« ForrigeFortsett »
issue of which, the ultimate fate of the country was supposed to hang.
Lord Cornwallis, who, after his unsuccessful pursuit of Washington as far as the Delaware, had returned to New York with the view of embarking for England, hearing of the movements of the American troops, abandoned all thoughts of his voyage for the present, and hastened to join General Grant, who at the head of the British forces had marched to meet the Americans at Trenton. Washington with about five thousand men was posted on the south bank of Sanpink Creek; a force greatly inferiour in numbers to that of the enemy, and composed chiefly of raw, undisciplined militia. He had about thirty pieces of artillery posted on the bank of the creek, which was easily fordable in every part of it, and in this perilous situation hung the destinies of the young Republick, when Cornwallis arrived on the opposite bank of the creek. We have more than once in the course of this history, had occasion to remark, that when the hopes of the Americans were at the lowest ebb, when the fate of their hazardous conflict seemed to hang upon a single thread, and when death and slavery were the only alternatives in their view, something has occurred, like the special interference of Providence, to avert the threatened danger, and throw the sunshine of hope over the gloom of despair. So it happened in the present instance. If Lord Cornwallis had listened to the advice of Sir William Erskine, and made an immediate attack upon the Americans, instead of lying down to enjoy a night of repose, in the sanguine assurance that his victim could not escape him, nothing could have saved our little army from annihilation. But the moments devoted by
the British commander to sleep, were far otherwise employed by Washington. He saw the peril of his situation, and as upon all occasions of importance, called his officers together to consult upon the means of safety. In this instance, his advice was fortunately adopted-an immediate retreat to Princeton was determined upon; and the annals of war would be consulted in vain, for an example of a manœuvre of such consummate skill. The two armies were separated only by a narrow creek; the voices of the centinels on either side, could be distinctly heard by the other; and a musket-ball from either camp would have passed far over the rear of the other. The weather for several days had been warm, wet, and foggy, and the roads were so muddy and deep as to be almost impassable—To have crossed the Delaware in view of the enemy would have been attended with. infinite hazard; and to have attempted to pursue the course of the river to the ferry opposite Philadelphia, would have been equally dangerous. No alternative was left but to march by a circuitous route to Princeton; and even this would have been utterly impracticable, but for a sudden change in the weather. The wind shifted to the North West, a severe frost ensued, even while the officers were deliberating, and by the time the troops were ready to move, the ground was hard and firm. Nothing could have been better managed than the stratagem adopted to deceive the enemy: large fires having been kindled in front of the whole line, and kept in full blaze all night, which effectually prevented the operations of those behind them from being observed, while at the same time it induced a belief that Washington was calmly preparing for a morning encounter. Lieutenant Colonel Mawhood,
with three British regiments, had been left at Princeton, and had but just quitted it on a different road to join the main army at Trenton, as the Americans came in sight-General Mercer, who commanded the centre of the American army, having advanced to attack him, with rather more courage than caution, his militia were thrown into complete confusion, and the result would have been fatal to the whole army, but for the most unexampled coolness and presence of mind, joined to the most heroick valour, on the part of Washington. The exposure of his person on that day to the fire of both armies, and his providential escape from injury, will call to mind the circumstance of his having been several times distinctly aimed at by his Indian enemies, on the day that proved so fatal to the unfortunate Braddock. These repeated instances of extraordinary preservation, not only to Washington but to the cause in which he had embarked, almost justify the prevalent superstition, that Heaven fought on our side.
The fortune of the day was soon changed by the intrepidity of Washington; and Colonel Mawhood, with great difficulty, saved his brigade from total destruction. His troops fought with the most distinguished bravery, and suffered severely from the vigour with which they charged the American line. The surprise of Cornwallis, when roused the next morning by the firing at Princeton, may be easily imagined. He had fancied it impossible for the Americans to escape ; but now he began to fear that he might be able to push on to Brunswick, where the stores and baggage of his army lay without adequate protection, and with a view therefore to intercept them, he now retraced his march with as much rapidity as he had advanced to Trenton. General Washington, however,
did not deem it prudent to venture to Brunswick with his fatigued and harassed troops, though urged to it by the prospect of releasing General Lee from captivity, and of making himself master of the baggage of the whole British army. His men had been without sleep or provisions for two days and nights, and too much depended upon their safety to run the hazard of being overtaken by the fresh troops of Cornwallis. Washington therefore retired from Princeton to Plucke. min, about twenty miles North West of Brunswick, on the road to Morristown, which had been considered as a safe and important position. It was well that this determination was made, as Cornwallis did not halt until he reached Brunswick, where he arrived, before it would have been possible for the Americans to have effected any thing, had they attempted it. In this affair with Colonel Mawhood, General Mercer, by whom the attack was begun with the Philadelphia militia, received three bayonet wounds, which proved mortal.
Early in December, Congress had, by the advice of Generals Putnam and Mifflin, determined to adjourn from Philadelphia to Baltimore, where they met on the 20th : and one among their first acts was to declare the authority of General Washington supreme and independent, in every thing which concerned the conduct and management of the war. This was such an evia dence of “perfect reliance on the wisdom, vigour, and uprightness" of one man, as had never before been given by any people, under any circumstances; and it may be safely asserted, that the history of the world does not produce an instance of a man who presumed so little upon the possession of power so absolute. The lives and property of the whole country were placed
at his disposal. He was authorized to appoint and displace officers at will; to call
governments of the respective states for any number of men he might think proper; to raise a considerable army and to es
. tablish their pay; to take whatever he might want for the army, wherever he might be; and “to arrest and confine persons who refuse to take the continental currency, or are otherwise disaffected to the American cause.” The modesty and forbearance of Washington under this weight of honour and of power, may be regarded as a phenomenon in the moral, as well as in the political world, and the full confidence which the Congress now placed in the integrity of a man so lately and so suddenly raised to this high rank against the wishes of a numerous and powerful party, spoke more in his praise than all wbich could have been said by his most zealous panegyrist.
Nothing can more clearly show the scanty resources of the country, and the little hope that was entertained of a successful termination to the Revolutionary struggle, than the steps which Congress were compelled to take, to ensure a respect for the continental currency”-those who refused to receive it, were threatened with punishment, and placed at the disposal of the military chief !--Labouring under so many disadvantages, with an army reduced almost to nothing, a militia ready to sell their services to the highest bidder, and a victorious enemy driving them from place to place, the Cougress deserve immortal honour for the bold and independent tone of their measures; as well those which related to their intercourse with foreign nations, as those that were intended to maintain the supremacy of their authority at home. The Com