Among his troops
In July the Museum of the American Revolution released its first book, “Among His Troops: Discovering the Only Known Image of Washington’s Tent,” based on an exhibition of the same name. The book focuses on two of Pierre L’Enfant’s watercolors, one depicting the Continental Army at West Point and the other showing the army’s encampment at Verplanck’s Point, New York. Verplanck’s Point watercolor includes the only known war-time image of Washington’s tent, which is on display at the museum. As the entry below illustrates, L’Enfant’s watercolors capture the proud yet precarious situation of Washington’s Army in 1782. (Colonial Williamsburg has exhibited the tent from time to time, behind the Wythe House.)
Histories of the Revolutionary War treat the Siege of Yorktown and capture of the army of Lord Cornwallis on Oct. 19, 1781, as the end of major fighting. But Washington and his troops did not know the war was heading to its conclusion. Indeed, in the late summer and early fall of 1782, Washington had good reason to consider the outcome of the war in doubt, perhaps even in as serious a crisis as in the darkest days of 1776. Washington deliberately created the Verplanck’s Point encampment as a demonstration of his army’s health and strength in the midst of this growing crisis.
In the 10 months after the American success in Virginia, British forces had achieved a series of significant triumphs that reinvigorated hopes for a victory among some in the public and the government. Lord North, the long-serving prime minister of King George III for most of the Revolutionary War, resigned following the news of the British defeat at Yorktown. No stable coalition of British politicians had replaced him. It remained unclear who would control Parliament in the near future, hawks advocating war or doves in favor of peace.
While American and French forces took deserved pride in their victory at Yorktown, Britain was winning the world war with America’s French, Spanish and Dutch allies and supporters. Eight months after Cornwallis surrendered his army in Virginia, the British scored a crucial naval victory on April 12, 1782, against the French at the Battle of the Saintes, in the Caribbean Sea between the islands of Guadeloupe and Dominica. The fleet of Comte de Grasse, the same French naval force that had defeated the British at the Battle of the Chesapeake on Sept. 5, 1781, helping to seal the fate of Cornwallis at Yorktown, now surrendered to the forces of Admiral George Rodney. Lord North proclaimed it “perhaps the most complete” victory “of any recorded in the naval annals of England.” Meanwhile in Europe, British forces at Gibraltar held off a massive grand assault by French and Spanish troops, marking a significant turning point in the siege that had started there three years before.
Washington had to worry that the British victories around the world might encourage George III’s government to refocus its military on the North American theater. While the British Army had not undertaken any major new military initiatives along the Atlantic Coast since the American victory at Yorktown a year earlier, British forces continued to pose a powerful threat. When L’Enfant created his image of Verplanck’s Point, British forces remained in control of New York, Charleston, Savannah, Penobscot, Saint Augustine and Canada. The war in the American west intensified, and most Native people allied with the British against the Americans. While the preliminaries to a peace process had already started, they could still easily fall apart and the war might heat up in turn.
On the American side, Washington faced the prospect of renewed British aggression with a disgruntled Continental Army and the possibility of French forces leaving the North American theater. Despite efforts by nationalists in Congress to add some powers of taxation to the Articles of Confederation, Congress still had no authority to raise revenue or pay the army. The exhausted state treasuries provided inadequate support. Unpaid soldiers and frustrated officers began to write to their home legislatures for relief, or even for Constitutional reforms to increase the government’s ability to raise money and pay them. As the potential of peace became more real, interstate conflicts grew over the future settlement of western lands. By the spring of 1782, Washington considered the odds so daunting that he even debated enlisting Hessian prisoners of war to support the American effort.
In the fall of 1782, Washington knew that the French Army who had participated in the Siege of Yorktown was finally about to depart from the United States. Rochambeau’s troops had been in Virginia since the siege, but the French government needed them for the fight in the Caribbean. The army was going to march north around British-occupied New York City, cross the Hudson between Stony Point and Verplanck’s Point, and march to Boston for embarkation to Martinique. That meant Washington had one last chance to demonstrate American fighting proficiency to the French officers before they left. If he ever hoped to counter a renewed British North American war effort, he would need French help. But he needed to show the French officers that the Continental Army had not dissipated after Yorktown. He needed to show them that, despite whatever they may have heard about disgruntlement and conflicts among Americans, the Continental Army remained a reliable allied force.
Like the encampment layout itself, Pierre L’Enfant’s panoramic watercolors expressed the military professionalism and the ideological republicanism of the Continental Army. The West Point watercolor captures the powerful American fortifications around that strategic location, but also depicts vignettes of soldiers, camp followers, and army wagons, all showing well-dressed troops working together effectively.
–Reprinted from the Museum of the American Revolution, Philadelphia
Speaking of history, while touring the Mariners’ Museum with our grandchildren we found the propeller of the USS Monitor from the famed battle of 1862. Don’t forget to get your prop cleaned before winter. williamsburgchartersails.com
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