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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

As a military commander Washington ranks high


a military commander Washington ranks high. He had not, indeed, the genius of a Marlborough or a Napoleon. Rather he owed his success to a thorough grasp of his profession combined with just that remarkably level and unbiassed judgment which distinguished his conduct of civil affairs. He understood very clearly the conditions of the war in which he was to engage. He knew that Great Britain, as soon as she really woke up to the seriousness of her peril, would send out a formidable force of well-disciplined professional soldiers, and that at the hands of such a force no mere levy of enthusiastic volunteers could expect anything but defeat. The breathing space which the incredible supineness of the British Government allowed him enabled him to form something like a real army. Throughout the campaigns that followed his primary object was not to win victories, but to keep that army in being. So long as it existed, he knew that it could be continually reinforced by the enthusiasm of the colonials, and that the recruits so obtained could be consolidated into and imbued with the spirit of a disciplined body. The moment it ceased to exist Great Britain would have to deal simply with rebellious populations, and Washington was soldier enough to know that an army can always in time break up and keep down a mere population, however eager and courageous.

And now England at last did what, if she were determined to enforce her will upon the colonists, she ought

to have done at least five years before. She sent out an army on a scale at least reasonably adequate to the business for which it was designed. It consisted partly of excellent British troops and partly of those mercenaries whom the smaller German princes let out for hire to those who chose to employ them. It was commanded by Lord Howe. The objective of the new invasion--for the procrastination of the British Government had allowed the war to assume that character--was the city of New York.

New York harbour possesses, as anyone who enters it can see, excellent natural defences. Manhattan Island, upon which the city is built, lies at the mouth of the Hudson between two arms of that river. At the estuary are a number of small islets well suited for the emplacement of powerful guns. The southern bank runs northward into a sharp promontory, at the end of which now stands the most formidable of American fortresses. The northern approach is covered by Long Island. The British command decided on the reduction of Long Island as a preliminary to an assault upon the city. The island is long and narrow, and a ridge of high ground runs down it like a backbone. This ridge Washington's army sought to hold against the attack of the British forces. It was the first real battle of the war, and it resulted in a defeat so overwhelming that it might well have decided the fate of America had not Washington, as soon as he saw how the day was going, bent all his energies to the tough task of saving his army. It narrowly escaped complete destruction, but ultimately a great part succeeded, though with great loss and not a little demoralization, in reaching Brooklyn in safety.

The Americans still held New York, the right bank of the Hudson; but their flank was dangerously threatened, and Washington, true to his policy, preferred the damaging loss of New York to the risk of his army. He retired inland, again offered battle, was again defeated and forced back into Pennsylvania. So decided did the superiority of the British army prove to be that eventually Philadelphia itself, then the capital of the Confederacy, had to be abandoned.

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