THE DARKEST HOUR—TRENTON AND PRINCETON
 IN many places the news of the Declaration of Independence and the
news of the victory at Charleston came at the same time, and gave
a double cause for rejoicing. It was the last good news which was
to come for many a long day. Indeed for months misfortune followed
misfortune, until it almost seemed as if the Declaration of
Independence had been the rash and useless action some had held it
By the end of June General Howe sailed southward from Halifax, and
landed on Staten Island southwest of New York, to await the arrival
from England of his brother, Admiral Howe. On July 12th, just eight
days after the declaration of independence, Admiral Howe arrived
with strong reinforcements of ships and men. But before he began
to fight he tried to come to terms with the rebel colonies, and
for a second time free pardon was offered to all who would submit
and own British rule once more. But the Americans were in no mood
to submit, and had no wish for "pardon."
"No doubt," said one, "we all need pardon from heaven, but the
American who needs pardon from his Britannic Majesty is yet to be
So instead of submitting they made ready to fight. The British
also prepared to fight, and the force of the next blow fell upon
New York. There were now more than thirty thousand British troops
gathered here. It was the largest army which had ever been sent
out of England, and King George had never a doubt that this great
force, backed by
 his unconquerable navy, would soon bring the ten
or twenty thousand ragged, half starved rebels to their knees.
He little knew the men or the man which who he had to deal. The
army was indeed ragged and undisciplined. But as the great Napoleon
said later, "In war the man is everything." And Washington was
soon to show the world what could be done by brave undisciplined
men whose hearts were behind their muskets.
As soon as Washington had gained possession of Boston he left an
old general with a small force to guard it, and transported the
main body of his army to New York, feeling sure that the next attack
would be made there.
Brooklyn Heights on Long Island commanded New York, very much in
the same way as Bunker Hill and Dorchester Heights commanded Boston,
and Washington knew he must keep possession of those heights, if
New York was not to be given up without a blow being struck. He
did not want to give it up without striking a blow, for he feared
the effect on the spirits of the country. So he sent General Putnam
with about eight thousand men to occupy the Heights.
In doing this Washington placed his army in a very dangerous position,
for the East River was large enough to allow British war ships to
sail up it and thus cut his army in two. But he could do nothing
else, for if the enemy got possession of the Heights the town was
at his mercy.
Howe was not slow to see this, and, having carefully and secretly
made his plans, he attacked the forces on Brooklyn Heights in the
early morning of August 27th in front, and flank, and rear, all at
One division of the Americans was nearly wiped out, many being killed
and the rest being taken prisoner. A little band of Marylanders
put up a fine but hopeless fight for nearly four hours, the remnant
of them at length taking refuge in the fortifications. To make the
 disaster for the colonists Howe had but to storm these
fortifications. But he refused to do so. Enough had been done for
one day, he said. Bunker Hill had taught the British to beware of
storming heights. A siege would be less costly, thought Howe.
Within the fortifications the colonists were in a miserable plight.
They had little shelter, the rain fell in torrents, and a cold
northeast wind chilled them to the bone. They had nothing to eat
except dry biscuit and raw pork. They were hungry and weary, wet
and cold. Yet one of their miseries was a blessing. For as long as
the northeast wind blew Howe could not bring his ships up the East
River and cut communications between Long Island and New York. For
in those days, it must be remembered, there were no steamers, and
sailing vessels had to depend on wind and tide.
Washington, however, knew his danger. He knew that he must withdraw
from Long Island. So secretly he gave orders that everything which
could be found in the shape of a boat was to be brought to Brooklyn
Ferry. They were soon gathered, and at eight o'clock in the evening,
two days after the battle of Long Island, quickly and quietly the
army was ferried across the wide river to the New York side. All
night the rowers laboured, but the work was by no means finished
when day dawned. The weather, however, still helped the colonists,
for a thick fog settled over the river and hid what was going on
from the British. Wounded, prisoners, cannon, stores, horses, were
all ferried over, and when later in the day the British marched
into the deserted camp they found not so much as a crust of bread.
It was about six in the morning when the last boat put off, and in
it was Washington, the last man to leave. For forty hours he had
hardly been off his horse, and had never for a minute lain down
to rest. He was unwearyingly
 watchful, and left nothing to chance,
and this retreat is looked upon as one of the most masterly in all
Having abandoned Brooklyn Washington knew that he could not hope
to hold New York against an attack. But for a fortnight neither
Admiral nor General Howe made any attack. Instead they talked once
more of peace. It almost seemed as if Lord Howe were on the side
of the Americans, as indeed he had always said he was, until he
was ordered out to fight against them. "He is either a very slow
officer, or else he is our very good friend," said one of them.
The fortnight which he now wasted gave Washington time to decide
what it was best to do, and when at last the British began the
attack on New York nearly all the stores and cannon had already
been removed to Harlem Heights, about ten miles away at the north
of Manhattan Island. All the troops, too, had gone except about
four thousand under General Putnam, who stayed to keep order, and
look after the removal of the last of the stores. When the attack
came these were very nearly caught. For the regiment who ought
to have guarded the landing place, and have kept the enemy from
advancing until Putnam could retire, ran away as soon as they saw
the red coats.
In vain their officers tried to rally them; panic had seized them,
and they fled like frightened sheep. In the confusion Washington
rode up. He was a man of fiery temper, and now when he saw his men
show such a lack of courage in the face of the enemy he lost all
control. Dashing his hat upon the ground, and, drawing his sword,
he bade them cease their cowardly retreat. But even Washington
could not rally the fleeing men. Then his wrath and despair knew no
bounds, and spurring his horse, he rode alone towards the enemy.
Death, he felt, was better
 than such shame. But one of his officers,
dashing after him, seized his bridle and turned him back to safety.
Meanwhile Putnam was making frantic efforts to gather his men and
march them off to Harlem Heights. It was a day of violent heat,
and as the men struggled on, laden with their baggage, their breath
came short, and the perspiration trickled down their faces. Every
moment they expected to be attacked in the rear.
But the attack did not come. For as Howe and his officers were
passing the pleasant country house of Mrs. Robert Murray a servant
came out to ask them to lunch. It was a tempting invitation on a
hot day,—too tempting to be refused. So a halt was called, and
while Howe and his officers enjoyed a pleasant meal, and listened
to the talk of a clever, handsome lady, Putnam marched his panting
men to safety.
Washington was greatly cast down at what he called the "disgraceful
and dastardly" conduct of some of his troops that day. He knew
that an attack on Harlem Heights must come, and come soon. But what
would be the result? Would his men run away, or would they fight?
"Experience, to my extreme affliction," he wrote sadly, "has
convinced me that this is rather to be wished for than expected.
However, I trust there are many who will act like men, and show
themselves worthy of the blessings of freedom."
Washington had no real cause for fear. Next day the test came,
and the Americans wiped out the memory of the day before. In wave
after wave the British attacked, but again and again the colonists
met them, and at last drove them to their trenches; and there was
joy in the patriot camp.
Howe still pursued the war very slowly. After the battle of
Harlem Heights he left Washington alone for nearly a month, during
which time the colonist fortified their
 camp strongly. But the
commander-in-chief soon became convinced that the place was little
better than a trap, in which Howe might surround him, and force
him to surrender with all his army. So he retreated northward to
White Plains, and the British settled down in New York, which they
held till the end of the war.
And now misfortunes fell thick and fast upon the patriots. They
still held Fort Washington on Manhattan Island, and Fort Lee on the
opposite side of the Hudson, the garrisons of which were under the
command of General Greene. Washington now advised him to abandon
the forts, but did not give him absolute orders to do so. It is
probably that he would have taken his commander's advice had not
Congress interfered and sent orders that Fort Washington was not
to be given up, except as a last necessity. Greene, believing that
it was possible to hold it, tried to obey Congress. But on the
16th of November, after a fierce fight against tremendous odds, the
fort was surrounded, and all the defenders to the number of about
three thousand were taken prisoner.
The loss was a bitter blow to Washington, for the men taken prisoners
were some of his best soldiers. Four days later Fort Lee was also
taken, and although the garrison escaped they left behind them
large stores of food, ammunition, baggage of all sorts, as well as
cannon, which they could ill spare.
Washington now resolved on a retreat towards Philadelphia, and gloom
settled on the ragged little army of patriots. They were weary of
retreats and defeats, and felt that their cause was already lost.
Winter was fast coming on and many shouldered their arms and marched
homeward. And so the once buoyant enthusiastic army melted away to
a hungry and dispirited troop of little more than four thousand.
General Lee had at this time but lately returned from
 his triumphs
in South Carolina, and he was more boastful and arrogant than ever.
After Washington he was second in command, but he had no doubt
in his own mind that he ought to be first. Now he was not slow to
let others know what he thought. And while Washington, noble and
upright gentleman as he was, trusted Lee as a friend, and believed
in him as a soldier, Lee schemed to supplant him.
Washington had left Lee at North Castle with seven thousand men.
Now he sent him orders to join him at once, so that if he should
have to fight a battle he should have at least some sort of army
to fight with. But Lee pretended to misunderstand. He made excuses
for delay, he argued, and lied, and stayed where he was. Perhaps
he thought that it would be no bad thing if Washington should be
defeated and captured. Then he would be commander-in-chief.
But it was Lee who was captured, not Washington. He had in a
leisurely fashion at last begun to move, and on the march he spent
a night at a wayside inn. The British, hearing of his whereabouts,
surrounded the inn and took him prisoner. For more than a year he
remained in their hands, a very comfortable captive, and his army,
under General John Sullivan, marched to join Washington, who was
still retreating southward through New Jersey before the overwhelming
force of the British.
It was weary work retreating. But with masterly generalship, and
untiring watchfulness, Washington avoided a battle, and slipped
through the toils. As the pursued and pursuers neared Philadelphia
something like panic laid hold of the city. All day long the rumble
of waggons might be heard carrying women and children to places of
safety. Congress was hurriedly removed to Baltimore; but hundreds
of men seized their rifles and marched to join the army to fight
for their country in its darkest hour.
But already the worst was over. Washington's army was now well
reinforced. He had the recruits from Philadelphia, he had Lee's
army, and he also had two thousand men sent him by Schuyler from the
north. So he resolved to make a bold bid for fortune. He resolved
to do or die. He gave as the password, "Victory or death," and
in the dark of Christmas night, 1776, he and his men crossed the
Delaware River above the town of Trenton, where the British lay,
together with a large company of the Hessian troops who had been
hired to fight the Americans. The river was full of floating ice,
which made the crossing dangerous and slow. But through the darkness
the men toiled on, fending off the ice blocks as best they could
as they steered their boats through the drifting mass. At length,
after ten hours' labour, they reached the other side without the
loss of one man.
It was four o'clock when the troops started off on their seven-mile
march to Trenton over the snowy ground, the icy wind driving the
sleet and snow in their faces. But by eight o'clock they had reached
Trenton. The British were utterly taken by surprise, and almost at
once the Hessians surrendered.
Having sent his prisoners, to the number of nearly a thousand,
to the other side of the river, Washington took possession of the
town. But he was not long allowed to remain there. For the British
commander, Lord Cornwallis, marched to dislodge him with an army
of eight thousand men.
Washington let him come, and on the 2nd of January, Cornwallis
encamped before Trenton, determined next morning to give battle.
He was sure of victory, and in great spirits. "At last we have run
down the old fox, and we will bag him in the morning," he said.
But Washington was not to be so easily caught. The two armies were
so near that the watchfires of the one
 could be plainly seen by
the other. All night the American watchfires blazed, all night men
could be heard working at the fortifications. But that was only
a blind. In the darkness Washington and his army quietly slipped
away to Princeton. There he fell upon the British reinforcements,
who were marching to join Cornwallis at Trenton, and put them to
When day came Cornwallis was astonished to find the American camp
empty. And when he heard the firing in the distance he knew what
had happened, and hastily retreated to New York, while Washington
drew off his victorious but weary men to Morristown in New Jersey.
Here for the next few months they remained, resting after their
labours, unmolested by the foe.