Revolutionary War Historical Article
An Angel on His Shoulder
By Donald N. Moran
Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the April 1999 Edition of the Liberty Tree and Valley Compatriot Newsletter
Since the bicentennial of George Washington's passing, you have been reading about the greatness that is Washington. To those of us who have a religious turn of mind, we know he had lots of help. Here you will read of several instances where General Washington and the cause of American independence was saved time and time again by divine intervention.
By the time General Washington assumed Command of the American forces laying siege to the City of Boston, it was clear it was a stalemate. The American army was not strong enough to dislodge the British and the British were not strong enough to break out. All of this would change come Spring when the British received reinforcements from England.
At a council of War, held on February 16th, 1776, the American command decided on a plan to break the stalemate driving the British out of Boston before the expected reinforcements arrived.
The story of the American army fortifying Dorchester Heights with the artillery brought from Fort Ticonderoga by Henry Knox is well known. But, what few know is that it was only part of the plan of Battle.
Washington and his generals planned on an invasion of Boston while Lieutenant General William Howe's army was attacking Dorchester Heights. It was thought that he could not successfully take the Heights and defend Boston at the same time. It was known by the Americans that the city could not be held while they sat on Dorchester Heights. The British Army's pride would force them to risk another murderous attack, much like Bunker Hill, where they suffered forty percent casualties. Both sides knew that every day the attack was delayed the stronger the fortifications would be.
As expected General Howe decided to attack. He assigned Brigadier General Jones to make the attack with the majority of the forces in Boston. For the British this was to be a do or die attack.
American Generals Nathaniel Greene and John Sullivan, with 4,000 men, in 45 bateaux, would cross the Back Bay and attack Boston itself. The object was not to drive the British from Boston, but to defeat them in detail and force their surrender.
Most military historians agree that the British would have not only carried Dorchester Heights, although suffering tremendous casualties, but they would have been able to repulse the Back Bay attack as well. Simply by repositioning a single man-of-war in the harbor and bringing their guns to bear on the American invading force, would make their retreat impossible. General Washington had overestimated the ability of his men, and the outcome of this plan would have been disastrous.
The night of the planned attacks, a terrible storm struck preventing both armies from putting their plans in action. By the time the weather cleared it became obvious that the Americans had continued to work on the fortification in spite of the weather. General Howe realized his window on opportunity had passed. Dorchester Height was now practically invincible. He called off the British attack and notified General Washington of his intentions to abandon Boston and agreed to not burn the city if he was allowed to evacuate without interference.
Divine intervention saved the American Army and General George Washington's reputation.
At the end of the same year, 1776, the situation was desperate. The Revolution was falling apart. Most of the Army's enlistments were up. What the Revolution needed was an important victory. Washington planned the attack on the New Jersey town of Trenton based on information received from his informants. The only way it could succeed is if total surprise was achieved. However, his informants had failed to mention that the Hessians constantly patrolled the banks of the Delaware River. On Christmas Day, the weather was so bad that Colonel Johann RaIl, commander of the Hessian forces at Trenton, decided to cease the patrols that had been a regular routine. Had it not been for the miserable weather, the American attack would have been discovered, and without the element of surprise, would have failed.
Here again divine intervention saved the Revolution.
The loss of Trenton in itself was not significant, however, its loss made it clear to the British that they could not spread their army out to garrison all the towns in the colonies. It was also clear that the whole of Washington's army would fall on them defeating them piecemeal. They abandoned all of countryside and confined their entire Army on Manhattan and Staten Islands. For the American cause the value of the Trenton victory can never be underestimated.
After wintering in Valley Forge, the Continental Army emerged a well trained fighting force, thanks to the herculean efforts of the Baron von Steuben. At the same time, the British decided to concentrate their forces in New York. Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton decided to march his army across New Jersey to reach the safe haven of New York.
Washington pursued him. On June 28th, 1778, at a little village called Monmouth Court House, the advanced elements of the Continental Army, under the command of American General Charles Lee closed on them. A battle resulted, and Lee, for reasons still unknown, ordered an immediate retreat.
When General Washington arrived the Continental army was in complete disorder and in full flight. The famous encounter between Washington and Lee on that field of battle is well known. After firing Lee from the army, Washington, by his sheer presence, rallied the Continentals and formed a line of battle to stop the pursuing British Army. Washington, aided by his Aide-de-Camps, Lieutenant Colonels Alexander Hamilton, John Fitzgerald, John Laurens, Richard Meade, and Captain Caleb Gibbs, Commandant of the General's personal guard, assisted him by following his example. They galloped up and down in front of the rallying American troops, getting them into a defensive position.
This heroic effort was not without cost. These officers were making themselves excellent targets. Hamilton fell first, injuring his leg, when his horse was shot out from under him; Fitzgerald received a slight wound to his shoulder; Meade received a painful injury when his black mare was hit and rolled over him - - he was almost captured. Laurens was next, being slightly wounded, and finally, Gibbs survived unharmed, but his horse was also killed, giving him a nasty fall. As for General Washington, not a scratch! Divine intervention.
In October of 1781, the Southern Continental Army with the assistance of the French Fleet under Admiral Francois Comte de Grasse, had trapped Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis in the little Virginia coastal town of Yorktown. Washington and French General, The Comte de Rochambeau, marched their respective armies south to join the siege and destroy General Cornwallis's army.
This remarkable effort was achieved in spite of numerous logistic problems. By September 29th, Yorktown was completely surrounded. Parallel trenches were being dug by night in front of the British fortifications. Siege artillery, brought by the French, were placed in key positions and bombarded the town relentlessly. It soon became clear to Cornwallis that a rescue force would not be coming and his position was hopeless, with only one chance of survival.
On the night of October 16th and 17th, Cornwallis planned a daring maneuver, to evacuate Yorktown, by crossing the James River to Gloucester Point - - a distance of half a mile. The British fortifications at Gloucester Point were opposed by a mixed force of General George Weedon's 1,500 Virginia Militia, 800 French Marines and The Armand Duc de Lauzun's Legion of 600 for a total of 2,900. Cornwallis's attacking force, his entire command, numbered about 9,750. The attack would be a surprise and would overwhelm the Americans and French. Then with a series of forced marches, the British Army would retire north, up the peninsula and make their escape. That night, as the evacuation operation had started, a storm struck, making the crossing to Gloucester impossible. Cornwallis's last chance was denied him, not by Washington or Rochambeau, but by Divine intervention.
The defeat at Yorktown was the straw that broke the British back. It was, for all intents and purposes, what ended the war and was the beginning of American independence.