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more whimsical than ever, and at the moment was strongly adverse to an attack, and was full of wise saws about building a bridge of gold for the flying enemy. The ascendancy which, as an English officer, he still retained enabled him to get a certain following, and the councils of war which were held compared unfavorably, as Hamilton put it, with the deliberations of midwives. Washington was harassed of course by all this, but he did not stay his purpose, and as soon as he knew that Clinton actually had marched, he broke camp at Valley Forge and started in pursuit. There were more councils of an old-womanish character, but finally Washington took the matter into his own hands, and ordered forth a strong detachment to attack the British rear-guard. They set out on the 25th, and as Lee, to whom the command belonged, did not care to go, Lafayette was put in charge. As soon as Lafayette had departed, however, Lee changed his mind, and insisted that all the detachments in front, amounting to six thousand men, formed a division so large that it was unjust not to give him the command. Washington, therefore, sent him forward next day with two additional brigades, and then Lee by seniority took command on the 27th of the entire advance.
In the evening of that day, Washington came up, reconnoitred the enemy, and saw that, although their position was a strong one, another day's unmolested march would make it still stronger. He therefore resolved to attack the next morning, and
gave Lee then and there explicit orders to that effect. In the early dawn he despatched similar orders, but Lee apparently did nothing except move feebly forward, saying to Lafayette, “ You don't know the British soldiers ; we cannot stand against them.” He made a weak attempt to cut off a covering party, marched and countermarched, ordered and countermanded, until Lafayette and Wayne, eager to fight, knew not what to do, and sent hot messages to Washington to come to them.
Thus hesitating and confused, Lee permitted Clinton to get his baggage and train to the front, and to mass all his best troops in the rear under Cornwallis, who then advanced against the American lines.
Now there were no orders at all, and the troops did not know what to do, or where to
They stood still, then began to fall back, and then to retreat. A very little more and there would have been a rout. As it was, Washington alone prevented disaster. His early reports from the front from Dickinson's outlying party, and from Lee himself, were all favorable. Then he heard the firing, and putting the main army in motion, he rode rapidly forward. First he encountered a straggler, who talked of defeat. He could not believe it, and the fellow was pushed aside and silenced. Then came another and another, all with songs of death. Finally, officers and regiments began to come. No one knew why they fled, or what had happened. As the ill tidings grew thicker, Washington spurred sharper and rode faster
through the deep sand, and under the blazing mid
At last he met Lee and the main body all in full retreat. He rode straight at Lee, savage with anger, not pleasant to look at, one may guess, and asked fiercely and with a deep oath, tradition says,
what it all meant. Lee was no coward, and did not usually lack for words. He was, too, a hardened man of the world, and, in the phrase of that day, impudent to boot. But then and there he stammered and hesitated. The fierce question was repeated. Lee gathered himself and tried to excuse and palliate what had happened, but although the brief words that followed are variously reported to us across the century, we know that Washington rebuked him in such a way, and with such passion, that all was over between them.
Lee had committed the one unpardonable sin in the eyes of his commander. He had failed to fight when the enemy was upon him. He had disobeyed orders and retreated. It was the end of him. He went to the rear, thence to a court-martial, thence to dismissal and to a solitary life. He was an intelligent, quick-witted, unstable man, much overrated because he was an English officer among a colonial people. He was ever treated magnanimously by Washington after the day of battle at Monmouth, but he then disappeared from the latter's life.
When Lee bowed before the storm and stepped aside, Washington was left to deal with the danger and confusion around him. Thus did he tell the story afterwards to his brother: “A retreat, how
ever, was the fact, be the causes what they may ; and the disorder arising from it would have proved fatal to the army, had not that bountiful Providence, which has never failed us in the hour of distress, enabled me to form a regiment or two (of those that were retreating) in the face of the enemy, and under their fire; by which means a stand was made long enough (the place through which the enemy were pressing being narrow) to form the troops, that were advancing, upon an advantageous piece of ground in the rear.' We cannot add much to these simple and modest words, for they tell the whole story. Having put Lee aside, Washington rallied the broken troops, brought them into position, turned them back, and held the enemy
in check. It was not an easy feat, but it was done, and when Lee's division again fell back in good order the main army was in position, and the action became general. The British were repulsed, and then Washington, taking the offensive, drove them back until he occupied the battlefield of the morning. Night came upon him still advancing. He halted his army, lay down under a tree, his soldiers lying on their arms about him, and planned a fresh attack, to be made at daylight. But when the dawn came it was seen that the British had crept off, and were far on their road. The heat prevented a rapid pursuit, and Clinton got into New York. Between there and Philadelphia he had lost two thousand men, Washington said, and modern authorities put it at about fifteen hundred, of whom nearly five hundred fell at Monmouth.
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,