Last Days of the American Revolution
Please note that this article was written by Lt. Mark Kryza of the 4th Continental Light Dragoons.
Part I: The Americans Regain New York City
In the Fall of 1783, the American army had dwindled down to about 2000 men, most of them being stationed at West Point. All that remained was a handful of New York light infantry companies, one remaining Massachusetts regiment, a troop of Second Dragoons, Armand’s Legion and a few artillery batteries. The rest of the regiments had long been disbanded, the men having returned home.
The last British and Hessian troops remaining in America, where in New York City, totaling less than 4000 men. Guy Carlton had replaced long departed Clinton as commander of the crown forces in America. Congress had relocated to Annapolis, Maryland… and Washington himself was at Rocky Hill, NJ, about 4 miles north of Princeton, compiling his papers and preparing his eventual resignation from the army.
Everyone was waiting word from France on the approval of the final peace treaty. On September 3, British and American negotiators in Paris finally approved the treaty conceding American independence. Word was slow in reaching America, and finally arrived the first week of November. Upon hearing the news, Washington returned to the army, and awaited word in Newburgh, NY when the British garrison in New York City would be evacuated.
On November 17, Washington received word from Carlton that all remaining troops in New York City would be transferred to Staten Island by November 25th and would depart for Europe the first week of December. On November 18th, the last Hessian troops boarded troop transports, and sailed for Hamburg and Bremen. The last remaining Hessian soldier to depart for Germany, was Lieutenant Carl von Kraft of Garrison Regiment von Huyn. He had secretly married Cornelia de la Metra of Kings Bridge, NY, and would return to America in February of 1784 for the baptism of his son, Cornelius Frederick. Now was the time for the American army to take possession of New York City. New York Governor van Cortlandt had formally asked Washington as the governor’s personal guest, if he would lead the Army into the city. Washington agreed, and on November 21, moved the 800 remaining infantry and cavalry to the village of Harlem.
Tuesday, November 25th, dawned breezy, cold and sunny. The army formed up on Bowery Land, 8 men abreast. Washington was at the head of the column with Governor van Cortlandt, Benjamin Tallmadge of the 2nd Dragoons, Henry Knox of the artillery, and Colonel Jackson of Massachusetts. As the British soldiers on the southern end of Manhattan Island began leaving the Battery for Staten Island, the American army reentered the city from the northern end.
Down the Bowery Lane they came, drums, fifes, and trumpets playing, passing crowds of cheering patriots. At the Bulls Head Tavern at present day Cooper Union Square, the army halted and was served glasses of ale, while the crowd sung an old Moravian hymn called “He Comes! He Comes with a Trumpet Sound!”.
The column resumed its march slowly down Broadway, as throngs clotting the streets cheered the troops. At present day 51st Street, the column halted at the country house of James Beekman, and celebration ensued on the banks of the East River. At 1 p.m., Henry Knox rode to the Battery, where he received from Forrest George, the last remaing British officer in New York City, his papers formally handing the city over to the Continental Army. For the first time in 8 years, New York City was free of all crown forces.
Part II: Fraunces Tavern & Washington Departs New York City
Its December 4th, and New York City has been in American hands for a week. Celebrations continue with fireworks, the taverns are filled with revelers, Continental Army officers go from banquet to banquet, and Washington is treated with almost godlike reverence.
The last British troops on Staten Island are now ready to depart for home. Troop transports are now being filled as sailors row the remaining soldiers to the ships. By mid afternoon of December 1, the last whaleboat cleared the shore, and the last Redcoats to leave America are a section of British Marines from the warship Assistance. But one final episode remains to be savored by the British, the rowers stop for a minute, and look back to the flagstaff, from which their last act had been to lower the Union Jack, and cut the halliards. Swarming around the naked staff, was a crowd resolved to raise the Stars and Stripes, but the halliards were in strings, and when one fellow sought to clamber up the pole, he slid helplessly to the ground, for just prior to departure the Marines had thoroughly greased the pole from head to foot. By dusk of that day, the last British ship disappeared over the horizon at Sandy Hook, and they would not return for 29 years when the War of 1812 broke out. Back in New York, Washington had been going from celebration to celebration, all to honor the great man… but the war is over, and Washington desires to return home… to a home he has not slept in since 1775, Mount Vernon. A final celebration is planned at Fraunces Tavern on December 4th, its time to say goodbye to his officers.
All the remaining Continental Army officers are invited to the farewell party that was being held in the Long Room of Fraunces. A table filled with a “slight refreshment” had been laid out as well as brandy and wine. Just as the army had dwindled in size, only a handfull of officers remained. Of the twentynine major generals commissioned by Congress during the war, only Knox, McDougall, and von Steuben were present. Most of the others had retired, or resigned, and six had died. Of the fortyfour brigadier generals, only James Clinton, brother-in-law of the governor was there, and only one colonel of the line, Henry Jackson of Massachusetts, and Lieut. Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge of the 2nd Dragoons. Early afternoon on Thursday the 4th, the invitees arrived and waited for Washington to arrive. The officers engaged in quiet conversation and sipped glasses of wine, when… He arrived. The conversation stopped and the officers moved aside as Washington strode to the banquet table. He could hardly speak, rather he filled a goblet with wine and watched as the others dutifully followed. Colonel Tallmadge described the room as a “breathless silence”. With glass raised, in a choked voice, Washington said, “With a heart filled with love and gratitude, I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.” As the officers raised their glasses in salute, Washington resumed, “I cannot come to each of you, but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.” As the senior officer present, Henry Knox stepped forward silently and offered his large cannoneer’s hand. Weeping openly, Washington embraced his burly longtime chief of artillery and kissed him. In turn, and by rank, each officer, von Steuben following, came forward to be clasped, “suffused with tears and unable to speak”. Tallmadge recalled, “Such a scene of sorrow and weeping I have never before witnessed… ” The General’s parting band of brothers seemed like “grieving children”. Once the most junior officer had received Washington’s embrace, he strode across the Long Room, while these officers never known for tears dabbed at their eyes. With what seemed like a strenuous effort, Washington raised his right arm in a silent farewell and walked out of the door without looking back, leaving a mournful silence.
It was time for Washington to be one his way… to Philadelphia to settle his accounts, to Annapolis to offer his resignation, and to Mount Vernon, and as with all soldiers wishes, to be home by Christmas.
It was 2 pm, late to begin a daylight journey in December in the 18th Century, but a ferry awaited at the Whitehall wharf. With a waiting guard of light infantry and 2nd Dragoons, Washington strode down Pearl Street to the waiting ferry. Along with him were aides David Humphreys, Benjamin Walker and David Cobb, two servants, and von Steuben, who would travel with them as far as Philadelphia. Washington’s route was filled with throngs of people, all trying to view the great man. Waiting at the dock, was governor Clinton, and members of the City Council.
Washington and his party stepped aboard the beflagged boat powered by six oarsmen on each side. As the ferry departed, Washington rose, turned and faced the crowds and raised his tri-corn in final farewell. At the dock, hats were lifted in return salute. Washington’s old comrades remained bareheaded on the shore until the ferry disappeared from view. Tallmadge recalled it was a “scene so fraught with feeling, that it seemed for a time it could never be erased from vivid and constant reflection.” Washington was on his way home.
Part III: Washington’s Journey Across New Jersey & On to Philadelphia
With his Provost Guard in the lead, it took Washington four days to cover the 100 miles to Philadelphia. And what a 100 miles it was, for he relived the darkest days of the war. From the dreary wet Autumn in 1776 when his beaten army retreated across New Jersey… to the Christmas night attack on Trenton… his march back north where he defeated three British regiments at Princeton… to 1781, when he and Rochambeau lead a combined American and French army south through the state to Yorktown. He passed all those places, the thoughts that must have went through his mind, we’ll never know what the great man thought.
But this time it was different, all those Jersey towns, Elizbethtown, New Brunswick, Princeton and Trenton, they were all merry now with flags, bunting, bands and banners. All along his route cheering crowds greeted him, and he stopped at every one bidding his audience “a long farewell.”
The journey was a grueling one, roads were narrow, muddy and cratered. Horses had to be fed, watered and rested. So, too, servants, soldiers and companions. Darkness and chill came early in December, and his aides had to find places to stay, an inn for the general, and maybe a straw pallet in a barn for those in the lowest ranks. Across New Jersey he traveled, an impromptu human messenger service alerted the next town Washington would pass through. At almost every milepost large crowds or small groups gathered to catch a glimpse of the soul of the Revolution. On the afternoon of December 6, Washington entered Trenton, and was greeted by Governor William Livingston, and the next day he gave an address to the New Jersey General Assembly.
On Monday, December 8th, Washington crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania at the Blazing Star Ferry at Bordentown. By late that afternoon, as twilight approached, Washington reached the town of Frankford, just north of Philadelphia. An official greeting party from Philadelphia was there waiting for him, it comprised of former general Arthur St. Clair, John Dickinson who chaired the state’s Executive Council, Robert Morris the Congress’s financier, Edward Hand, former Adjutant General of the Continental Army, and numerous local dignitaries- Germans from Germantown, black-garbed Quakers, and finally, his escort, the elite troop of the Philadelphia Light Horse.
As darkness descended, the entourage continued on into Philadelphia. With his aides, the General was escorted to the fashionable City Tavern on Second Street above Walnut, which had opened in 1773, and was known for its elegance. His aides were housed at City Tavern, while Washington was put up in Robert Morris’s mansion on Front Street.
Word spread throughout the city that Washington had arrived. A week of celebration, receptions, banquets awaited Washington. PART IV: PHILADELPHIA
Philadelphia in the 18th Century, was the city where everything happened. It was the social, economic, cultural and educational center of the colonies. The city in 1783 had over 50,000 inhabitants, greater then New York and Boston combined. It was this city, that welcomed Washington. The war was over, and the city was prospering, wharves on the Delaware River were loaded with goods, local newspapers boasted of increased trade and normalization. The first ship, the “Congress”, was preparing to sail to England, loaded with window glass, West Indian rum, pepper by the bale and coffee, all being sold at handsome profits.
For five days, Washington led a whirlwind existence. From meeting with the Pennsylvania Legislature in the Pennsylvania State House, which later became known as Independence Hall, to receptions, celebrations, banquets, Washington was the center of it all from December 9 through the 14th. His first job was to present his expenses to Robert Morris. Washington had agreed to serve as Commander of the American army at no pay other then to have his expenses reimbursed. This he did for 8 years, and presented a bill to Morris for over $90,000, a very tidy sum in those days., and valued at about $1.5 million today. His accounts were accepted by James Milligan, then Comptroller of the Treasury, and an initial payment of $27,770 was immediately made.
Thursday, the 11th, found Washington with a free day to go about his own personal business. The day found him visiting David Rittenhouse, the great American astronomer and scientist, at his home at 7th and Mulberry Streets. Here Washington acquired a set of new spectacles, which Rittenhouse ground the lenses himself. Later, he visited Charles Wilson Peale, at his gallery at 3rd and Lombards St’s, the artist who would eventually do eight portraits of Washington.
But one thought was constantly on Washington’s mind, to be home by Christmas, and there was one job left to do, to buy his wife Martha Christmas presents. This he did that afternoon. He purchased for her from the finest shops in the city, lockets, sashes, hats, stockings and an umbrella, all which was carefully packed away for his final journey home. The last day he spent in Philadelphia, was Sunday, the 14th. His only official duties that day were to meet with the Philosophical Society, were he accepted an honorary membership. The rest of the day he spent preparing for his departure.
December was growing short, only 11 days remained before Christmas. Washington had to meet with Congress in Annapolis, where he would present his resignation, with the usual round of social activities to follow, but one constant thought remained in his mind… To be home at Mount Vernon with Martha for Christmas.
Part V: On to Annapolis
December was getting late, and now was not the time to tarry. On Monday, December 15th, accompanied by aides Humphreys and Walker, and with his two servants, Washington boarded his carriage, and left Philadelphia for Annapolis. The once formidable honor guard had shrunk down to just a handful of riders, as he crossed into Delaware he was effectively already a civilian. By late morning, Washington crossed into Delaware, which by a recent act of Congress, was no longer the “3 Lower Counties on Delaware”, but had become “Delaware State.” The crowds waiting for him had thinned out considerably, but that was only because in that tiny state there were fewer residents. On through Wilmington, and finally stopping at New Castle for the night, where he was greeted by a “number of respectable citizens” and the Common Council of Delaware, and Gunning Bedford, formerly Lieut. Colonel of the Delaware Regiment, and now Attorney General of Delaware.
Leaving New Castle on the morning of the 17th, he proceeded south to Baltimore via the Old Philadelphia Pike to the Lower Susquehanna Ferry, where he stopped for the night at Grant’s Tavern. The next day he entered Baltimore and was entertained at reception at the Fountain Inn on Light Street.
The final leg of the journey to Annapolis had Washington’s party skirting the islets and coves of the Chesapeake Bay, misty and frozen in the watery winter sun. Annapolis was the premiere city of Maryland, and was now the seat of Congress. Throughout the war, Congress was forced to relocate several time, the cities of York, Lancaster and Trenton had all at one time hosted Congress, now it was Annapolis’s turn, and there waited the delegates, 20 in all, all but New Jersey and Georgia were represented, for Washington to arrive.
A committee of three, Thomas Jefferson, Elbridge Gerry and James Mchenry, were appointed to stage every detail of Washington’s stay and final audience with Congress. Annapolis was considered a town “where Pleasure holds her Court”, where there was an abundance of “turkies, fine fish and oysters”, and these three men had arranged days of “plays, Balls, Concerts, routs, hops, Fandangoes and fox hunting”. On Friday the 19th, Washington arrived, he had been met outside the city by General William Smallwood, of the Maryland Line, and Horatio Gates of Saratoga fame, who led him into the city, and escorted his party to George Mann’s Hotel at the corner of Main and Conduit streets. For three days, Washington was treated to all the city had to offer. He met with the Maryland Legislature, representatives from France, old army friends, he wrote letters, attended a final grand dinner at Mann’s, where there where 13 toasts given. It was such a splendid ball, that Congress was invoiced $664.75 for food, and drink, which inclueded 98 bottles of wine and 2 and a half gallons of spirits, plus numerous waiters, musicians and attendants. But one thing remained, on the 24th he was to meet with Congress, and present his resignation.
That day arrived, it was a Wednesday, Christmas Eve day. Washington had gotten very little sleep but did not seem the worse for it. The servants from Mann’s Hotel had packed his luggage, groomed his horse and those of his aides, and had them posted outside the door for efficient departure. The squat Maryland State House awaited Washington. They were all there, the cocked hats of the Revolution- Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania, now presiding officer of Congress, representatives from the states, the French minister, Chevalier de La Luzerne, the envoy from Holland, Pieter van Berckel, Governor William Paca of Maryland, Thomas Jefferson, his fellow Virginian and penman of the Declaration of Independence, Colonel John Eager Howard of the Maryland Line and hero of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, the full Maryland Legislature, and prominent citizens, all clustered along the walls, filled the avenues and crowded below the stairs, while outside the entire population of Annapolis had gathered. Just before noon, Washington, with aides, Humphreys and Walker, appeared at the doorway of the Assembly Room. Charles Thomson, Secretary of Congress, directed Washington, resplendent in his blue and buff uniform, to take a seat near Thomas Mifflin. Walker and Humphreys, both in uniform, stood on either side of Washington.
When the audience hushed, Mifflin stood, and turned to Washington and said, “Sir, the United States Congress assembled are prepared to receive your communications.” As the General arose and bowed, members removed their cocked hats in lieu of a return bow, then replaced them.
Washington’s hand shook as he read from his text and at times his voice faltered and sunk. His speech was short and ended with- “Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of action, and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commisson, and take leave of all my employments of public life.”
From his coat pocket, Washington withdrew the parchment that was his appointment from Congress as Commander in Chief, dated June 15, 1775. and returned it to Thomas Mifflin. Mifflin stood at the podium and replied- “We accept this solemn resignation of the authorities under which you have led your troops with success through a perilous and doubtful war.” The General bowed again to Congress, members rose silently, and removed their hats in respect. Washington bid everyone in the room a farewell, and shook hands with each. He then retired with his aides… now no longer General, but private citizen Washington.
Part VI: Home
General George Washington, was now a private citizen. His duties ended, all that remained was to be home for Christmas. Washington never an overly religious man, had been raised in the Anglican faith, where in Virginia, it was compulsory to attend church services. Virginia was the one state, where though, Christmas not a legal holiday, it was celebrated with much gaiety and fanfare. Washington had not sat for Christmas dinner at Mount Vernon for over eight years, he had now but one wish, as with all soldiers, to be home for Christmas.
After his departure from his meeting with Congress, he immediately departed Annapolis with aides Humphreys and Walker, and his two servants. The shadows of that gray December were lengthing, and a ride of 20 miles to home still had to be made. And off they went, accompanied by Governor William Paca, who rode with them as far as the South River, later to be named the Potomac.
Martha had been informed that her husband was coming. They had been married 24 years earlier on the Twelfth Night Of Christmas Eve, and what a present this years Christmas would bring, he was coming home. Washington had left Mount Vernon in June of 1775, and except for a few hours on his way to Yorktown in 1781, he had not been home in 8 years. Washington reached the river ferry as the sun was begining to set. Martha had been watching out one of the windows on the second floor of Mount Vernon, when she saw Washington step off the ferry onto the soil of his beloved Virginia. A road led up the ferry through an orchard to the front portico of Mount Vernon. His aides stayed back to allow Washington his private moment of reunion with Martha.
Up the lane he rode, Mount Vernon was ablaze with candle light… .and there in the doorway stood Martha. He was home, home for Christmas, to his little Virgnia housewife.
And thus ended 1783. The Revolution was over, the soldiers where home, and America was a free independent nation.