Washington’s troops march through Massachusetts toward New York. By early April, they have reached Rhode Island, where Washington is greeted as a hero. The troops sense that they’re heading toward danger, though nobody is sure where the British forces have gone. Even so, the troops remain in high spirits after their victory in Boston.
Chapter Four picks up where Chapter Three left off: Washington is rapidly becoming a hero, and the American troops in general are optimistic about their chances against the British.
George Washington knows that he’ll face challenges in New York unlike any he faced in Boston. In New York, the British will be able to attack by sea from almost any direction, and many New Yorkers are loyal to England, raising the possibility that locals will betray his troops. However, Washington understands the strategic and political importance of defending New York: if the British capture the city, it’ll be a huge blow to American morale.
Privately, Washington continues to worry about the likelihood of his army’s success against the British. One of his greatest assets as a general is his ability to be calm and realistic in his assessments, rather than overestimating his abilities simply because others regard him as a hero.
At the time, New York is a divided city: the Loyalists and American factions are both prominent. When he arrives in New York, Washington recruits five divisions of soldiers. However, he worries about the population in Long Island, which is overwhelmingly loyal to George III. There are also British warships in the Upper Bay near New York City, a constant reminder of the impending threat of invasion.
New York is a dangerous city for Washington and his troops, not simply because it’s vulnerable to attack from the British navy but because the American army will be vulnerable to sabotage from Loyalist New Yorkers.
Washington also recognizes that his soldiers from Boston are tired and worn-out from marching and fighting. He’s recruited new troops during the march to New York, but these troops are just as disorganized as his original soldiers. Many of the soldiers from New York also dislike that Washington has recruited black soldiers.
The passage reminds readers of the strong racial prejudice in Washington’s army, undercutting the promise of meritocracy and equality implicit in the American revolutionary cause. Although black soldiers fought bravely against the British, they weren’t given the same respect or opportunities as white soldiers.
Washington and his army arrive in New York on April 13 and immediately take residence at the Kennedy Mansion, a famous New York building of the era, named after a Scottish land speculator named Archibald Kennedy. In the coming weeks, Washington inspects the city’s fortifications, which were designed by Charles Lee and built under the guidance of General William Alexander, better known as Lord Stirling. Stirling is a wealthy, powerful man, supposedly descended from a Scottish lord.
For all its commitment to self-determination and meritocracy, the American army is thoroughly aristocratic at the same time. Many of its officers, such as Lord Stirling, have aristocratic backgrounds, and Washington lives like a king during his time in New York.
New York City only has a population of 20,000, but it’s one of the wealthiest American cities at the time. Many of the troops, including Henry Knox, are impressed with the residents’ luxurious lives. Other soldiers praise the beautiful buildings and statues but disdain the brothels.
New York is an important strategic location for both sides of the Revolutionary War: it’s the source of enormous wealth and also an important naval base.
On April 22, not long after the troops arrive, the dead bodies of two American soldiers are discovered in a brothel. Furious over the deaths, a group of soldiers tears down the brothel and starts a riot. Washington condemns his soldiers’ behavior and enforces a strict evening curfew. Later on, a smallpox epidemic breaks out, killing many. Washington proceeds with training his new troops and building new fortifications for the city.
The passage emphasizes the chaos and disorganization within Washington’s army. While Washington himself seems to want his soldiers to behave peacefully and respectfully, many of the soldiers themselves lash out against the Loyalist population of New York.
General Charles Lee has told Washington that the troops will need to be ready to defend New York from a naval invasion. He recommends that cannons be installed overlooking the East River, much as Washington installed cannons in Dorchester Heights. Washington complies, and also begins fortifying Long Island.
As in Dorchester, Washington concentrates on building fortifications. Washington was trained as a surveyor, and designing strong, stable fortifications was his specialty.
The troops set to work fortifying New York. They install guns and cannons on Governor’s Island, and overlooking the Hudson River. Toward the northern end of Manhattan, at the highest point on the island, the Americans build Fort Washington. On a small island on the Hudson, they build a second fort, Fort Constitution. As the months drag on, Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox become good friends, and both men’s wives join them in New York. On May 16, Knox sends a letter encouraging the Continental Congress to declare independence from Britain.
While the process of building fortifications fosters rebelliousness among certain of Washington’s troops, it also brings some of the troops together, including Knox and Greene. The fact that Knox sends a letter to the Congress, encouraging them to declare independence, is a sign of the growing optimism and ambition of the American army.
On May 18, Washington receives word that British ships are preparing to invade New York. The message turns out to be a false alarm, but even so the American troops feel it confirms their sense that the British will arrive soon. Washington feels ready for the fight. He has thousands of men ready for battle, and enough artillery to fire on British ships.
Washington and his men are feeling optimistic: their fortifications are strong, and they seem to believe that they have a good chance of defeating the British in the event of a battle in New York. This moment of optimism before battle is a testament to Washington’s great leadership abilities.
Suddenly, it’s discovered that a group of Loyalists in New York are conspiring to assassinate George Washington. American troops take to the streets to attack everyone suspected of being a Loyalist, and Washington moves to a new residence. The Loyalist plotters are found and brought to trial, but only one of them is sentenced to death. This man, Thomas Hickey, is publicly hanged on June 28, to thunderous applause. Later that day, Washington learns that the British are sailing to New York from Halifax. On June 29, American troops spot British ships on the horizon, and by July 2, the ships have docked near Staten Island.
Washington experiences a blow to his confidence when he’s nearly assassinated. However, the applause that greets Hickey’s hanging suggests that Washington remains very popular in New York.
On the same day that the ships land on Staten Island, the Continental Congress votes in favor of declaring independence from Britain. The news reaches New York on July 6, to much celebration. The soldiers sense that the war has “entered an entirely new stage.” Washington and the members of the Continental Congress are now officially treasonous, meaning that they’ll be sentenced to death if the British capture them. The Declaration of Independence is a high-minded, rhetorically masterful document, but it’s “of little consequence, of course … without a military success against the most formidable force on earth.” Yet the Declaration has an impact on the soldiers: they’re now fighting an all-out war for independence.
Notice that McCullough portrays the signing of the Declaration of Independence as an important but still peripheral event in the book. His focus isn’t on the politicians and thinkers who engineer the American Revolution, but rather the soldiers and tacticians who fight it. Political ideals were important to the American troops, and provided them with an added motivation to defeat the British, but arguably even more important was the American troops’ desire for money and social advancement under Washington.
Even with the British nearby, spirits are high among the American troops. But on July 12, the Americans get a reminder of their weakness. Two British ships sail up the Hudson, past New York, and Washington orders his troops to fire their cannons. The British ships fire back, causing mass panic. The American cannons don’t seem to be doing any damage to the British ships. By the end of the day, the British have sailed all the way up the Hudson. Washington is furious. The British have proven that they can send ships north at any time, meaning that they could halt Washington’s retreat from New York.
This passage reveals that Washington’s carefully designed fortifications aren’t as effective as they’d appeared, since the American troops can’t even stop a British ship from sailing up the Hudson. This makes Washington and his men look foolish: they’ve been working for months on fortifications that now seem to serve no real purpose.
On the British side, morale has never been higher. The British troops are well-fed and confident that they can defeat Washington’s forces. The British want revenge for the defeat in Boston, and they ridicule the Declaration of Independence. British generals’ strategy is quick, decisive military action in New York. Their greatest fear is that the Americans will continue to use a defensive strategy rather than fighting the British army head-on.
The British correctly recognize that they’d have a major advantage in a head-to-head battle with the American army. Therefore, they hope that they’ll be able to corner Washington’s troops rather than having to chase Washington across the Northeast.
On July 14, General William Howe sends a British soldier, waving a truce flag, to deliver a letter to George Washington. At first, Washington’s troops won’t accept the letter, since Howe has addressed it to “Mr. Washington” (an insult). It’s only when a higher-ranking British officer, Captain James Paterson, re-addresses the letter to “George Washington, Esq., etc., etc.” that Washington agrees to a meeting.
It’s another sign of Washington’s sense of pride and honor—a hallmark of his aristocratic background—that he refuses to be addressed by any inferior title.
Washington meets with Captain James Paterson, who offers Washington the letter—though Washington again refuses to read it, since he finds the “etc., etc.” in the address insulting. Paterson explains that George III is offering pardons to Washington and his peers. Washington replies, “Those who have committed no fault want no pardon.” It’s likely that Washington knew that Paterson was going to make peace offerings. The reason he agreed to see Paterson was to prove, both to the British and to his own men, that he could “go through the motions quite as well as any officer and gentleman, but more importantly to send a message to the British command absent any ambiguity.”
It’s likely that Washington never has any intention of negotiating with the British representatives. He just wants to put on a show to prove that he’s a tough negotiator who won’t give into the British under any circumstances. Furthermore, his encounter with Paterson makes for good propaganda for his own troops, since Washington shows his social superiority to Paterson and, by extension, the entire British army.
British ships continue to arrive in New York all throughout the summer of 1776. By August, over a hundred vessels have landed on Staten Island. Thousands of British troops, along with German Hessians, are prepared for a fight.
The British ships landing near New York provide a constant, visible reminder of the weakness of the American fortifications. Staten Island is very close to Manhattan, meaning that the British could attack Washington’s troops at almost any time.
The Americans are fairly optimistic about the upcoming fight, and new American troops arrive in New York every day. However, many soldiers also attempt to desert the army, since 1776 is a bumper year for crops, meaning that it’s more lucrative for many working-class people to continue laboring on farms than to fight in the army. Other soldiers desert in order to avoid the “camp fever” in New York.
Desertion is a constant and unwelcome reminder to Washington that his men are more interested in money and opportunity than in lofty ideals. When better opportunities arise or the threat of disease becomes real, soldiers desert the Revolution.
Washington tries to predict how the British will most likely attack his troops in New York. He’s worried that the British will attempt to invade Long Island. Breaking a basic rule of military strategy, he divides his army into two halves, and sends one half out to Long Island to protect it. Washington’s forces are becoming restless and impatient. In the past four months they’ve done a spectacular job of fortifying New York, but now they’re eager for battle.
Washington makes a very basic tactical error by dividing his army, which suggests that, for all his charisma and experience in battle, he still has a lot to learn about warfare. Washington also has yet to face Howe’s troops in head-to-head battle, and his poor decision-making in the weeks leading up to battle suggests a weak, nervous commander.
Nathanael Greene becomes dangerously ill, and Washington is forced to relieve his favorite general of his duty as a commander. In Greene’s place, Washington appoints John Sullivan, who is seen as a vastly inferior commander. It’s now late August. An American commander in New Jersey sends word to Washington that the British are preparing to attack from Long Island and the Hudson. Washington receives the letter but replies simply, “We have made no discovery of any movement here of any consequence.”
Washington is in a weak position as he prepares for the inevitable British invasion. He loses a talented officer, and he has difficulty separating useful intelligence from misinformation. As a result, Washington has little to no idea where the British will invade New York. All he can do is wait.