The Republic of Miracles
The cause of freedom almost perished on the banks of the East River in 1776. Gen. George Washington and the Continental Army were caught in a trap on Long Island, New York. Surrounded on three sides by the British Army, their only escape route was across the treacherous East River. British gunboats sought to tighten the noose around the exhausted, outnumbered American troops. They should have succeeded.
What happened next defied all probability. For three days, a strong northeasterly wind prevented British ships from sailing up the East River. For three long days, the Continental Army shivered in ferocious rain with no tents and watched its rations disappear. Despite Washington’s instincts to stand and fight, retreat was the only possible solution. If Washington and the 9,000-soldier Continental Army were captured or destroyed, all hope for American independence would be lost.
Washington gave orders for as many boats as possible to be secretly gathered along the East River for evacuation. The Americans needed to escape before the British front lines realized the sudden retreat and before British ships could block their only avenue of escape. The retreat would occur under the cover of darkness.
This was George Washington’s first battle as commander in chief, and he had performed poorly. Yet in the face of disaster, his character and leadership rose to the occasion. For almost two days, he had been in the saddle constantly encouraging his men. Now, he meticulously directed the evacuation. The plan was executed flawlessly until around 10 p.m. The strong northeasterly wind resumed and prevented the boats from crossing the river. Delay would endanger the men still on Long Island. Suddenly, the wind shifted to blow to the southwest, which was the most favorable direction. The evacuation resumed with great fervor.
As dawn approached, it was clear that not all the men would escape before daylight revealed their perilous positions. Unexpectedly, salvation came in the form of a dense fog. According to firsthand accounts, visibility was reduced to six yards or less. This spontaneous fog sheltered the American troops until every single soldier was safely across the East River. Washington stayed until every man was safely on a boat, as Col. Benjamin Tallmadge recalls:
When we reached Brooklyn Ferry, the boats had not returned from their last trip, but they very soon appeared and took the whole regiment over to New York; and I think I saw General Washington on the ferry stairs when I stepped into one of the last boats that received the troops.
As David McCullough put it, the “Dunkirk of the American Revolution” succeeded. The Continental Army survived to fight another day. So did George Washington, who, as events would demonstrate, was the only man with the necessary leadership to weather the War of Independence. The American republic would have been stillborn on the banks of the East River if not for the miraculous weather. This was not the first nor the last time providence intervened for the Revolutionaries.
America should have lost the War of Independence. If not for a series of unpredictable and timely interventions, the British would have retained control over all of North America. No other nation has had a more unlikely birth.
As America enters an uncertain future in 2017, we should reflect on our history as the republic of miracles.
First Step to Freedom
When the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence on Aug. 8, 1776, in Philadelphia, they had all deliberately decided to defy the world’s greatest empire. The British Empire spanned across North America, into the Caribbean, and across to India and the Pacific islands. The British boasted one of the best-trained armies on Earth and were invigorated by their victory over archrival France in the Seven Years’ War. Despite the odds, the American colonists were fighting for the same rights that the English had fought for in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
It was not a rebellion against the rule of law, but rather a revolution to create a better rule of law. The American colonists had every right to the same freedoms of representative taxation and self-government. The British would learn some painful lessons in colonial administration through their experience with the stubborn colonists. But we will always be indebted to the 56 men who took the fateful and perilous first step of founding a nation based upon “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The next seven years were to contain some of the most monumental trials in American history.
Spark of Revolution
Boston, Massachusetts, saw the spark of the revolution. Samuel Adams, the second cousin of John Adams, was the chief agitator and most extreme of all the revolutionary leaders. He had incited the “Boston Massacre” on March 5, 1770, and had organized the Boston Tea Party on Dec. 16, 1773. Both these events helped galvanize the colonial population to support the movement toward revolution. However, it also provoked King George iii to send troops to quell the civil rebellion.
Gen. Thomas Gage was appointed governor of Massachusetts in 1774. He was able to concentrate 4,000 British troops in Boston. On April 19, 1775, Gage sent 700 troops to Concord and Lexington to confiscate gunpowder being amassed by the rebels. The first shot of the Revolution was fired in Concord.
The British responded by sending an additional 4,500 men to North America under the command of Gen. Sir Henry Clinton and Gen. William Howe. They sought to destroy the rebellious militias in Boston by capturing the fort on Breed’s Hill and encircling them on the Charlestown peninsula. The Battle of Bunker Hill ensued.
General Howe planned a flanking maneuver on the right flank along Mystic Beach. He would use this undefended beach to lead the British Light Infantry to the rear of the rebel lines and trap them, forcing them to surrender. Before Howe could execute this plan, however, American Col. John Stark, from a New Hampshire regiment, noticed the vulnerable spot and deployed 200 of his best marksmen there. The British Light Infantry was repulsed, and the American troops were saved from certain destruction. Howe was forced into a bloody frontal assault.
The Americans withdrew when their ammunition stores expired—they only lost 450 men. The British attained a Pyrrhic victory at the cost of half their men. Shortly afterward, the British retreated to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The Battle of Bunker Hill became a moment of self-realization for many American colonists. It proved that the untrained American militias could stand and fight against the British regulars. Few realized, however, that Colonel Stark’s providential foresight prevented total defeat and probably the collapse of the revolutionary cause.
1776: A Year of Retreat
In August 1776, Britain returned to subdue its rebellious colonies with the largest armada the Americas had seen: 400 ships in total. The armada—carrying 32,000 troops composed of British regiments and German mercenaries, the best Europe had to offer—landed on Staten Island, New York, unopposed.
The Declaration of Independence, signed only days before the British flotilla arrived, had completely changed the conflict. No longer was there any doubt of the colonists’ intentions; they were fighting for independence. However, the British legions were a sober reminder of the great odds facing the revolutionaries.
On June 19, the Continental Congress had appointed George Washington as the commander in chief of the Continental Army. In mid-August 1776, Washington watched the vast British force pour onto Staten Island. Knowing that battle was imminent, he wrote: “The day of the trial, which will in some measure decide the fate of America, is near at hand.”
On August 22, the British began ferrying troops across to Long Island, where Washington had unwisely divided his men into two groups. What transpired was the largest battle of the Revolutionary War and nearly the most disastrous. The American troops lost approximately 20 percent of their men through casualties or capture. As explained earlier, Washington was able to conduct a brilliant retreat, but brilliant retreats do not deliver victory.
The ill-trained and ill-equipped Continental Army fought a month later at the Battle of White Plains but was forced to retreat west across the Hudson River, giving the British full control of New York. The British strategy was to capture the Hudson Valley and the string of forts spanning the defensive line. This would divide the colonies, separating New England from the southern colonies. With New York captured, the British cautiously pursued Washington across New Jersey before settling into winter quarters.
This was the most pivotal moment of the entire war. The Continental Army was one only in name. With the harsh northeast winter bearing down on them, most of Washington’s troops lacked boots, coats and warm clothes. Food was becoming scarce, and so was pay. Washington’s army was quickly wasting away. The British propaganda campaign did not help as it lured many militia recruits away from the Continental Army. On December 18, Washington wrote his brother John in a confidential letter:
I think the game is pretty near up …. You can form no idea of the perplexity of my situation. No man, I believe, ever had a greater choice of difficulties and less means to extricate himself from them.
When Thomas Paine visited the army in Morristown, he found them in such a poor state that he wrote The American Crisis, which includes the immortal line: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Washington had the entire essay read aloud before each soldier. With time running out to save the cause of freedom, Washington planned a daring night attack.
The British had ceased pursuing the Continental Army and had erroneously scattered their outposts throughout New Jersey. Trenton and Bordentown were manned by a few thousand Hessians. Washington planned an attack for Christmas Day, 1776. The Hessians were famous for their Christmas parties and would be ineffectual fighters in a drunken state.
As Christmas Day came to a close, Washington led his winter soldiers through the freezing cold and strong winds to cross the Delaware River. Some men froze to death on the way to the boats. Men had to break through ice to get to the boats. Some did not have boots. Others suffered as the winter storm refroze their soaking wet clothes. Despite the terrible conditions, the weather was their greatest ally. Under the cover of darkness, three columns attacked the two outposts in Trenton and Bordentown. The Hessians were taken by complete surprise. Washington had a victory.
A few nights later, on Jan. 3, 1777, Washington made a daring night march around the left flank of Gen. Charles Cornwallis’s army at Princeton, only a few miles away from Trenton. The British were routed; they were forced to retreat to Brunswick and abandon most of New Jersey.
Washington’s small band of freezing, starving winter soldiers had ended 1776 and started 1777 with miraculous victories. Had either attempt failed, it is likely the middle colonies would have surrendered. Thanks to British arrogance and timidity, and Hessian indulgences, the American War of Independence continued.
Disaster at Saratoga
Even with these defeats, the British still held a massive advantage. An ill-fated American attack on Canada led by Gen. Benedict Arnold had been repulsed with heavy losses, and the British prepared to advance from the north. Gen. John Burgoyne planned to capture Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain and march south along the Hudson valley to meet General Howe. The bulk of the British Army would remain at West Point, the main fort still under American control. It was a sound plan, having the approval of London and King George iii.
But British incompetence once again intervened in the conflict. Sir Winston Churchill wrote in A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Vol. 3:
Rarely has British strategy fallen into such a multitude of errors. Every maxim and principle of war was either violated or disregarded. “Seek out and destroy the enemy” is a sound rule. “Concentrate your force” is a sound method. “Maintain your objective” is common sense. The enemy was Washington’s army. The force consisted of Howe’s troops in New York and Burgoyne’s columns now assembled in Montreal. The objective was to destroy Washington’s army and kill or capture Washington. If he could be brought to battle and every man and gun turned against him, a British victory was almost certain. But these obvious truths were befogged and bedeviled by multiplicity of counsel.
General Howe, Burgoyne’s superior, had no intention of complying with this strategy. Instead of marching north to meet Burgoyne, Howe attacked Philadelphia and captured the de-facto capital. However, it was an empty victory since the real objective was the destruction of the Continental Army. Burgoyne left Montreal under the assumption that Howe would assist him at a crucial juncture. Instead Burgoyne and his 9,000 men were left stranded.
This miraculous incompetence of the British military opened the door for the revolutionaries. Congress sent Horatio Gates to oppose the British, and Washington sent Benedict Arnold to bolster his forces. Gates’s cautiousness was a stark contrast to Arnold’s impetuous bravery. The clash of personalities would almost cost the Americans as much as the British.
As Burgoyne’s column advanced, Gates entrenched in Bemis Heights and awaited the attack. Burgoyne tried to flank the position, but Arnold, seeing the danger, suggested an attack on the British in the woods near Freeman’s Farm. After an ear-splitting argument, Arnold attacked the British and repulsed them with heavy losses. Burgoyne still had the advantage but began to wonder when Howe would rendezvous with him.
Three weeks later, Burgoyne’s army, starving and desperate, still awaited reinforcements. Gates, a clever egoist, had not given credit to Arnold for the Battle of Freeman’s Farm; after an exchange of unpleasantries, he confined Arnold to his tent and relieved him of his duties. The armies clashed in a desperate struggle for victory. The British regulars began to turn the tide of battle against the revolutionaries until Arnold rallied the troops and led them to capture a key British position. If Arnold had not disobeyed orders when he heard the sounds of battle, Burgoyne probably would have smashed Gates’s army. Instead, the British were forced to retreat. American historian Thomas Fleming wrote:
The following night, the British tried to retreat. But swarming militia cut them off, and Burgoyne surrendered his army to Gates on Oct. 17, 1777, an event of earthshaking importance in both the military and diplomatic history of the Revolution. In France, Louis xvi’s advisers decided the Americans could win the war and began backing them with desperately needed money and guns.
The American victory at Saratoga fundamentally transformed the war. France became involved in the war and divided Britain’s attention with battles in India and the West Indies.
But the victory could hardly be credited to American arms. If the British had been united in command and converged on the Hudson Valley, they could have destroyed Gates’s and Washington’s forces. Without French help, the Revolution would have collapsed. Even Arnold’s disobedience changed the course of the battle. Greater forces were influencing the outcome of the war.
Victory by Endurance
While disaster overtook the British in western New York, Howe was quickly advancing to seize the capital at Philadelphia. Washington unsuccessfully fought at Brandywine and Germantown to stop the British, and Howe moved into the colonies’ largest city. As winter descended on Pennsylvania, Washington and the Continental Army retreated to Valley Forge.
During the Battle of Brandywine, Washington was reconnoitering a position with an aide. The two crossed paths with a British captain named Patrick Ferguson (inventor of the breech-loading rifle). Captain Ferguson had Washington in his sights, but refused to shoot a man in the back. Ferguson was also impressed by the indifference Washington showed toward danger.
While the Continental Army clung to survival, General Howe resigned from command, and Sir Henry Clinton became commander. The entry of the French into the war gave the Americans some sea power, and Clinton scrambled to cover his base at New York when the first French troops arrived in the summer of 1778. Clinton also resolved a shift in strategy. Instead of focusing on New England, he wanted to subdue the South. Most of the loyalists were in the South; if the rebels felt the scourge of war, Clinton was sure the cause would collapse.
The war in the South opened a violent and tragic page in American history. The most gruesome crimes of the war were committed by American colonists against other American colonists. Patriots murdered Loyalists, which spawned revenge killings. It was a turbulent backdrop for the final act of the American Revolution.
As all this was happening, Benedict Arnold was making his own plans. After the Battle at Saratoga, he had become embittered. A mixed desire for wealth and the need to pay off debts led Arnold to betray the American cause. He began negotiating with the British to surrender West Point, the major hinge of American control in the Hudson Valley. The plans were moving forward until a random patrol intercepted the disguised British officer carrying papers with details of the betrayal. What is even more miraculous is that these men were intent on robbing the officer when they found the papers in his boots; they quickly realized they had stumbled onto something of great importance. The plan was foiled, but only by some well-timed looting.
As the British invaded Charleston in 1780 to establish their new base of operations, the war had become a test of endurance. It was clear that victory would be determined by which army could withstand the elements and win the most battles.
Tightening the Noose
On Aug. 16, 1780, British Gen. Charles Cornwallis smashed the southern army under Horatio Gates at the Battle of Camden. South Carolina was effectively under British control, but British error once again saved the Revolution. Riding the high of victory, Cornwallis believed he could subdue North Carolina and Virginia. The British Army left its sanctuary around Charleston and marched north, certain of an easy victory.
Instead, Cornwallis’s column became embroiled in a quagmire of guerrilla warfare led by Nathaniel Greene and Daniel Morgan. At the Battle of Cowpens on Jan. 17, 1781, Morgan and his sharpshooters defeated a small army under British Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton after some subtle feints and misperceptions. The British, exhausted from a night march and not allowed to eat breakfast, were too weak to fight effectively. If Tarleton had let them eat breakfast, they may have overcome the sharpshooters. This turned the tide of the war in the South and forced Cornwallis, after a few costly battles, to head for the coast.
With the Americans and French approaching war weariness, the stand at Cowpens by Morgan’s men had reinvigorated the war effort in France and gave the Americans a chance to end the war. With Cornwallis marching toward Yorktown in Virginia, Washington was poised to attack New York. But his French comrade, the Count de Rochambeau, changed his mind, and Washington closed the noose around Yorktown, which was put under siege.
The British planned to evacuate Cornwallis from Yorktown, however, storms stopped them from leaving New York for two days. Then the French fleet gave the revolutionaries a brief window of sea power dominance by defeating the British Navy in a short battle. This resulted in Cornwallis’s surrender on Oct. 19, 1781. This was the finale of a war fraught with danger and unlikely successes. A few years later, the republic of miracles was born on Sept. 17, 1787, when the Constitution was signed in Philadelphia.
Thomas Fleming wrote in an essay titled 13 Ways America Could Have Lost the American Revolution:
When a historian ponders the what-ifs of the American Revolution, chills run up and down and around the cerebellum. There were almost too many moments when the Patriot cause teetered on the brink of disaster, to be retrieved by the most unlikely accidents or coincidences or choices made by harried men in the heat of conflict.
Imagine if the idea of American liberty were smothered in the cradle. Some of the greatest achievements in the past 200 years, and some of the greatest victories over evil would have never happened. It is easy to take for granted the superpower prosperity of America, but events nearly took a drastically different course.
The victories at Bunker Hill and Trenton, the endurance of the Continental Army under Washington, and the vain blunders of the British did not happen by chance. There were no coincidences or accidents that decided such an important outcome. The only explanation for the American victory in the War of Independence was that the great God intervened. Fleming ended his essay with what George Washington thought was the real cause of victory:
Many years later, George Washington reportedly corresponded with Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Continental Congress, about writing their memoirs. Thomson had been present at virtually every session of the Congress, from its inception in 1774 to its dissolution in 1788. Between them the two men probably knew more secrets than the entire Congress and Continental Army combined. They decided that memoirs were a bad idea. It would be too disillusioning if the American people discovered how often the glorious cause came close to disaster. They jointly agreed that the real secret of America’s final victory in the eight-year struggle could be summed up in two words: divine providence.”
It is clear when reviewing this history that no single man, or group of men, could claim the credit for victory. Even the Founding Fathers themselves readily admitted that a heavenly power aided the establishment of the American Republic. Men far more brilliant than we are humbly gave God credit for the victory. This lesson is especially prescient for us today.
2017 promises to be a watershed year. Whether it is because Donald Trump will assume the office of U.S. president or the status of the world order, many anticipate disaster. If the republic of miracles is to survive, we must again look to the source of our strength. No man, political party nor ideology can save America from disaster. We must look to the God of miracles to make America great again. That is the choice facing each individual. The choice we make will set the course for our freedom in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.