History of the United States, Volume 6, 1782-1789

Author: George Bancroft

Chapter 6:
The American Army and Its Chief,
March 1783

THE commander-in-chief suppressed the wish to visit Mount Vernon during the winter, for the army at Newburg was more unquiet than at any former period The Massachusetts line formed more than half of it, and so many of the remainder were from other eastern states that he could describe them all as New England men. He had made the delicate state of affairs "the object of many contemplative hours," and he was aware of the prevailing sentiment that the prospect of compensation for past services would terminate with the war.

Now that peace was at hand, his first act was by a letter to Harrison, then governor of Virginia, to entreat his own state to enter upon a movement toward a real union. "From the observations I have made in the course of this war—and my intercourse with the states in their united as well as separate capacities has afforded ample opportunities of judging—I am decided in my opinion," such were his words, "that, if the powers of congress are not enlarged and made competent to all general purposes, the blood which has been spilt, the expense that has been incurred, and the distresses which have been felt, will avail nothing; and that the band which holds us together, already too weak, will soon be broken; when anarchy and confusion will prevail. I shall make no apology for the freedom of these sentiments; they proceed from an honest heart; they will at least prove the sincerity of my friendship, as they are altogether undisguised." The governor received this letter as a public appeal, and placed it among the archives of Virginia.

Before the officers had taken into consideration the cautious report of their committee to congress, Colonel Walter Stewart, an inspector of troops, coming back from Philadelphia, presented himself at the quarters of Gates as "a kind of agent from the friends of the army in congress;" and rumors were immediately circulated through the camp that it was universally expected the army would not disband until they had obtained justice; that the public creditors looked up to them for aid, and, if necessary, would even join them in the field; that some members of congress wished the measure might take effect, in order to compel the public, particularly the delinquent states, to do justice.

A plan of action was in the utmost secrecy devised by Gates and those around him. To touch with ability the several chords of feeling which lay slumbering in the army, his aide-de-camp, Major John Armstrong, was selected to draft an address. This was copied, and Colonel Barber, the assistant adjutant-general of the division of Gates, taking care not to be tracked, put it in circulation through the line of every state, with a notice for a meeting of the general and field officers on the next day, to consider what measures should be adopted to obtain that redress of grievances which they seemed to have solicited in vain.

"My friends!" so ran the anonymous appeal, "after seven long years your suffering courage has conducted the United States of America through a doubtful and a bloody war; and peace returns to bless—whom? A country willing to redress your wrongs, cherish your worth, and reward your services? Or is it rather a country that tramples upon your rights, disdains your cries, and insults your distresses? Have you not lately, in the meek language of humble petitioners, begged from the justice of congress what you could no longer expect from their favor? How have you been answered? Let the letter which you are called to consider to-morrow make reply!

"If this be your treatment while the swords you wear are necessary for the defence of America, what have you to expect when those very swords, the instruments and companions of your glory, shall be taken from your sides, and no mark of military distinction left but your wants, infirmities, and scars? If you have sense enough to discover and spirit to oppose tyranny, whatever garb it may assume, awake to your situation. If the present moment be lost, your threats hereafter will be as empty as your entreaties now. Appeal from the justice to the fears of government; and suspect the man"—here Washington was pointed at—"who would advise to longer forbearance."

A copy of the address reached Washington on Tuesday, the eleventh, and the meeting was to take place in the evening of that very day. Resolutions dictated by passion and tending to anarchy, if once adopted, could never be effaced, and might bring ruin on the army and the nation. There was need of instant action, "to arrest the feet that stood wavering on a precipice." To change ill-considered menaces into a legal presentment of grievances, the commander, in general orders, disapproved the anonymous and irregular invitation to a meeting, and at the same time requested all the highest officers and a representation of the rest to assemble at twelve o’clock on the next Saturday to hear the report of the committee which they had sent to congress. "After mature deliberation, they will devise what further measures ought to be adopted to attain the just and Important object in view. The senior officer in rank present will preside and report the result of their deliberations to the commander-in-chief." Gates quailed, and the gathering for that evening was given up; but under his eye Armstrong prepared a second anonymous address, which, while it professed to consider the general orders of Washington "as giving stability to their resolves," recommended "suspicion" as their "sentinel." During the week, Washington employed himself, with Knox and others whom he could trust, in preparing methods to avert every fatal consequence.

At noon on the fifteenth the officers assembled, with Gates in the chair. They were surprised to find that the commander-in-chief was with them. Every eye was fixed on him; and all were mute, awaiting his words.

After an apology to his "brother officers" for his presence, he read his analysis of the anonymous addresses. Their author he praised for his rhetorical skill, but denied the rectitude of his heart, and denounced his scheme as fit to proceed from no one but a British emissary. He thus continued:

"As I was among the first who embarked in the cause of our common country; as I have never left your side one moment, but when called from you on public duty; as I have been the constant companion and witness of your distresses, it can scarcely be supposed that I am indifferent to your interests." He proceeded to demonstrate that any attempt to compel an instant compliance with their demands would certainly remove to a still greater distance the attainment of their ends. They must place their reliance on the plighted faith of their country and the purity of the intentions of congress to render them ample justice, though its deliberations, from the difficulty of reconciling different interests, might be slow.

"For myself," he said, "so far as may be done consistently with the great duty I owe my country and those powers we are bound to respect, you may command my services to the utmost extent of my abilities.

"While I give you these assurances, let me entreat you, gentlemen, on your part, not to take any measures which, in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained. Let me conjure you in the name of our common country, as you value your own sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the military and national character of America, to express your utmost horror and detestation of the man who wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood.

"By thus determining and thus acting, you will pursue the plain and direct road to the attainment of your wishes; you will give one more proof of unexampled patriotism and patient virtue, rising superior to the pressure of the most complicated sufferings; and you will afford occasion for posterity to say: ’Had this day been wanting, the world had never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining.’"

On concluding his address, the general, in further proof of the good disposition of congress, began to read parts of a letter from a member of that body; but, after getting through a single paragraph, he paused, and asked leave of his audience to put on spectacles, which he had so lately received that he had never yet worn them in public, saying: "I have grown gray in your service, and now find myself growing blind." These unaffected words touched every heart. The letter, which was from Joseph Jones of King George county in Virginia, set forth the embarrassments of congress and their resolve that the army should at all events be justly dealt with. Washington then withdrew.

Officers, who a few hours before had yielded themselves to the anonymous addresses, veered about, and would now follow no counsellor but their own commander. The assembly unanimously thanked him for his communications and assured him of their affection, "with the greatest sincerity of which the human heart is capable." Then, after a reference to Knox, Brooks, and Howard as their committee, they resolved unanimously: "At the commencement of the present war, the officers of the American army engaged in the service of their country from the purest love and attachment to the rights and liberties of human nature, which motives still exist in the highest degree; and no circumstances of distress or danger shall induce a conduct that may tend to sully the reputation and glory which they have acquired at the price of their blood and eight years’ faithful services." Making no demands and confining their expectations within the most reasonable limits, they declared their unshaken confidence in the justice of congress and their country, and they asked nothing of their chief but to urge congress to a speedy decision upon their late memorial.

Another resolution declared "that the officers of the American army view with abhorrence and reject with disdain the infamous propositions contained in a late anonymous address to them." Gates meekly put the question, and was obliged to report that it was carried unanimously.

No one ever ruled the hearts of his officers like Washington. The army of America had seen him calm and commanding in the rage of battle; patient and persistent under multiplied misfortunes; moderate in victory; but then he had been countenanced by his troops and his friends; here he stood alone, amid injured men of inflamed passions, with swords at their sides, persuaded that forbearance would be their ruin, and, for a fearful moment, looking upon him as their adversary. As he spoke, every cloud was scattered, and the full light of love of country broke forth. Happy for America that she had a patriot army; happy for America and for the world that that army had Washington for its chief!

The official narrative of these events was received in congress on the twenty-second, and, before the day came to an end, nine states concurred in a resolution commuting the half-pay promised to the officers into a sum equal to five years’ full pay, to be discharged by certificates bearing interest at six per cent. Georgia and Rhode Island were not adequately represented; New Hampshire and New Jersey voted in the negative; all the other states irrevocably pledged the United States to redeem their promise made to the officers in the dark hours of their encampment at Valley Forge.

On the next day a ship dispatched from Cadiz by d’Estaing, at the instance of Lafayette, brought authentic news that the American and British commissioners had signed definitively a provisional treaty, of which an official copy had been received eleven days before, and that peace with Great Britain had already taken effect. The American boundaries on the northwest exceeded alike the demands and the hopes of congress, and it was already believed that a later generation would make its way to the Pacific ocean.

The glad tidings drew from Washington tears of joy in that "happiest moment of his life." "All the world is touched by his republican virtues," wrote Luzerne. "It will be in vain for him to wish to hide himself and live as a simple, private man; he will always be the first citizen of the United States." All the while no one like him had pursued with single-mindedness and perseverance and constant activity the great object of creating a republican government for the continent. To Hamilton he wrote on the last day of March 1783: "I rejoice most exceedingly that there is an end to our warfare, and that such a field is opening to our view, as will with wisdom to direct the cultivation of it, make us a great, a respectable, and happy people; but it must be improved by other means than state politics, and unreasonable jealousies and prejudices, or it requires not the second sight to see that we shall be instruments in the hands of our enemies and those European powers who may be jealous of our greatness in union, to dissolve the confederation. But to obtain this, although the way seems extremely plain, is not so easy.

"My wish to see the union of these states established upon liberal and permanent principles, and inclination to contribute my mite in pointing out the defects of the present constitution, are equally great. All my private letters have teemed with these sentiments, and, whenever this topic has been the subject of conversation, I have endeavored to diffuse and enforce them. No man in the United States is or can be more deeply impressed with the necessity of a reform in our present confederation than myself. No man, perhaps, has felt the bad effects of it more sensibly; for to the defects thereof, and want of power in congress, may justly be ascribed the prolongation of the war and consequently the expenses occasioned by it. More than half the perplexities I have experienced in the course of my command, and almost the whole of the difficulties and distress of the army, have had their origin here. But still, the prejudices of some, the designs of others, and the mere machinery of the majority, make address and management necessary to give weight to opinions which are to combat the doctrines of those different classes of men in the field of politics."

Upon official information from Franklin and Adams, congress on the eleventh of April made proclamation for the cessation of hostilities. In announcing the great event to the army, Washington did especial honor to the men who had enlisted for the war, and added: "Happy, thrice happy shall they be pronounced hereafter who have contributed anything in erecting this stupendous fabric of freedom and empire; who have assisted in protecting the rights of human nature, and establishing an asylum for the poor and oppressed of all nations and religions." The proclamation of congress that war was at an end was published to the army on the nineteenth, exactly eight years from the day when the embattled farmers of Concord "fired the shot heard round the world."


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Chicago: George Bancroft, "Chapter 6: The American Army and Its Chief, March 1783," History of the United States, Volume 6, 1782-1789 in George Bancroft, History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent, 6 Vols. (New York: Harper & Bros, 1882), Pp.70-77 Original Sources, accessed September 25, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L8L3M5PX6BCH9MS.

MLA: Bancroft, George. "Chapter 6: The American Army and Its Chief, March 1783." History of the United States, Volume 6, 1782-1789, in George Bancroft, History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent, 6 Vols. (New York: Harper & Bros, 1882), Pp.70-77, Original Sources. 25 Sep. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L8L3M5PX6BCH9MS.

Harvard: Bancroft, G, 'Chapter 6: The American Army and Its Chief, March 1783' in History of the United States, Volume 6, 1782-1789. cited in , George Bancroft, History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent, 6 Vols. (New York: Harper & Bros, 1882), Pp.70-77. Original Sources, retrieved 25 September 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L8L3M5PX6BCH9MS.