, were plotting against him, and he watched them with the same keenness as he did Howe and the British. In the midst of his struggle to hold the Delaware forts, and of his efforts to get back his troops from the north, a story came to him that arrested his attention. Wilkinson, of Gates's staff, had come to Congress with the news of the surrender. He had been fifteen days on the road and three days getting his papers in order, and when it was proposed to give him a sword, Dr. Witherspoon, canny Scot as he was, suggested that they had better “gie the lad a pair of spurs.” This thrust and some delay seem to have nettled Wilkinson, who was swelling with importance, and although he was finally made a brigadier-general, he rode off to the north much ruffled. In later years Wilkinson was secretive enough ; but in his hot youth he could not hold his tongue, and on his way back to Gates he talked. What he said was marked and carried to headquarters, and on November 9th Washington wrote to Conway:
“A letter which I received last night contained the following paragraph, – “In a letter from General Conway to General Gates he says, “Heaven has determined to save your country, or a weak general and bad counsellors would have ruined it.” I am, sir, your humble servant,’” etc.
This curt note fell upon Conway with stunning effect. It is said that he tried to apologize, and he certainly resigned. As for Gates, he fell to writ ing letters filled with expressions of wonder as to who had betrayed him, and writhed most pitiably under the exposure. Washington's replies are models of cold dignity, and the calm indifference with which he treated the whole matter, while holding Gates to the point with relentless grasp, is very interesting. The cabal was seriously shaken by this sudden blow. It must have dawned upon them dimly that they might have mistaken their man, and that the silent soldier was perhaps not so easy to dispose of by an intrigue as they had fancied. Nevertheless, they rallied, and taking advantage of the feeling in Congress created by Burgoyne's surrender, they set to work to get control of military matters. The board of war was enlarged to five, with Gates at its head and Mifflin a member, and, thus constituted, it proceeded to make Conway inspector-general, with the rank of major-general. This, after Conway's conduct, was a direct insult to Washington, and marks the highest point attained by his opponents.
In Congress, too, they became more active, and John Jay said that there was in that body a party bitterly hostile to Washington. We know little of the members of that faction now, for they never took the trouble to refer to the matter in after years, and did everything that silence could do to have it all forgotten. But the party existed none the less, and significant letters have come down to us, one of them written by Lovell, and two anonymous, addressed respectively to Patrick Henry and to Laurens, then president, which show a bitter and vindictive spirit, and breathe but one purpose. The same thought is constantly reiterated, that with a good general the northern army had won a great victory, and that the main army, if commanded in the same way, would do likewise. The plan was simple and coherent. The cabal wished to drive Washington out of power and replace him with Gates. With this purpose they wrote to Henry and Laurens; with this purpose they made Conway inspector-general.
When they turned from intrigue to action, however, they began to fail. One of their pet schemes was the conquest of Canada, and with this object Lafayette was sent to the lakes, only to find that no preparations had been made, because the originators of the idea were ignorant and inefficient. The expedition promptly collapsed and was abandoned, with much instruction in consequence to Congress and people. Under their control the commissariat also went hopelessly to pieces, and a committee of Congress proceeded to Valley Forge and found that in this direction, too, the new managers had grievously failed. Then the original Conway letter, uncovered so unceremoniously by Washington, kept returning to plague its author. Gates's correspondence went on all through the winter, and with every letter Gates floundered more and more, and Washington's replies grew more and more freezing and severe. Gates undertook to throw the blame on Wilkinson, who became loftily indignant and challenged him. The two made up their quarrel very soon in a ludicrous manner, but Wilkinson in the interval had an interview with Washington, which revealed an amount of duplicity and perfidy on the part of the cabal, so shocking to the former's sensitive nature, that he resigned his secretaryship of the board of war on account, as he frankly said, of the treachery and falsehood of Gates. Such a quarrel of course hurt the cabal, but it was still more weakened by Gates himself, whose only idea seemed to be to supersede Washington by slighting him, refusing troops, and declining to propose his health at dinner, — methods as unusual as they were feeble. The cabal, in fact, was so weak in ability and character that the moment any responsibility fell upon its members it was certain to break down, but the absolutely fatal obstacle to its schemes was the man it aimed to overthrow. The idea evidently was that Washington could be driven to resign. They knew that they could not get either Congress