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The Spirit Of ’76
It wasn’t just tenacity in the face of military disaster, it was the powerful fusion of strengths that Americans had long nurtured—and that could now give them a nation
February/March 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 1
To these elements of initiative and tempo, Washington added yet another: speed. On January 20, 1777, William Howe, explaining to his superiors why he was having such trouble in New Jersey, wrote that “the Enemy moves with so much more celerity than we possibly can with our foreign troops who are too much attached to their baggage.” Sir William was blaming the Hessians, which was hardly fair: No man in the army was more attached to his baggage than General Howe, who required an entire “baggage ship.” But his observation was correct. In the New Jersey campaign, American troops always moved faster than their opponents.
At the same time, the agile Americans did all in their power to reduce the mobility of British and Hessian forces. This was their object in the forage war, when they targeted horses, wagons, and feed. Robert Morris reported to Washington that “the Enemy have since Christmas lost so many Horses, are in such want of forage, and their remaining Cavalry so worn down, that the defects in this department alone would render any movement of their Main body impossible without strong reinforcements.” So successful was this American effort, Morris said, that “General Howe’s situation somewhat resembles that of a Strong bull in Trammells, sensible of his own strength he grows mad with rage & resentment when he finds himself deprived of the use of it.”
To their use of speed Washington and his lieutenants added another element. Working from weakness, they learned to focus a large part of their strength against a small part of the enemy’s force. Here again the New York campaign had taught them a lesson, in the fatal consequences of American dispersion and British concentration. Washington changed his ways. Before the first Battle of Trenton, Americans encouraged three British and German brigades (five counting the forces in north Jersey) to move away from one another and concentrated their entire force against a single Hessian brigade. At the Battle of Princeton, Washington did it again. He concentrated most of his army against a single British brigade and defeated it before superior British forces could arrive. The same thing happened many times in the forage war, slowly wearing down a larger enemy.
A related principle was the use of fire-power to magnify the impact of small forces. Contrary to some recent writing, American troops in New Jersey were not short of weapons and ammunition during that winter, and they had surprising strength in artillery. At the first Battle of Trenton, American attackers had twice as many guns in proportion to infantry as did the Hessian garrison. It was the same again at the second Battle of Trenton and the fight at Princeton; American artillery was decisive in all three battles. American leaders understood that this kind of fighting meant they took fewer casualties. “Force multipliers” of that sort became another enduring element in the American way of war.
The best force multiplier is always good intelligence. During the New York campaign the British used their control of the waters around the city to mask their intentions and confuse their opponents. In New Jersey, American leaders made a major effort to strengthen their intelligence. George Washington himself developed a system of intelligence that became part of his new way of war. He personally recruited secret agents, ordered them to report to him alone, and employed Nathaniel Sackett, of the New York Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies, to construct an entire network in New York with male and female agents of every rank and station.
Washington’s attitudes toward intelligence gathering were different from those of leaders in closed societies, who sought to monopolize intelligence and prohibited efforts that they did not control. He was comfortable with an open system, in which others were not only permitted but encouraged to have a high degree of autonomy. His highly complex yet free and open system of information gathering engaged the efforts of many people, produced multiple sources, and got better results than closed systems. It remains a reason why free societies often have more effective intelligence systems than do closed societies.
All these elements came together in 1776: boldness and prudence, flexibility and opportunism, initiative and tempo, speed and concentration, force multipliers, and intelligence. They defined a way of war that would continue to appear throughout the Revolution and in many subsequent conflicts. American generals who have used these methods won; those that haven’t were apt to lose, as in Vietnam and the War of 1812.
In 1776 American leaders believed that it was not enough just to win the war. They also had to win in a way that was consistent with the values of their society and the principles of their cause. One of their greatest achievements was to manage the war in a manner that was true to the expanding humanitarian ideals of the American Revolution. In Congress and the army, American leaders resolved that the War of Independence would be conducted with a respect for the human rights even of the enemy. This idea grew stronger during the campaign of 1776–77, not weaker, as is commonly the case in war.