THE STRUGGLE FOR SURVIVALPRIVATE
“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.”
Introduction: After the miraculous withdrawal from Long Island to Manhattan, Washington found himself in the midst of an intense struggle for survival.
I. THE CHASE
The colonial army marched north across Manhattan with the British in hot pursuit. Washington was finally forced to withdraw from Manhattan, but now his experience came into play. he had learned at Monongahela that British troops did not fight well in wooded areas. Therefore, he turned his men away from easy terrain and marched them through the hills and forests of New Jersey.
II. THE CROSSING
The overall situation for the colonies was bleak. Congress had been forced to flee Philadelphia and head south to Baltimore. Morale was low. The only good news was that Washington had saved the army. But many of his men were scheduled to end their term of duty in the army at the end of the month. Washington feared that few of them would re-enlist unless something happened to encourage them to do so. Hence, he went against all military tradition and decided to make a winter attack.
On Christmas Day 1776 the colonial army moved toward the Delaware River. Icy rain hurt their faces as they stumbled through knee-deep ice-encrusted snow. Washington had decided to cross the river and attack the Hessians in winter quarters at Trenton. He was hoping the Hessians would be suffering from hangovers in the early pre-dawn hours of December 26.
Washington was also counting on low visibility. To succeed, he had to get his men across the river without being spotted. A violent snowstorm obliged him. The terrible weather also assured that there would be as few sentries as possible outside on duty. Most would be inside trying to stay as warm as possible.
It worked! The Hessians were awe-struck and could not believe what was happening. Henry Knox described their surprise in a letter written to his wife: “The hurry, fright, and confusion of the army was not unlike that which will be when the last trump will sound.”
In 45 minutes almost 1,000 prisoners were taken. American casualties included three wounded and two who froze to death on the march. It was a tremendous boost to morale. Within weeks, the threat to Philadelphia was ended. Once again, God had blessed America through George Washington.
From this time on, there were no doubts in the midst of Americans about the importance of Washington to the cause of independence. Congress was essentially impotent; other generals seemed incompetent. It all rested on the shoulders of Washington.
In 1777 the Pennsylvania Journal said, “Washington retreats like a general and acts like a hero. Had he lived in the days of idolatry, he had been worshipped as a god.” He was the symbol of resistance and survival.
A German almanac, published in Pennsylvania, referred to him as “The Father of his country.” It was the first use of this phrase about him, and it caught on quickly.
Washington’s popularity had already become international in scope. A 19-year-old redheaded Frenchman arrived to volunteer his services as Washington’s aide. Marquis de Lafayette wanted to be in a fight for freedom. The two became lifelong friends. Lafayette named his first son George Washington Lafayette. The Marquis also sent the main key of the Bastille to Washington after that prison was stormed. It was sent as a symbol of freedom, and is on display at Mt. Vernon.
the British also realized the importance of Washington. They wanted to kill the general, and once had an excellent chance, but God wanted it otherwise.
IV. THE CREEK
At Brandywine Creek, on September 11, 1777, the British won a battle, but lost the war. They missed their chance to kill Washington. Early that morning American and British forces prepared to fight one another. Included among the redcoats was a group of 100 sharpshooters under the command of England’s finest marksman, Major Patrick Ferguson.
Early in the morning, Ferguson and his sharp-shooters stationed themselves in a well-located woods. Suddenly two rebel horseman approached the vicinity. One was dressed in blue, riding a fine bay horse. The other was wearing a French uniform.
Ferguson ordered his three best marksmen to steal closer, under the cover of the foliage, and fire. Then he reversed his order. He later said it was a matter of honor. He claimed he just did not feel right about shooting two officers while they were out for a leisurely ride. That night, in a field hospital, Ferguson learned that Washington and Lafayette had ridden with advance troops early that morning to scout the battle site.
V. THE CRUCIBLE
After a succession of stinging losses to the British, Washington moved his army into winter quarters at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, located 24 miles northwest of Philadelphia. On December 19, 1777, Washington watched his 11,000 men fall into the winter encampment.
Militarily, the site was perfect. It was easily defensible and had open fields nearby for drilling. (But ????????? Pastor, might this need a transition from “perfect” site to “dark night of America’s soul” — something like “But for Washington’s threadbare, malnourished men it was a place of desolation?? desperation???”) Before 1777 few people had ever heard of Valley Forge. But now it is chiseled on the hearts of all Americans. It truly was the dark night of America’s soul.
Washington’s men entered that place exhausted, hungry, and freezing. They had too little clothing to protect themselves from the cold. Many had no shoes and no socks. Washington said their marches could be traced by blood from their feet. On December 23, he wrote, “We have this day no less than 2873 men in camp unfit for duty because they are barefooted and otherwise naked.”
In the whole army of 11,000 men, the majority of whom were youths in their teens, it is said that less than 12 were properly equipped for winter. The time of testing had come. The historians call it our “crucible of freedom.”
The men build 16 x 14 x 6 foot huts in which a dozen men would sleep on four triple-decker bunks. There were no windows and no flooring. Within a month, 700 of these huts were built. Not until the last hut was built did Washington leave his field tent to stay in Isaac Pott’s house.
The huts did little to stave off the agonies of that winter. The fireplaces in them put off smoke that filled the huts. Most of the soldiers had to choose between freezing outside or choking inside. Disease was rampant in these conditions of overcrowding, cold, and hunger. Those with flu, smallpox, typhus, and other serious illnesses were taken for treatment to nearby Baptist and Quaker meeting houses. Eventually, local barns were converted into hospitals.
The death toll surpassed 3,000. Some think at least that many also deserted. The weight of it all drove Washington to his knees in prayer. He had a favored spot where he liked to go privately. It was in a grove of trees near the camp. Washington was seen kneeling in prayer there on at least two occasions, once by Henry Knox, once by Isaac Potts. The latter listened from the trees as the General prayed aloud. Potts told his wife, “If there is anyone on this earth whom God will listen to, it is George Washington.”
Potts was right. God did listen, and showed His favor in at least three ways:
1. The British never did attack. Any offensive at all against the colonists would have ended the war.
2. During this time period the French entered the war. This was a major turning point in the war, and Washington received the news on May 6, 1678, while encamped at Valley Forge.
Historians generally agree that Washington’s greatest achievement was his holding the colonial army together at Valley Forge. Had there not been an American army in existence. The French decision would have been in vain.
3. Baron von Steuben arrived at Valley Forge on February 23. He came from Germany to help in the American cause. Washington immediately gave him the task of training the troops. Steuben drilled the men into an efficient army. He regimented them into a group of professionals. Washington’s men entered Valley Forge as a rabble, but left it as any army.
Valley Forge was terrible, but here the Continental Army was forged into steel. The soldiers who endured Valley Forge became the heart of Washington’s army. He never had to worry about them re-enlisting. They were in for the duration of the war. And whenever Washington needed a hard-nosed regiment in the thick of battle, he called on the Valley Forge battalions. To the end, they were the leaders in the army’s battles.
VI. THE “CAT AND MOUSE” GAME
Washington and his men left Valley Forge on June 19, 1778, exactly six months to the day since entering winter quarters there. For the next couple of years they plated a “cat and mouse” game with the British.
The Continentals would ambush, retreat, entrench, and ambush again. The British would win battles, but the Americans refused to stay down. They kept on rising back up. That finally took the heart out of the British cause. Through it all Washington continued to point men to God:
1. In 1778, Washington wrote in a private letter on August 20, “The hand of Providence has been so conspicuous in all this (the course of the war) that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked, that has not gratitude.”
2.In 1779 (May 12), Washington spoke to a group of Delaware Indian Chiefs, “Brothers, you do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ.”
3.In 1780 the plot of Benedict Arnold was discovered. When Washington learned of the treachery, he said success by Arnold would have given the American cause a grave, and possibly fatal, wound. He immediately (September 26) told his army, “Happily the treason has been timely discovered to prevent the fatal misfortune. The providential train of circumstances which led to it affords the most convincing proof that the liberties of America are the object of divine protection.”
VII. THE CORNWALLIS SURRENDER
In October 1781 American and French troops surrounded the British at Yorktown, Virginia. The French navy succeeded in keeping the British Navy from coming to the aid of Cornwallis.
Cornwallis tried to evacuate his troops across the York River, as Washington had done on the East River at Long Island. however, a sudden violent storm made passage impossible. It was the last effort to escape. As General Tarleton said, “Thus expired the last hope of the British Army.”
On October 19, 1781, Cornwallis surrendered his 8,000 men. For all practical purposes, the fighting had come to an end, Washington realized that God had intervened again. The General ordered that a Thanksgiving service be held the day after the surrender. He felt it was a deed the “astonishing interposition” of Providence demands on us.”
Later, when Congress ordered an official cease fire, Washington gave orders for the chaplains to “render thanks to Almighty God for all his mercies.”
Conclusion: There can be no doubt that Washington gave credit to God for the formation of this country. He would quickly agree with the sentiment, “God Blessed America.”
General Charles Cornwallis, whose ambitious southern campaign ended in surrender at Yorktown, had been a staunch opponent of levying taxes on the colonies. By the battle at Brandywine, he had risen to second in command of British forces in America. AHI Collection