First in War, First in Peace
Author, editor, and Critic, RICHARD E. DANIELSON was for ten years the Editor of the Sportsman, and since 1940 has been President of The Atlantic Monthly Company. A lifelong student of George Washington, he gives us his thoughtful appraisal of the fifth volume in the spacious, intimately detailed biography now being written by our foremost Southern historian, Douglas Southall Freeman, whose definitive life of Robert E. Lee was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1935 for the best American biography.
by RICHARD E. DANIELSON
THE fifth volume of Douglas Southall Freeman’s Scribner’s, $7.30) is very properly entitled “Victory with the Help of France.” No American historian has recognized more clearly that French aid in men and treasure, a French Army and Navy coöperating with the Continental forces, was essential to a successful termination of the war. And no one has done more honor to the French leaders, Rochambeau, “the most generous of allies,”Lafayette, Vioménil, Choisy, Saint-Simon, Chaslellux, and the French Admirals, ’ Estaing and De Grasse. Without such generous coöperation, Washingtons delaying actions combined with an appalling lack of sound currency or credit, and the difficulty of recruiting an army of volunteers destined to serve in half-starved nakedness, could only have ended in frustration and defeat.(
This volume covers the period from May, 1778, to December 24, 1783. During that period Washington had experienced almost all the vicissitudes of fortune that a man in a responsible or a vital position could undergo. In 1780 the winter quarters at Morristown were as bad as the shambles of Valley Forge. In succeeding months there were mutinies m the Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey regiments which threatened the existence of the Army. There was Arnold ‘s treason and André’s execution. There was the lost golden opportunity at Monmouth Court House to strike a telling blow, defeated by the indecision or cowardice of an overrated subordinate. And ihere was always the haunting question: Would the moment ever arrive when the French Fled could gain command of the sea and the French troops be free to coördinate with the Americans in concentration against an important British force, whether in New York or in the Carolinas or Virginia? Washington watched with admiration the campaigns of Greene in ihe South, but these masterly maneuvers were not decisive victories. Rather they were a series of tactical defeats of Greene’s nondescript army which exhausted the enemy but demonstrated no convincing hope of gaining superiority oxer the British forces. In all, it was a period of anxiety, of delays and confusion, which only a man of immense resolution could have survived.
Mr. Freeman’s book, like the preceding volumes, is not so much a history of the events of the period as it is a study of ihe character and the reactions of one man to those events. His bonk is George Washington, and if you want to know what happened at Savannah or Charleston, you will have to go to other sources — to Trevelyan, let us say, or to other competent historians. This is a study in the developing character of a very great man, a man who stamped the seal of his unique personality so deeply on the consciousness of his own countrymen, on his allies and enemies, on the opinion of candid men of good wi11 all over the world, that indeed he became, like one of Plutarch’s men, a kind of property and pride of mankind in general.
He seems to have made only an insignificant number of mistakes. One letter criticizing the slowness or lack of enterprise on the part of a French Admiral he sent to his kinsman, Lund Washington. It was intercepted by the British and published by them. But for Kochambeau’s forbearance and kindness tins might have been a serious incident in the always sensitive: relationship between allied forces, each jealous of its “honour.” He failed sometimes, yet never for very long, in his judgment of the character and ability of his subordinates. But there was in his personality so grea t a degree of nobility, he was so truly a gentleman, his devotion 10 his country’s cause was so apparent and so proven, that no one — except a few jealous men — could think or speak of him without a kind of reverence. Of bis greatness as a commander there were contemporary and lalcr critics. ‘The judgment of Mr. Freeman would seem to be about as follows: he did the best he could with the means at his disposal; he was greatly helped, in his most desperate circumstances, by the indolence and indecision of his opponents. At times by a quick, bold stroke— as at Trenton — he kept this confident and indolent opponent off balance, saved his Army from slow disintegration, and immensely impressed the European observers whose good opinion he and the Congress of the Confederated States were sedulously courting.
At times he expressed his sense of the outrageous failures of the civil or administrative authorities to supply his men with the necessities of life in a tone which in a lesser man might have been termed as querulous. For this he had good reasons: first, the actual suffering and starvation of his troops were largely based on unwillingness of selfish and mercenary Americans to accept the next to worthless paper money in exchange for supplies or services. Secondly, Congress was dilatory and the States— most of them — were worse in taking positive measures for the support of the troops. There were times, for example, when there were clothing and shoes for the Army assembled in Boston and no money anywhere for their transportation to the Hudson. Washington loathed the idea of requisitions — of living ofl the country - though he had to come to it in periods of the greatest distress. And his conception of the proper relations between the military .and tlie civil authorities, his ingrained respect for the latter, made it impossible for him to do more than present a never-ending series of appeals for the bare necessities of life. “Washington,” says Mr. Freeman, “did not overwrite the tragedy of his Army. Some infantry companies had no more than four rank and file, with the average age about fifteen; officers of three Regiments were ‘so naked’ they were ‘ashamed to come out of their huts.”‘ This was not their condition on a single occasion. It was a chronic condition, constantly threatening the very existence of the Army.
During the years between the creation of the French Alliance and the Siege of Yorktown, Washington was besot by anxieties and hopes deferred. Again and again he planned and hoped to strike a blow in conjunction with the French Fleet and Army oilher at New York or in the South. Again and again, the superiority of the British at sea paralyzed the French Fleet and the movement of their land forces. Not until 1781. when De Grasse with a superior fleet entered the Chesapeake and shut off Cornwallis from escape by sea, was Washington able to put his plans into action. Then in a swift, and sure concentration he was able to bring an army together numbering twice the forces under Cornwallis, to besiege the enemy’s fortified camp, and to force his surrender. This was a military achievement of the first order and justifies a higher opinion of his virtues as a commander than historians have, of late, been willing to concede him.
Then follows the almost two years long waiting for either a definitive treaty of peace or the commencement of anot her campaign. At long last the good news came. Peace had been declared, the treaty signed; the British were preparing to evacuate New York, taking with them the unhappy and embittered Loyalists. In due course, while the hist of the British warships and transports were still in the outer harbor, Washington entered the city and, having completed his duty as a soldier, saw the civil authorities take over: it only remained for him to say farewell to the small group of officers who accompanied him before resigning his commission in person to Congress.
Mr. Freeman is at. his best in describing the infinitely touching scene in Fra unces Tavern. Washington’s composure and iron self-discipline for once broke down. “Tears were blinding him. ‘I cannot come to each of you,’he said in a faltering voice, ‘but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.’ Chance fixed it that in the absence of Nathanael Greene, the soldier best entitled to be first among them was nearest at hand—Henry Knox, the man who had brought, the cannon over the ice from Tioonderoga, youthful father of the artillery corps, the one senior officer of whom it could be said that in eight years of service he had not given his General an hour’s needless concern. Knox stepped forward silently and held out his hand; Washington extended his own, but as ho looked into those honest eyes and remembered what Knox had meant to him, he could not say farewell with a handshake. Impulsively he pul his arms around Knox and, weeping, kissed his Chief of Artillery; Once done, this had of course to he done with all, from Steuben to 1 he youngest officers. With streaming eyes, they came up to him, received the same embrace and passed on. Even the most talkative was awed. Not a man bad the bad taste to attempt any expression of t hanks or of admiral ion. ‘The simple t bought,’ Tallmadge wrote long afterwards,‘that, we . . . should see his face no more in this world seemed to me utterly insupportable.’ ”
I HE high points of “reader interest" in this volume are the passages dealing with the dreadful winter quarters at Morristown, the Monmouth Court House engagement, Arnold’s treason, the mutinies, the concentration before Yorktown, the siege, the great day of Cornwallis’s surrender, and the farewell described above. All these are adequately treated in Mr. Freeman’s felicitous and knowledgeable style. I could wish that he would toll us what Washington actually said to Lee at Monmouth. Tradition and hearsay whisper that at hat moment His Excellency’s calm was swamped by a tide of violent indignation and that he covered the shallow, conceited Lee with a flood of language which he might have heard as a youth from a mule skinner whose wagon was slack in the mad. Most admirers of Washington hope secretly that the tradition is true and that the warmth of righteous anger could, on occasion, melt the reserve of a man who in many minds was perilously close to being a marble statue. He was never that in actuality. “To present him as flawless,”says Mr. Freeman in the introduction, “would be to perpetrate a fraud. Human he showed himself to be in a hundred particulars, human and singularly ambitious to deserve and possess the good opinion of Americans; but always he had integrity, patience, and the sharpest sense of justice.”
In the last chapter of this volume Mr. Freeman safely delivers George Washington, Esq., at the door of his home at Mount Vernon, his battles fought, his fame secure. Already, however, the problems facing the young Republic, such as the weakness of the central government, its almost centrifugal force, the jealousies between the States, the precarious fiscal situation, the lack of many of the essential implements of government — all these were of great concern to the retired General. Already his friends were saying and writing that only he could head up a new government which would command respect and success. There were hints, too, that failure to carry on in civil life the responsibilities he had borne successfully in war would be a failure in patriotic devotion. This was a compelling argument. “Public censure was his supreme fear.”There were many able and devoted men at hand in civilian America but there was only one man to whom everybody turned for wisdom and guidance, and that was the Virginian planter who had become, through character and achievement, a symbol of the American ideal.
Surely if to be well esteemed by his fellow Americans was a strong motive in his conduct and career, Washington had already realized his ambition. No American has ever in his lifetime received such a full measure of devotion, such universal respect, and even adulation as were bestowed on him by his countrymen at this time. It was obvious that, whether he wished it or not, he would be “drafted” to head the new republic. He was, in the eyes of the vast majority, at home and abroad, already the Father of His Country.
In the same chapter Mr. Freeman pauses in his narrative to analyze the character of Washington in this period of his life. In Volume II he had done the same kind of study of Washington in 1758 when he had resigned his commission in the French and Indian War. Again in Volume III he discussed the maturing personality of the man who had just been offered the command of the Army of a rebellious and divided people. Thus chronologically he follows the developing characteristics of this truly heroic man.
He finds him, at the end of the war, of proven courage and sound judgment, as cautious as ho was patient and diligent, inflexibly just. He was acquisitive and at the same time generous. Yet there were seeming inconsistencies: he had little or no affeel ion for his mother; he supported her financially but he had no wish to see her or be with her. “He always had pity,” but he did not grieve when a friend or one of his intimate military “lainily died or was killed. His religion w as a well-bred belief in God and Providence and the righteous cause of the Lnited States, but he was a less ardent Christian than his addresses and circulars!— often composed by aides from Puritanical Now England—would indicate. He was “courteous to all but intimate with few.”His close friends could have been numbered on ihe fingers of his hands. Above all he had a simplicity of character which his contemporaries failed to understand. They thought he must have complexities of nalure to explain his achievements. He himself wrote an old friend the revealing phrase that he “always had walked on a straight line.”Mr. Freeman thinks that the “always" is justified in the sense that the young Washington had seen where lay his duty and the “honour" that, he so ardently desired, and that he had so disciplined himself throughout the years that the straight line became the only guide which he could follow. “Because Washington knew he had integrity and absolute dedication to the cause of independence, he had throughout the Revolution a positive peace of mind.”He might agonize over the sufferings of his men or the desperate situation of his country, “but always he could war the bettor against Britain because he was not at war with himself. ... His will and his long self-discipline were his rod and his staff.”
There remain sixteen more years of Washington’s life, which I believe will be covered in two more volumes of this biography. If there were any criticism I could make of the plan and execution of this work, it would be that, while Mr. Freeman’s opinions are expressed with a restrained but eloquent freedom his statements of fact are almost too copiously attested in footnotes. In his proper intention of writing the definitive biography of a great man, he has annotated his books for the scholar rather than the general reader. The mildest statement concerning the weather on a certain day receives an op. cit. or an ibid. notice. Perhaps when the seven volumes are completed, a new five-volume edition could be published whose readers could take Mr. Freeman’s meticulous accuracy for granted. In the meantime, every reader can be happy in the realization that Mr. Freeman has treated his noble subject in the noble fashion we have come to expect of him.