The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book III. The Little Lion
In June the military ardours of this distinguished young trio were gratified to the point of temporary exhaustion. The British evacuated Philadelphia on the 18th, and proceeded up the Delaware in New Jersey. Captain Allan McLane had, as early as May 25th, reported to Washington the enemy's intention to change their quarters for New York, and Washington's desire was to crush them by a decisive blow. At a council of war, however, it was decided merely to hang upon the skirts of the retreating army and avoid an engagement. Lee was aggressive, almost insulting, in counselling inaction, Washington, much embarrassed, but hesitating to ignore the decisions of the council, followed the enemy by a circuitous route, until he reached the neighbourhood of Princeton. The British were in and about Allentown. Washington called another council of war, and urged the propriety of forcing an engagement before the enemy could reach the Heights of Monmouth. Again Lee overruled, being sustained by the less competent generals, who were in the majority. As soon as the council broke up, Hamilton sought out General Greene and led him aside, Greene was white and dejected, but Hamilton's face was hot, and his eyes were flashing.
"I believe that Lee is in the pay of the British or the Conway Cabal," he exclaimed. "I've always believed him ready at any minute to turn traitor. It's a pity he wasn't left to rot in prison. Washington must fight. His honour is at stake. If he lets the British walk off while we sit and whistle, his influence with the army will be gone, Europe will have no more of him, the Conway Cabal will have the excuse it's been watching at keyholes for, and Gates will be Commander-in-chief to-morrow. Will you come with me and persuade him to fight?"
"Yes," said Greene. "And I believe he will. You are like a sudden cold wind on an August day. Come on."
They walked rapidly toward Washington's tent. He was sitting on his camp-stool, but rose as they approached.
"Gentlemen," he said, "I anticipate the object of your visit. You wish me to fight."
"Yes!" exclaimed Hamilton. "As much as you wish it yourself. Why should you regard the councils of the traitorous and the timorous, who, for aught you know, may be in the pay of the Cabal? If the British retreat unmolested, the American army is disgraced. If Congress undertake to manage it, the whole cause will be lost, and the British will be stronger far than when we took up arms--"
"Enough," said Washington. "We fight"
He ordered a detachment of one thousand men, under General Wayne, to join the troops nearest the enemy. Lafayette was given the command of all the advance troops--Lee sulkily retiring in his favour--which amounted to about four thousand. Hamilton was ordered to accompany him and reconnoitre, carry messages between the divisions, and keep Washington informed of the movements of the enemy. There was but a chance that he would be able to fight, but the part assigned to him was not the least dangerous and important at Washington's disposal. The Chief moved forward with the main body of the army to Cranbury.
Clinton had no desire to fight, being encumbered with a train of baggage-wagons and bathorses, which with his troops made a line on the highroad twelve miles long. It being evident that the Americans intended to give battle, he encamped in a strong position near Monmouth Court-house, protected on nearly all sides by woods and marshes. His line extended on the right about a mile and a half beyond the Court-house, and on the left, along the road toward Allentown, for about three miles.
This disposition compelled Washington to increase the advance corps, and he ordered Lee to join Lafayette with two brigades. As senior officer, Lee assumed command of the whole division, under orders to make the first attack. Both Lafayette and Hamilton were annoyed and apprehensive at this arrangement. "Washington is the shrewdest of men in his estimates until it is a matter of personal menace," said Hamilton, "and then he is as trusting as a country wench with a plausible villain. I thought we had delivered him from this scoundrel, and now he has deliberately placed his fortunes in his hands again. Mark you, Lee will serve us some trick before the battle is over."
Hamilton had been galloping back and forth night and day between Lafayette's division and Headquarters, wherever they happened to be, and reconnoitring constantly. The weather was intensely hot, the soil so sandy that his horse often floundered. He had not had a full night's sleep since Washington announced his decision to give battle, and he would have been worn out, had he not been too absorbed and anxious to retain any consciousness of his body. Early on the morning of the 28th, a forward movement being observed on the part of the enemy, Washington immediately put the army in motion and sent word to Lee to press forward and attack.
Lee looked uglier and dirtier than usual, and the very seat of his breeches scowled as he rode forward leisurely. In a few moments he halted, word having been brought him that the main body of the British was advancing.
"If we could but court-martial him on the spot," groaned Lafayette, whose delicate boyish face was crumpled with anxiety.
"He meditates treason!" exclaimed Hamilton. "It is writ all over him."
Having ascertained that the rumour was false, Lee consented to move on again, and the division entered the forest, their advance covered from the British on the plains beyond. For a time Lee manoeuvred so cleverly that Hamilton and Lafayette permitted themselves to hope. Under cover of the forest he formed a portion of his line for action, and with Wayne, Hamilton, and others, rode forward to reconnoitre. Concluding that the column of the British deploying on the right was only a covering party of two thousand, he manoeuvred to cut them off from the main army. Wayne was detached with seven hundred men to attack the covering party in the rear. Lee, with a stronger force, was to gain its front by a road to the left. Small detachments were concealed in the woods. At nine o'clock, the Queen's dragoons being observed upon an eminence near the wood, Lee ordered his light-horse to decoy them to the point where Wayne was posted. The dragoons appeared to fall into the trap, but upon being attacked from the wood, galloped off toward the main column. Wayne started in pursuit; his artillery was raking them, and he had ordered a charge at the point of the bayonet, when, to his amazement, he received an order from Lee to make but a feint of attack and pursuit. He had no choice but to obey, brilliant as might be the victory wrested from him. Lee, meanwhile, dawdled about, although his troops were on one foot with impatience.
Suddenly Sir Henry Clinton, learning that the Americans were marching in force on both his flanks, with the design of capturing his baggage, changed the front of his army by facing about in order to attack Wayne with such deadly fire that the enemy on his flanks would be obliged to fly to the succour of that small detachment. Lafayette immediately saw the opportunity for victory in the rear of the enemy, and rode up to Lee asking permission to make the attempt.
Lee swung his loose head about and scowled at the ardent young Frenchman. "Sir," he replied witheringly, "you do not know British soldiers. We cannot stand against them. We certainly shall be driven back at first. We must be cautious."
"It may be so, General," replied Lafayette, who would have given much to see that head rolling on the sands; "but British soldiers have been beaten, and they may be again. At any rate, I am disposed to make the trial."
Lee shrugged his shoulders, but as Lafayette sat immovable, his clear hazel eyes interrogating and astonished, he reluctantly gave the Marquis the order to wheel his column to the right and attack the enemy's left. He simultaneously weakened Wayne's detachment and went off to reconnoitre. He afterward claimed that he saw what looked to be the approach of the entire army, and he ordered his right to fall back. The brigades of Scott and Maxwell on the left were already moving forward and approaching the right of the Royal forces, when they received an order from Lee to reenter the wood. At the same time an order was sent to Lafayette to fall back to the Court-house. With a face as flaming as his unpowdered head, he obeyed. Upon reaching the Court-house he learned that a general retreat had begun on the right, under the immediate command of Lee. He had no choice but to follow.
Hamilton, hardly crediting that his worst fears were realized in this unwarranted retreat, galloped over to Lee and urged that possession be taken of a neighbouring hill that commanded the plain on which the enemy were advancing. But Lee protested violently that the Americans had not a chance against that solid phalanx, and Hamilton, now convinced that he meditated the disgrace of the American arms, galloped with all speed in search of Washington.
The retreat, by this, was a panic. The troops fled like an army of terrified rabbits, with that reversion to the simplicity of their dumb ancestors which induces the suspicion that all the manly virtues are artificial. In times of panic man seems to exchange his soul for a tail. These wretches trampled each other into the shifting sand, and crowded many more into the morass. The heat was terrific. They ran with their tongues hanging out, and many dropped dead.
Washington heard of the retreat before Hamilton found him. He was pushing on to Lee's relief when a country-man brought him word of the disgraceful rout. Washington refused to credit the report and spurred forward. Halfway between the meeting-house and the morass he met the head of the first retreating column. He commanded it to halt at once, before the panic be communicated to the main army; then made for Lee. Lee saw him coming and braced himself for the shock. But it was a greater man than Lee who could stand the shock of Washington's temper. He was fearfully roused. The noble gravity of his face had disappeared. It was convulsed with rage.
"Sir," he thundered, "I desire to know what is the reason of this? Whence arises this confusion and disorder?"
"Sir--" stammered Lee, "sir--" He braced himself, and added impudently: "I thought it best not to beard the enemy in such a situation. It was contrary to my opinion--"
"Your opinion!" And then the Chief undammed a torrent of profanity Washingtonian in its grandeur.
He wheeled and galloped to the rallying of the troops. At this moment Hamilton rode up. He had ridden through the engagement without a hat. It seemed to him that he could hear the bubbling of his brain, that the very air blazed, and that the end of all things had come. That day of Monmouth ever remained in his memory as the most awful and hopeless of his life. An ordinary defeat was nothing. But the American arms branded with cowardice, Washington ignobly deposed, inefficient commanders floundering for a few months before the Americans were become the laughing-stock of Europe,--the whole vision was so hideous, and the day so hopeless in the light of those cowardly hordes, that he galloped through the rain of British bullets, praying for death; he had lost all sense of separate existence from the shattered American cause. He did not perceive that Washington had reached the column, and resolved to make one more appeal to Lee, he rode up to that withered culprit and exclaimed passionately:--
"I will stay with you, my dear General, and die with you! Let us all die here, rather than retreat!"
Lee made no reply. His brain felt as if a hot blast had swept it.
"At least send a detachment to the succour of the artillery," said Hamilton, with quick suspicion. And Lee ordered Colonel Livingston to advance.
At the same moment some one told Hamilton that Washington was in the rear, rallying the troops. He spurred his horse and found that the General had rallied the regiments of Ramsay and Stewart, after a rebuke under which they still trembled, and was ordering Oswald to hasten his cannon to the eminence which his aide had suggested to Lee. Hamilton himself was in time to intercept two retreating brigades. He succeeded in rallying them, formed them along a fence at hand, and ordered them to charge at the point of the bayonet. He placed himself at their head, and they made a brilliant dash upon the enemy. But his part was soon over. His horse was shot under him, and as he struck the ground he was overcome by the shock and the heat, and immediately carried from the field. But the retreat was suspended, order restored, and although the battle raged all day, the British gained no advantage. The troops were so demoralized by the torrid heat that at sunset both Commanders were obliged to cease hostilities; and Washington, who had been in the saddle since daybreak, threw himself under a tree to sleep, confident of a victory on the morrow.
"I had a feeling as if my very soul were exploding," said Hamilton to Laurens, as they bathed their heads in a stream in the woods, with the bodies of dead and living huddled on every side of them. "I had a hideous vision of Washington and the rest of us in a huge battle picture, in which a redcoat stood on every squirming variety of continental uniform, while a screeching eagle flew off with the Declaration of Independence. But after all, there is something magnificent in so absolutely identifying yourself with a cause that you go down to its depths of agony and fly to its heights of exaltation. I was mad to die when the day--and with it the whole Cause--seemed lost. Patriotism surely is the master passion. Nothing else can annihilate the ego."
Laurens, who had performed prodigies of valour, sighed heavily. "I felt as you did while the engagement lasted," he replied. "But I went into the battle with exultation, for death this time seemed inevitable. And the only result is a headache. What humiliation!"
"You are morbid, my dear," said Hamilton, tenderly. "You cannot persuade me that at the age of twenty-five naught remains but death--no matter what mistakes one may have made. There is always the public career--for which you are eminently fitted. I would begin life over again twenty times if necessary."
"Yes, because you happen to be a man of genius. I am merely a man of parts. There are many such. Not only is my life ruined, but every day I despair anew of ever attaining that high ideal of character I have set for myself. I want nothing short of perfection," he said passionately. "Could I attain that, I should be content to live, no matter how wretched. But I fall daily. My passions control me, my hatreds, my impulses of the moment. When a man's very soul aches for a purity which it is in man to attain if he will, and when he is daily reminded that he is but a whimperer at the feet of the statue, the world is no place for him."
"Laurens," said Hamilton, warmly, "you refine on the refinements of sensibility. You have brooded until you no longer are normal and capable of logic. Compare your life with that of most men, and hope. You are but twenty-five, and you have won a deathless glory, by a valour and brilliancy on these battlefields that no one else has approached. Your brain and accomplishments are such that the country looks to you as one of its future guides. Your character is that of a Bayard. It is your passions alone, my dear, which save you from being a prig. Passion is the furnace that makes greatness possible. If, when the mental energies are resting, it darts out tongues of flame that strike in the wrong place, I do not believe that the Almighty, who made us, counts them as sins. They are natural outlets, and we should burst without them. If one of those tongues of flame was the cause of your undoing, God knows you have paid in kind. As a rule no one is the worse, while most are better. A certain degree of perfection we can attain, but absolute perfection--go into a wilderness like Mohammed and fast. There is no other way, and even then you merely would have visions; you would not be yourself."
Laurens laughed. "It is not easy to be morbid when you are by. Acquit me for the rest of the night. And it is time we slept. There will be hot work to-morrow. How grandly the Chief rallied! There is a man!"
"He was in a blazing temper," remarked Hamilton. "Lee and Ramsay and Stewart were like to have died of fright. I wish to God he'd strung the first to a gibbet!"
They sought out Washington and lay down beside him. The American army slept as though its soul had withdrawn to another realm where repose is undisturbed. Not so the British army. Sir Henry Clinton did not share Washington's serene confidence in the morrow. He withdrew his weary army in the night, and was miles away when the dawn broke.
Once Washington awoke, raised himself on his elbow, and listened intently. But he could hear nothing but the deep breathing of his weary army. The stars were brilliant. He glanced about his immediate vicinity with a flicker of amusement and pleasure in his eyes. The young men of his household were crowded close about him; he had nearly planted his elbow on Hamilton's profile. Laurens, Tilghman, Meade, even Lafayette, were there, and they barely had left him room to turn over. He knew that these worshipping young enthusiasts were all ready and eager to die for him, and that in spite of his rigid formality they were quite aware of his weak spot, and did not hesitate to manifest their affection. For a moment the loneliest man on earth felt as warmly companioned as if he were raising a family of rollicking boys; then he gently lifted Hamilton out of the way, and slept again. He was bitterly disappointed next morning; but to pursue the enemy in that frightful heat, over a sandy country without water, and with his men but half refreshed, was out of the question.
The rest of the year was uneventful, except for the court-martialling of Lee and his duel with Laurens, who challenged him for his defamation of Washington. Then came the eventful winter of 1779-80, when the army went into quarters at Morristown, Washington and his military family taking possession of a large house belonging to the Widow Ford.