by Ken Shel
A fictional account of the prelude to the American Revolution Battle of New York.
|Fort Washington had fallen and thousands of our best were killed or captured there, leaving the remnants of our routed army to flee across New Jersey, a hotbed of Tory support. Those who survived Fort Washington and Brooklyn heights suffered from wounds and smallpox. The Revolution was surely lost.
Longacre’s bayonet wound hobbled him. I carried the greater part of his weight in flight from the British mercenaries, making our escape tediously slow. As we fled across New Jersey, at every high place, I left Longacre to his suffering to ascend for a look for Howe’s pursuing troops or for the remains of our own army but saw neither for two days. We could not seek aid at the farms we passed; any of them might be the home of a Loyalist who would hold us at musket point to await the arrival of the British. We ventured on, limping through woodlands and skirting cultivated fields except for those from which we pilfered food to sustain us in our flight.
On the third day, we came upon a wooded encampment of about eighty Continental troops led by a pockmarked and grizzled officer, Lieutenant John Martin, of Philadelphia. A surgeon dressed Longacre’s wounds while Martin interviewed me for his after-action report. I thought it noble of him that he continued to conduct himself as a soldier, to hold his miserable band of patriots together with military discipline and a harsh way with any who talked of home.
With the interview complete I asked, “Sir, what is to become of us?”
“We will rejoin His Excellency-- if he has not been taken or killed at Brooklyn Heights. In any event, I expect we will likely escape across the Alleghenies to engage the enemy in a war of posts.”
His unselfconscious remark shook me. The troops were aware that His Excellency, General Washington could not be killed in battle, though likely to die young. Yet this officer spoke of Washington’s death at war as a likely possibility.
“A war of posts?’ I asked. As a mere corporal, though hardened by battle, I knew of tactics, but nothing of strategy. That I left to the officers.
“To engage the enemy in small raids in which we inflict the maximum casualties, and then flee before he can muster an appropriate response.”
“But the British will avenge themselves by burning our towns and farms.”
Lieutenant Martin responded with a silent nod and dismissed me.
I wrote to my wife and children a letter of despair that if surrender could not be negotiated swiftly, our defeat in New York would result in rapine and torch. I instructed them, in that event, to flee westward into Ohio, to await reconciliation with Parliament.
Others joined us in the following days. We grew quickly to three hundred, of which more than fifty suffered smallpox. Many had no shoes; others, no coats; and some had no muskets or powder. Those who lacked sufficient clothing, we made as comfortable as our meager resources permitted. Too often men fit for fighting abandoned us to return home, to their farms and shops to await the British yoke. Some traveled to Trenton where they offered themselves to the king’s cause.
There came to us a report that General Washington was alive and assembling his troops near the Delaware River, dangerously close to the massed British lines.
Longacre had recovered from the worst of his wound. Lieutenant Martin ordered us to move as a fighting unit out of the woods, to rejoin the Continental Army. Those suffering from smallpox and crippling wounds remained in camp with the surgeon’s ointments and bandages. We crossed New Jersey again, not in flight this time, but again facing the enemy.
Our arrival in Washington’s camp increased his strength to 2000, many of them ill-equipped, sick, and wounded. New recruits and straggling veterans joined us daily. Militiamen quit their posts to join us. Men recovered from wounds and disease. Yet, our ragged army was no match for the thirty-thousand regulars and mercenaries of the well-trained British army and navy that separated us from the northern colonies.
Rumors swept across our cold and miserable camp: On one day, it was said that Ben Franklin, in Paris, was instructed to negotiate our surrender. On the next day, Washington was to offer his sword to General Howe, surrendering himself and his army to Howe’s mercy. That we were to engage in one last suicidal attack, a maniacal plunge into the heart of the British Army, that we would retreat to engage them in a harassing war of posts; and that we were to be disbanded to return to our homes. Each day offered a new version of our fate.
Then, one day in mid-December, Lieutenant Martin ordered us assembled at his tent. Our orders, he said, were to prepare ourselves for an attack against the British winter quarters at Trenton, to come at dawn on Christmas Day.
Our defeat is certain. I have written my wife and children in Richmond, leaving them to the benevolence of God and the civility of their British masters.