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The matter, however, which most filled his heart and mind during these weary days of waiting and doubt was the condition and the future of his soldiers. To those persons who have suspected or suggested that Washington was cold blooded and unmindful of others, the letters he wrote in regard to the soldiers may
be commended. The man whose heart was wrung by the sufferings of the poor people on the Virginian frontier, in the days of the old French war, never in fact changed his nature. Fierce in fight, passionate and hot when his anger was stirred, his love and sympathy were keen and strong toward his army. His heart went out to the brave men who had followed him, loved him, and never swerved in their loyalty to him and to their country. Washington's affection for his men, and their devotion to him, had saved the cause of American independence more often than strategy or daring. Now, when the war was practically over, his influence with both officers and soldiers was destined to be put to its severest tests.
The people of the American colonies were selfgoverning in the extremest sense, that is, they were accustomed to very little government interference of any sort. They were also poor and entirely unused to war. Suddenly they found themselves plunged into a bitter and protracted conflict with the most powerful of civilized nations. In the first flush of excitement, patriotic enthusiasm supplied many defects; but as time wore on,
year passed, and the whole social and political fabrio was
shaken, the moral tone of the people relaxed. In such a struggle, coming upon an unprepared people of the habits and in the circumstances of the colonists, this relaxation was inevitable. It was likewise inevitable that, as the war continued, there should be in both national and state governments, and in all directions, many shortcomings and many lamentable errors. But for the treatment accorded the army, no such excuse can be made, and no sufficient explanation can be offered.
There was throughout the colonies an inborn and a carefully cultivated dread of standing armies and military power.
But this very natural feeling was turned most unreasonably against our own army, and carried in that direction to the verge of insanity. This jealousy of military power indeed pursued Washington from the beginning to the end of the Revolution. It cropped out as soon as he was appointed, and came up in one form or another whenever he was obliged to take strong measures. Even at the very end, after he had borne the cause through to triumph, Congress was driven almost to frenzy because Vergennes proposed to commit the disposition of a French subsidy to the commanderin-chief.
If this feeling could show itself toward Washington, it is easy to imagine that it was not restrained toward his officers and men, and the treatment of the soldiers by Congress and by the States was not only ungrateful to the last degree, but was utterly unpardonable. Again and again the
menace of immediate ruin and the stern demands of Washington alone extorted the most grudging concessions, and saved the army from dissolution. The soldiers had every reason to think that nothing but personal fear could obtain the barest consideration from the civil power. In this frame of mind, they saw the war which they had fought and won drawing to a close with no prospect of either provision or reward for them, and every indication that they would be disbanded when they were no longer needed, and left in many cases to beggary and want.
In the inaction consequent upon the victory at Yorktown, they had ample time to reflect upon these facts, and their reflections were of such a nature that the situation soon became dangerous. Washington, who had struggled in season and out of season for justice to the soldiers, labored more zealously than ever during all this period, aided vigorously by Hamilton, who was now in Congress. Still nothing was done, and in October, 1782, he wrote to the Secretary of War in words warm with indignant feeling: “While I premise that no one I have seen or heard of appears opposed to the principle of reducing the army as circumstances may require, yet I cannot help fearing the result of the measure in contemplation, under present circumstances, when I see such a number of men, goaded by a thousand stings of reflection on the past and of anticipation on the future, about to be turned into the world, soured by penury and what they call the ingratitude of the pub
lic, involved in debts, without one farthing of money to carry them home after having spent the flower of their days, and many of them their patrimonies, in establishing the freedom and independence of their country, and suffered everything that human nature is capable of enduring on this side of death.
.. You may rely upon it, the patriotism and longsuffering of this army are almost exhausted, and that there never was so great a spirit of discontent as at this instant. While in the field I think it may be kept from breaking into acts of outrage; but when we retire into winter-quarters, unless the storm is previously dissipated, I cannot be at ease respecting the consequences. It is high time for a peace.”
These were grave words, coming from such a man as Washington, but they passed unheeded. Congress and the States went blandly along as if everything was all right, and as if the army had no grievances. But the soldiers thought dif. ferently. “ Dissatisfactions rose to a great and alarming height, and combinations among officers to resign at given periods in a body were beginning to take place.” The outlook was so threatening that Washington, who had intended to go to Mount Vernon, remained in camp, and by man. agement and tact thwarted these combinations and converted these dangerous movements into an ad. dress to Congress from the officers, asking for half-pay, arrearages, and some other equally proper concessions. Still Congress did not stir. Some
indefinite resolutions were passed, but nothing was done as to the commutation of half-pay into a fixed sum, and after such a display of indifference the dissatisfaction increased rapidly, and the army became more and more restless. In March a call was is. sued for a meeting of officers, and an anonymous address, written with much skill, — the work, as afterwards appeared, of Major John Armstrong, — was published at the same time. The address was well calculated to inflame the passions of the troops; it advised a resort to force, and was scattered broadcast through the camp. The army was now in a ferment, and the situation was full of peril. A weak man would have held his peace; a rash one would have tried to suppress the meeting. Washington did neither, but quietly took control of the whole movement himself. In general orders he censured the call and the address as irregular, and then appointed a time and place for the meeting. Another anonymous address thereupon appeared, quieter in tone, but congratulating the army on the recognition accorded by the commander-in-chief.
When the officers assembled, Washington arose with a manuscript in his hand, and as he took out his glasses said, simply, “You see, gentlemen, I have grown both blind and gray in your service.” His address was brief, calm, and strong. The clear, vigorous sentences were charged with meaning and with deep feeling. He exhorted them one and all, both officers and men, to remain loyal and obedient,