Note: To all regular readers of Good Thing, Bad Thing, I would like to announce that a special announcement is on its way. I cannot say exactly when this special announcement will be announced, but it should be announced soon – that is, maybe by the end of the month or at some completely different time. Stay tuned.
Now, I know all you youngsters are keen to swipe your mother’s kitchen matches (and your papa’s beer) and shoot-off your blasted fireworks all night long just to spite me. My God in Heaven! Is it too much to ask that one or more of you don’t lose a couple of fingers this weekend? And then where'd you be when old Mary Rottencrotch comes round with that special itch she always wants you to scratch?
Serves you goddamn right, I say! Enough with the goddamn fireworks!
Sheesh… Now look what you’ve done… You’ve gotten me all hot-and-bothered. So, I hope you don’t mind if I go on a patriotic rant for eight or nine minutes or so about one of my favorite events in history. Yes, yes, we all know today is Independence Day - the day the Declaration of Independence was signed and so forth - but do any of you blockheads know what happened immediately after that?
The Americans got the shit kicked out of them.
Surprised? Shocked? I guess they must leave that part out in whatever mush-filled balderdash they call American History these days. On the day it was signed, the Declaration of Independence was little more than a death warrant for all who put pen to paper. They really meant what they said when they pledged “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor”. I’d like to see just one politician these days lay their stones on the table like that. Just one! But I digress...
True enough, the United States has weathered many storms these past 245 years, but with the possible exception of 1860-1861, there was no more desperate period in American history than those gut-wrenching months of 1776-1777 -- when the fate of the nation rested upon the shoulders of a single beaten, bloodied, ragtag little army – and, in the end, on the shoulders of a solitary, homesick, utterly overwhelmed man.
Let me tell you about that man. Let me tell you why one figure, above all others, is remembered as the father of his country. Let me tell you about George Washington.
Allow me to set the scene. It is the Winter of 1776. The United States is all of 24 weeks old and fighting for its life. Its population of 2.5 million is strung out along some thousand miles of Atlantic coastline with a handful of western settlements just barely brushing up against the Appalachian Mountains. There is no system of taxation, there is barely even a government… and even less so, an army…
By contrast, the Americans’ former country is 8 million strong and a booming economic powerhouse. It is the only nation in the world – in history, in fact – with the capability to dispatch not one, but two armies of a combined 50,000 men across 3,000 miles of trackless sea. It is the only nation in the world with the navy to supply them with munitions and provender, with a navy that can appear at any port city, at any moment, and obliterate it to kingdom come.
And like their master, King George, the soldiers and sailors of Great Britain are every bit as determined to bring the Americans to heel. With Boston desolated, Lake Champlain lost, and New York City wrenched away from the fumbling Continental Army, it seems to every observer they are on the verge of doing it.
Except for one problem…
At that moment, wearily trudging through the snowy woods of New Jersey are 2,000 pox-ridden, lice-infested, starving, freezing men, They are all that remains of the army of 23,000 who had just six months ago been defending Long Island. The army who had so boastfully proclaimed they would mow down the redcoats before Brooklyn as they did at Bunker Hill, who would send the British high-tailing it back across the water as fast as their ships would carry them.
Oh, such vain pronouncements! All moonshine! For in their youth and inexperience, the men and officers of the Continental Army had failed their first real test. The New York campaign had been nothing short of a catastrophe. As John Adams so eloquently put it, “In general, our generals were out-general’d.” And he was right.
That fighting Yankee, Gen’l Israel Putnam – a man who once crawled into a wolf’s den with only a torch and a buckshot-gun to shoot the beast in the fucking face (which he did) – was bullied off Brooklyn Heights. Meanwhile, Gen’ls Sullivan and Sterling were out-foxed on the Guan Heights, and further north, Colonel of Artillery Henry Knox – a man who would later go on to become America’s jolliest general – made the critical mistake of assuring Washington his guns and his forts could stop the Royal Navy from landing soldiers in their rear. He could not. Alas, these were all rookie mistakes.
Lastly, there was the commander-in-chief himself. So far, through six months of positioning and fighting, George Washington had been utterly beguiled and bedeviled by these savvy professional soldiers of Great Britain – Gen'ls Howe, Clinton, and Cornwallis – who had chased him clear off Long Island, clear off Manhattan, west across the Hudson, and were chasing him still… through the snow and the muck and the filth of godforsaken New Jersey. A retreat with no end in sight.
And somewhere along the way, strung up from a jagged tree in New York City, a 21 year-old patriot named Nathan Hale lost his life, regretting he had but one to give to his country.
No generation of Americans - with possibly one exception - has ever faced so desperate a predicament, and no-one faced it so intimately than George Washington himself. Like his army, his early confidence had been dashed to pieces. He was bruised and beaten, his nose broken by the fists of stronger and cleverer men. What was he anyway besides some glorified farmer and one-time militia colonel? Little more than a country bumpkin compared to those lordly knights the British had sent to slay him.
After the fall of the Hudson River forts, and the loss of a further 3,000 Americans, Washington penned these heartfelt anguished words to his cousin overseeing Mount Vernon:
If I were to put a curse on my worst enemy, it would be to wish him in my position now. I just do not know what to do. It seems impossible to continue my command in this situation, but if I withdraw, all will be lost…
That was about the size of it. But by God, George Washington had something. After all, it was Washington - and he alone - who kept his nerve when his army was very nearly strangled to death on Long Island. And it was Washington who boldly and skillfully crossed the East River after nightfall, saving it from certain annihilation. And it was Washington who compelled his men to repeat this feat on several more occasions, always staying one step ahead of the pursuit, keeping his tattered little army intact – and with it, the hopes and dreams of all who cry out for liberty. Also, and if the British hadn’t been so sure of themselves, they might just have noticed… the Americans were getting pretty fucking good at crossing rivers in the middle of the night...
Still, prospects were bleak. By late December 1776, Washington’s battered columns had dwindled to barely more than 2,000 frost-bitten men and a handful of cannons. But numbers aren’t everything in war. There were in Washington’s camp some truly exceptional MEN, whose genius and daring (and brass) were about to flash in all their glory.
Men like Alexander Hamilton - the son of a Scottish lord and a Caribbean prostitute - who was then Washington's twenty year old aide-de-camp. And there there was this fellow: Thomas Paine, a failure at everything he had ever tried to do in England, until he came to America and began writing brilliant (but underappreciated) essays for a little-known (and also underappreciated) political publication. Sounds like a guy I could share a beer with.
In early 1776, Paine skyrocketed to prominence when his pamphlet Common Sense, arguing for separation from Great Britain, had become a smash hit across the colonies. Now, he was traveling with the Continental Army doing whatever he could to aid the cause. One night, under the flicker of firelight and on the skin of a drumhead, Thomas Paine penned an essay that has come down through history as The American Crisis. His immortal words captured the spirit of the times better than I ever could – and if I had my druthers, every American would have to recite them by heart as a condition of citizenship.
THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.
Thomas Paine showed his essay to Gen’l Washington who ordered his officers to read it to their men. It became a rallying cry, a watchword for those dark days when all seemed lost. And just maybe - as I would like to believe - it was that brilliant essay that inspired what happened next.
Washington stopped running. This amateur soldier, this bumbler and fumbler, who had faced withering criticism from all sides, who had been outclassed at every major engagement up to the present time, decided to risk everything on one final gamble. At the tail end of December, Washington marshalled his wretched shambling army into shape... Then he turned them around... And marched them out for one last fight.
On Christmas Night 1776, Washington quietly slipped back across the Delaware River and headed for a small border town by the name of Trenton. It was a risk, but the gods of war were on his side. In their pursuit, and in their attempt to placate the countryside, the British had spread their forces out – a thousand men at this village, a thousand men at that village, and so on. Never did it cross their minds that the Americans might try something so goddamn audacious. How little they knew about what kind of brazen, screw-loose people they had tangled with.
Now, the garrison at Trenton was, in fact, not British but German. Throughout the Revolutionary War, the British supplemented their army by “renting” – that was the word they used – hirelings from German princes. And if you know anything at all about the Germans, you should know that they (for some reason) love the fuck out of Christmas. All night long, they’d been feasting and carousing, blissfully unaware of what was about to hammer them as soon as dawn broke through the naked trees.
At sunrise, the code-word was given – Victory or death! – and Washington’s columns charged from the woods. The drunken sleepy garrison had no idea what hit them. The Continentals swarmed the town, shooting from behind garden walls, wheeling their cannons into the center square, and going from house-to-house with blades drawn. It was all over in a handful of minutes. The Americans had taken 1500 men prisoner, and barely suffered a scratch.
But that was just the beginning. Alarmed by the news, the British rushed over reinforcements the following day. After holding them off until nightfall, Washington spied yet one more opportunity. Whatever his faults as a military commander, he was beginning to show a genius for doing exactly the opposite of what everyone expected him to do.
Instead of defending his ground, he wheeled his army to the right and snuck a night-march on crusty old Cornwallis. The following morning, the Continentals appeared suddenly outside of Princeton, New Jersey. This time, it was a British garrison they were facing, but the results were the same. Taken completely by surprise, Washington bagged another 1,000 prisoners.
Washington was eager to go after one more score, but his men had given it every ounce of effort they had left. Nearly half of them - Jesus, Mary, and Joseph - didn't even have fucking shoes on their feet! Washington slipped away again, crossed the Delaware one last time, and set up winter quarters. And so passed the darkest days of the American Revolution.
Still, one question remains: The American Crisis, Good Thing, Bad Thing?
The Answer: Unbelievable thing.
Although there were dramatic moments a-plenty throughout the American Revolution, and one could argue there were more significant battles (see the Battle of Saratoga), Washington's escape from New York and his determination to hold his army together might very well have been his finest hour.
At Princeton University, a school legend has it that Alexander Hamilton ordered his cannons to fire into what would later become Nassau Hall. It’s a shame Washington didn’t order him to burn the school to the ground, but this might’ve been his only mistake. His two swift surprise attacks completely upended the whole situation of the war. By the following spring, Washington’s depleted army had fully recovered its strength, ensuring the war would continue, gradually sapping away at Britain's resources, until (and with a little help from the French) final victory was secured.
So, as you watch the parades or the fireworks today - or do whatever it is you people do on the 4th of July (I just read the Declaration aloud to Gladys over and over again) - I want you to imagine something for me. Imagine what people's reaction would be if Washington's exhausted, unsightly, flea-ridden army happened to march past just as they would've looked during their long horrible retreat. How would people respond? Would they cheer? Would they go up and shake their hands? I mean, let's face it, those boys couldn't have smelled... pleasant. In fact, I'm pretty sure that the Karens in the crowd would shriek about "the children" or something and call the police to have them arrested.
But just you remember, the reason you and I are here, the reason we have an Independence Day at all to celebrate is due to the courage and conviction (and balls) of those bloody, beleaguered men, who at the crisis hour - and with the steel nerve of George Washington to guide them - refused to flinch.
Happy Fourth, you reprobates.
Do your reading,