Disclaimer: The transcript that follows has been generated using artificial intelligence. We strive to be as accurate as possible, but minor errors and slightly off timestamps may be present.
You can click the timestamp to jump to that time.
Mike Duncan (00:01):
So I want to start this week with a brief note about Thomas Paine’s common sense, helpfully provided in the comments by listener T. Scott Johnson. It would appear that a recent book called The Republic in Print has pretty effectively debunked the myth that common sense reached anywhere near 100,000 printed copies, which I’m glad to hear because as I said 100,000 copies was an impossibly huge number. And it turns out that I was right about that. So thank you T. Scott Johnson and good luck with the PhD.
Last week we left General Washington and his boys at a low point, having spent their first campaign season being beaten, outmaneuvered, and run off. By early December 1776, the only thing Washington could point to as a success was that his army was still in the field at all. But in a few weeks, even that small consolation might evaporate. Washington had escaped across the Delaware River with 3,000 men, half of whom had enlistments that were due to expire December the 31st. And that was on top of the 2,000 men who had already gone home when their enlistments ran out November 30. With nothing going for the American army at all, what was to stop it from simply melting away? Washington had managed to escape the clutches of General Howe, but could he escape the clutches of crushingly low morale? The answer turned out to be yes.
Yes he could. As you will recall, when General Howe opted to put his men into winter quarters, he left the Hessians to guard the frontier of the Delaware River, which marked the border between New Jersey to the east and Pennsylvania to the west. The Hessians manned a string of garrisons up and down the river, including the city of Trenton, which was right smack dab in the middle of that border. I actually managed to put a map up this week and managed to do one for the New York campaigns from last week that I couldn’t get to. These Hessian garrisons provided a desperate Washington with one last chance to steal a victory before the year was up and his entire army went home. Now incredibly, as Washington got to planning his operation, he received no reinforcements from the army he had left back up in New York. You remember them? The 5,500 men commanded by General Charles Lee? Despite Washington’s repeated pleas to send troops, Lee just didn’t do it. Mostly because Lee was busy waiting for the Congress to come to its senses, ditch Washington, and put him in charge of the Continental Army. And though Lee’s belligerent ego was mostly what was at work here, on paper he kind of had a point.
Charles Lee was born in England in February 1732, so just a few weeks before Washington himself. The son of a major, he entered the regular army as a junior officer at the age of 15 and never looked back. He served throughout the French and Indian War, taking an American Indian wife in the process. Then he returned to Europe, served in Portugal, and then when his regiment was disbanded after peace with France, he went off to serve as a mercenary in Poland. Returning to Britain, he found himself so sympathetic to the American cause that he emigrated to Virginia in 1773, and when war broke out, he immediately volunteered for service.
Now given his record, he had little doubt Congress would appoint him commander in chief. But of course, there is also the matter of Charles Lee’s personality. He was ill-tempered, foul-mouthed, slovenly, and followed everywhere by a loyal pack of dogs who were really his only friends. But probably the thing that really sunk him was that he demanded pay. Pay that George Washington announced would be beneath his own dignity to accept.
So Lee wound up instead being given command of the Southern Department, and in mid-1776 he received credit for helping ward off an attack on Charleston, although that warding off was only accomplished after Lee’s own expert advice was ignored. After Lee was transferred back up to New York, Washington did everything he could to placate Lee’s ego because Washington was himself always entranced by the European way of war, a way that Lee knew better than anyone. It was indeed likely an overdose of respect that led Washington to merely encourage, rather than explicitly order, Lee to march from New York down to Pennsylvania. But Lee did not reciprocate this respect at all, and wasn’t going to lift a finger to help Washington. Because Lee was busy telling everyone who would listen, including the Congress in a steady stream of letters, that Washington was in way over his head and basically losing the war.
As Washington’s encouragement became less and less veiled, Lee slowly ever so slowly got moving. But then comes the hilarious bit. On the road, Commander in Chief in his own mind, Lee, decided to spend the night in a tavern well-removed from the rest of his army. The next morning, a mounted British patrol surrounded the house and captured Lee, who happened to be stark naked at the time. Whoops. Lee would spend the next six months in British custody before being exchanged for a captured British general. Given his conduct at Monmouth Courthouse, it probably would have been better for the Americans to exchange the captured British general for a sack of potatoes.
So without further reinforcements, Washington was forced to draw up a plan to attack Trenton with what men he had on hand, and oh, what a plan it was. Because as much as Washington was the master of the flawless retreat, he was also the master of the insanely complicated battle plan. And he was always coming up with these schemes that involved 27 different moving parts that needed to work in perfect synchronization, and his plan for Trenton was classic Washington.
It was laid out in three phases. First, 700 men would silently cross the Delaware River and seize a key bridge south of Trenton. Then, another 1,500 militia men would cross even further south and launch a diversionary attack on the garrison at Bordentown. Then, Washington and his main force of 2,400 men would cross the Delaware themselves at midnight, divide into two columns, and take separate roads the nine miles to Trenton. Then, they would all simultaneously be in position to strike the city no later than 5 am. So what we’ve got here is four different columns that will be moving in different directions at different times in the middle of the night in the dead of winter, all without tipping off the Hessians. And oh, by the way, if this doesn’t work, that’s the end of the war. Needless to say, this did not all unfold the way Washington planned, and it’s frankly a wonder it all turned out as well as it did. The first two phases of the operation, for example, failed immediately, as neither the advanced unit nor the diversionary force had been able to cross at their assigned locations due to the icy conditions of the Delaware River. Facts Washington did not learn until well after the battle was over.
Then, those same icy conditions destroyed his own timetable, and though everyone worked as fast and as well as they could, Washington’s army wasn’t even ready to start marching until 4 am. And according to the plan, they were already supposed to be at Trenton by now. But Washington pressed on. I mean, what else could he do? He divided his 2,400 men into the two columns, one that would approach Trenton from the north, and one that would come up and around from the south. Amazingly, both these columns hit their marks at almost the same time, just about 8 am.
As Washington led the final approach, though, he ran into a small independent company of about 50 Americans who knew nothing about the planned attack and were returning from a little raid on Trenton of their own, a raid that had seen them exchange gunfire with Hessian sentries. Washington was mortified and thought his entire operation was now exposed, but it’s possible that this raid actually put the Hessian’s mind at ease. You see, the Hessian colonel in charge of Trenton had been tipped off a few days earlier to watch out for a possible attack, and he had kept his men on high alert and running frequent patrols. When this little raiding party came and went, they thought the quote unquote attack had now come and gone and relaxed. Because it went without saying that in this crappy weather, nothing more could be expected from the Americans.
And that brings us to the myth of the drunk and or hungover Hessians. Unfortunately, for those of us who like a good story, the myth is just that, a myth. And eyewitnesses report that the Hessians, though caught off guard because they were really not expecting a major attack given the rotten weather, they were stone sober before, during, and after the battle. As Washington led his column to the north side of Trenton, they skirmished with an outpost about a mile outside the city, forcing the Hessian guards into a fighting retreat that alerted the rest of the garrison in Trenton that something much bigger was on the way.
But the Americans were able to place their artillery in time, one battery of which was commanded by a young artillery captain named Alexander Hamilton. As the Hessians tried to form up for battle, they were blasted into a chaotic mess. The Hessian colonel rushed around reforming his men for a counterattack, but wound up mortally wounded for his trouble. By now, the Hessians were squeezed between the advancing enemy on both sides, and within an hour, the Battle of Trenton was over. Twenty-two Hessians lay dead, another eighty-four were wounded, and almost a thousand captured, along with a bounty of muskets, bayonets, cannons, and provisions. The Americans suffered just two combat deaths and a few light wounds. It was exactly the kind of unambiguous, absolutely clear-cut victory that Washington and the Americans needed. The whole thing had been an enormous gamble, and had it failed, who knows whether the American rebellion would have gone down as little more than a historical footnote. Now Washington’s original plan was as ambitious as it was complicated, and he hoped to use the momentum from Trenton to immediately push on to Princeton. But the night’s delays, coupled with exhaustion, coupled with the news that the other advanced units never had crossed the river, led Washington to call it good right there, and he led his men and prisoners back across the Delaware, away from easy British retaliation.
The next day, though, Washington and his war council learned that the militia men that were supposed to have been running the diversion down south and now operating independently had elected to cross the Delaware. With this force already on the other side, Washington decided to follow them back into New Jersey. So on December 29, Washington sent his men back across the river to reoccupy Trenton, which had the added benefit of making it just a little bit harder for those men who planned to ditch out on January 1 to do so. When that fateful day did arrive, Washington gave impassioned addresses and offered bounties for just six more weeks’ service. Of the roughly 5,000 he now had on hand, he was able to hold 3,000, at least for the time being. Joined by the militiamen who had crossed further south, Washington now had 5,000 or 6,000 men under his immediate command.
Meanwhile, General Howe was not going to take the attack on Trenton lying down. Well, maybe he would, but his army sure wouldn’t, and he dispatched 8,000 men under Lord Cornwallis to stamp out this burgeoning American resilience.
Cornwallis marched through Princeton, dropped off a garrison, and then headed down to Trenton with 5,500 men. He was harassed the entire way by American Forward units, whose sole job was to make him and his men hate their rotten luck for being stuck on this assignment. When Cornwallis got to Trenton, he found the Americans drawn off on a ridge south of town, with a creek between them and the approaching British. Cornwallis tried three times to cross the creek’s bridge, but when each attempt failed, he decided to halt for the day and resume the attack in the morning, because from where he was sitting, Washington and his men were basically trapped up on that ridge.
But local knowledge can be a powerful weapon, and during the night, leaving a few men behind to tend the line of fires and shoot random cannon shots, Washington led his army down backroads that weren’t on any map. When dawn broke on January 2, Cornwallis found the ridge empty, and the British garrison left at Princeton found itself under attack.
The garrison was already on their way to join Cornwallis for their final assault on the ridge when they were hit by the army that was supposed to be trapped up on that ridge. In the initial fighting, the Americans were driven back and started to run for it, but Washington himself soon appeared on horseback, rerouted the fleeing men, and pointed them back in the right direction. In the midst of all this, there was a moment when Washington was riding around between the two lines shouting encouragements to his men, when both sides started firing at once. Absolutely inexplicably, when the smoke cleared, Washington was still just riding around. Not dead. Not even hit.
Following this miracle, the bulk of the British forces were able to push through and run south for Trenton, while the rest were pushed back and captured in Princeton. With yet another victory in hand, and Cornwallis bearing down on him, Washington decided that it really was time to call it quits for the year, and he led his men into winter quarters in Morristown, New Jersey. Morristown was about 25 miles west of New York City, and well-situated to stymie the British if they got it in their heads to move on Philadelphia or move up the Hudson River.
As we will see, winter was a dreadful time to be a soldier in the Continental Army. We’re talking no clothes, no food, only super rudimentary shelter, there was disease, it was just the pits. But we’ll talk more about it when we get to the famously hard winter next year at Valley Forge, and then a bit more when we talk about the less famously but even harder winter back in Morristown the year after that. These conditions made retaining soldiers so difficult that the fact that anyone stayed at all is positively miraculous. Washington’s whole army was down to just 3,000 men by March, with expiring terms, desertion, and smallpox taking their heavy toll. As spring came, the recruiters for the Continental Army did their best, and the total was back up to 9,000. But these recruiters were stymied by Washington’s old nemesis, the colonial militias, who offered higher bounties, better pay, and better terms of service. Begging, pleading, and demanding that local leaders stop poaching able-bodied men would be a constant refrain from Washington all through the war.
But, at least for the moment, his other bouts of begging, pleading, and demanding for guns and supplies got a little boost when American agents in France were able to set up back channel supply lines from the French government run through a front company in Paris. The French were obviously interested in seeing the colonials take it to their British enemies, but throwing in with the Americans completely was still out of the question. So at this point, we’re going to separate the two great threads that defined the war in 1777. Today, we’re going to stick with General Washington as he fails to keep the British out of Philadelphia and then fails to knock them out after they seize the capital. That will take us all the way to the end of the year.
But of course, as this is unfolding in Pennsylvania, the turning point of the war is unfolding in upstate New York. And we will talk about that next week, because otherwise, it’ll just be too much hopping around, as everything is happening simultaneously in September and October 1777. So sticking with Washington, the campaign season of 1777 did not get going until mid-June, when General Howe decided it was high time he set out on that one more year of good campaigning to finish off the rebellion.
On June 17th, Howe moved a large force off Staten Island and flashed them around New Jersey hoping to lure Washington into a decisive battle, but Washington did not take the bait. A week later, Howe maneuvered around again trying to draw out the Americans, but Washington managed to squeeze his men out of a trap in the nick of time. These ploys having failed, Howe elected to abandon New Jersey and then pull off the mainland completely.
A stunt like this were the great reason why the Americans were doomed without foreign assistance. Because without an enemy navy to stop him, Howe could do things like put 18,000 men on transport ships, set out onto the high seas, and then put them back in wherever he wanted, which is exactly what he did in the summer of 1777. I mean, you could guess where his army was going to suddenly reappear, but there was no way of knowing for sure, and it understandably became Washington’s great obsession over the summer. The available options, though, were basically threefold. Go after Philadelphia from some angle or another, head north to link up with the Burgoyne Expedition coming down from Canada, that’s what we’re going to talk about next week, or transfer the whole focus of the war and head down to like Charleston, South Carolina.
Now from everyone’s point of view, it is the British Ministry, the American War Council, the unanimous judgment of history, what Howe needed to do was go link up with Burgoyne. But for a variety of reasons we’ll talk about next week, that did not happen. And from at least April forward, Howe had his eye on taking the rebel capital in Philadelphia. Once he put out to sea, the only question in his own mind was where exactly and when exactly he would land to make that attempt. The endlessly and helplessly frustrating days of speculation and inactivity finally ended for Washington at the end of August, when Howe put into Chesapeake Bay about 50 miles southwest of Philadelphia. While Howe let his men recuperate, the month at sea had been pretty awful, Washington got his army marching south, picking up militia companies along the way, until he commanded nearly 20,000 men. On the way to the confrontation with the British, the American army entered and then marched as smartly as they could through the streets of Philadelphia. Washington tried to put on as good a show as he could, but even a casual observer could tell that these boys did not step as lively nor look as sharp as a professional army ought to step and look. Meanwhile, Howe was now on his way north with 15,000 men, harassed as was now the custom by small detachments of American forces. Washington moved west out of Philadelphia, and on September the 10th, he decided to draw up a line of about 14,000 continentals and militiamen at Brandywine Creek. There were only a few places the British army could ford the river, and the Americans worked to cover those spots and make the main road into Philadelphia impregnable. Unfortunately, as had been the case at Long Island, the Americans left open a pair of fords on the very far right of their line, possibly because they just did not know they were there. Howe found out about these open fords, so this time it was the British rather than the Americans who enjoyed that all-powerful weapon, local knowledge. At 4 am on September the 11th, Howe sent forward a detachment of 5,000 men under one of the Hessian commanders to feign a frontal attack, while he and Cornwallis led the rest of the army on a wide flanking maneuver across those unguarded fords. Now one of the questions looming over the Battle of Brandywine is that it appears Washington heard that something was up on his far right as early as 930 am, but he did not act, and no one really knows why. But it was possibly just because he didn’t believe the reports. But by two in the afternoon, the bulk of the British forces were across the creek, and threatening the utterly exposed American right flank. Quickly, the American forces reformed a line to stop them, and they were given a little breathing room because Howe and Cornwallis took their sweet time forming up for the attack. By four o’clock, though, that attack came, and it quickly became apparent that the scrambling Americans had left a hole in their hastily reformed lines. The British poured through that hole, and though American reinforcements showed up and bought everyone some time, the fighting descended into brutal, ugly chaos, and the Americans broke and ran. Not in any kind of classic Washington-led order. This was panicked flight. Meanwhile, back where Washington had thought the battle was going to take place, the Hessian commander had waited for the sound of Howe’s attack to press right up the middle. They fought their way across the creek, and engaged in fierce close-quarters combat. But the fighting had started so late in the day that darkness soon forced both sides to pull back. Washington wasted no time catching his breath. He and his men were beaten and beaten bad, and they had to get the hell out of there and regroup. So, while the British did take a breather, the Americans spent the night in full retreat. The Battle of Brandywine was yet another clear-cut victory for Howe over Washington. Though, somehow, the American army still stood between the British and Philadelphia. A week and a half later, though, Howe maneuvered around and tricked the battered Americans into following him a ways up the Schuylkill River before doubling back and crossing at a lower ford. That left the way to Philadelphia wide open. On September 18th, the delegates of the Second Continental Congress, learning that they were exposed, booked it, eventually to York, Pennsylvania, where they would remain in exile for the next year.
But when the British marched into Philadelphia on the 26th, looking every bit the professional army the continentals had just shown themselves not to be, it wasn’t the decisive blow Howe had hoped it would be. I mean, hello, I just took your capital. That means it’s time to surrender. Hello? Do you guys even know how to play this game? But the Americans did not know how to play that game, and Washington and his men retreated 25 miles outside of the city to plan their next move. Once in Philadelphia, Howe had to scatter his forces so they wouldn’t trip over each other trying to sleep and eat. But knowing that the American army was still out in the neighborhood, he concentrated 9,000 men at Germantown, about five miles north of the city.
Washington and his officers decided that taking the forces at Germantown was risky, but too juicy to pass up because, for the moment, the Americans would actually outnumber the British there. And if it went totally right, a victory at Germantown — along with the utterly astounding American victory up at Saratoga — might just be enough to win the war. I mean, seriously, despite everything, the Americans were in a really good position to win the Revolutionary War right there in the fall of 1777. As with Trenton, Washington’s battle plan for Germantown was a perfect work of art — just as long as it didn’t try to, like, leave the tent.
It involved four columns setting out on night marches, so that they could simultaneously attack Germantown from four different directions at dawn. Which is all well and good, except that it’s night, the terrain is difficult, and some of the columns have much farther to march than others. Oh, also, a heavy fog is about to set in. It would be hard enough to pull off Washington’s plan for Germantown with modern communications. Without them, well, good luck everybody. They did at least think to stick a piece of white paper in everyone’s hat, so that they could tell their friend from their enemy when they all got to the other side.
A force marched through the night of October 3 and 4, put the various columns close to Germantown without yet being detected. But only one of the flanking columns reached its intended position when dawn came. Finally, around 5am, the American column that was aiming right at the heart of town came rolling in and kicked off the battle by firing on British guards, who sounded the alarm. At this point, General Howe actually came riding out personally to convince these guards to hold firm, since they were only facing a few obnoxious raiders. When the American cannons started going off, though, Howe pulled back and his men quickly followed him. This was no party of raiders. This was a full-scale attack.
But then the Americans started making mistakes. Instead of driving forward, they got bogged down at a stone house on the edge of town. Fortified by the British, Washington’s options were either bypass it or try to take it. He almost elected to bypass it, but Henry Knox convinced him that the oldest war manuals in the world said never leave a strong point in your rear, and promised that his artillery boys could take it. But after an hour of banging cannonballs off the side of the house, it turned out that Knox’s artillery boys could not in fact take it, and they were just wasting time, ammunition, and more than a few men. Meanwhile, the other American columns started pouring into town from their different directions, but the heavy fog made everything super confusing. One unit fell back because they thought they were exposed when they really weren’t. Another detachment coming in from the flank took a wrong turn, and wound up banging into those retreating guys, and they all started firing at each other. Meanwhile, the last column to arrive, led by Nathaniel Greene, pushed into the mix, and his advance companies managed to actually capture a bunch of prisoners, but then those advanced units were themselves surrounded. Believing the rest of the army in retreat, Green too withdrew.
Realizing that this had all gone awry, Washington ordered a full retreat, and his army was chased for nearly 10 miles before Green’s forces were able to buy the rest time to get away completely. The Battle of Germantown was yet another defeat for the Americans, but oddly enough it actually helped Benjamin Franklin make the all-important case he was currently making to the French. Because despite it all ending in failure, European observers in America were impressed by the sophistication of the plan, the bravery of the troops, and as always, the disciplined retreat. It had all gone haywire in the fog, but you really can’t blame them for that, and one or two breaks and Germantown would have been a smashing American success. So it was clear by the end of 1777 that the Continental Army had shaped up to be a real army, not just some pretend mob of hooligans. But this was little comfort for Washington himself, as he and his army settled into their famously hard winter at Valley Forge, because he was forced to dwell on the defeats at Brandywine and Germantown and question his own ability to win the war. And he was not the only one asking those questions.
Next week though, we are going to go back in time to the spring of 1777 and run through the Saratoga campaigns up in the north, which started with British General John Burgoyne setting out on what he thought was some kind of luxurious triumphal parade, and ended with him handing over his sword.
- Thomas Paine
- Charles Lee (general)
- George Washington
- Alexander Hamilton
- Henry Knox
- Benjamin Franklin
- John Burgoyne
- Nathanael Greene
- The Republic in Print: Print Culture in the Age of U.S. Nation Building, 1770-1870 by Trish Loughran: https://amzn.to/3FuM1Mh
With the revolution on the line, George Washginton led his army to victory at Trenton. Unfortunately he would be unable to stop the British from taking Philadelphia in 1777.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider buying Mike Duncan's books:
- Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution: https://amzn.to/3VNqViT
- The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic: https://amzn.to/3h26YpW
- The History of Rome: The Republic: https://amzn.to/3UAvImK
Podscript is a personal project to make podcast transcripts available to everyone for free. Please support this project by following us on Twitter.