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Victory or Death
Friday, December 13, 1776
The Widow White’s Tavern
Basking Ridge, New Jersey
It required a very special manner of general to have a tranquil breakfast in the middle of a war in which his own side confronted massive peril.
But Charles Lee was that sort of general—and man.
The torch of freedom, shining so brightly following General William Howe’s evacuation of Boston, was now threatened with darkness. New York City had, in battle after battle, been ingloriously lost. Even the outpost named for Lee himself—New Jersey’s “Fort Lee”—had been abandoned. Philadelphia seemed next. Thousands of rebel soldiers had been lost, either slain in battle or now bound in heavy iron chains. Thousands more had simply vanished and gone home.
It was mid-morning, nearing ten o’clock, yet General Lee sat quietly in his soiled, rumpled cap and dressing gown, here at the widow Mary White’s two-storied, two-chimneyed tavern in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. The slovenly Lee cheerfully munched upon his eggs and hard bread and plentiful portions of bacon and ham, occasionally pausing to fling a scrap or two of what had recently been ambulatory swine to the ravenous pack of faithful hounds who seemingly accompanied this strange man wherever he traveled. Between munches and flings, Lee took quill pen in hand to inscribe a letter to General Horatio Gates furiously raging against their mutual superior, George Washington. “A certain man,” Lee scribbled hurriedly, “is damnably deficient.”
Lee wrote rapidly for a very good reason: All hell was breaking loose. To enjoy this breakfast (and perhaps more of the company of the tavern’s comely ladies), Lee had foolishly separated himself from his troops—troops he had long delayed bringing southward from New York state to reinforce Washington’s woefully depleted forces. Troops that were now busily heading for a semblance of safety across the ice-choked Delaware River in Pennsylvania. Only a handful of guards had accompanied Lee and his aide to the widow White’s tavern.
“You’re surrounded, you traitor, Lee!” came a shout from outside. “Surrender or forfeit your worthless life!” The startled Lee finished writing his last sentence, breaking his quill point as he did, and sprang from his seat. Falling to his knees, he peered out from the bottom of a nearby sill to view a squad of green-jacketed British dragoons, their muskets at the ready.
Lee could not be sure which one had shouted, but that was the least of his problems.
It was, in fact, twenty-two-year-old Cornet Banastre Tarleton, among the most capable and vicious men fighting under the Union Jack. Lee bolted from his table and scurried for safety just as the hard-faced Tarleton’s men unleashed a cascade of fire. Smoke and deafening thunder—and lead shot—filled the air. Several of Lee’s guards fell dead or wounded.
“Hide here!” screamed a barmaid. “Hide in my bed!”
“I’d die first!” shouted Lee, as his hounds growled and barked and ran about the house in panic. “I will fight to the last!”
“I’ll burn the house down! To the ground!” shouted Tarleton. “You have five minutes to surrender!”
Charles Lee’s last came very soon. But it ended with neither death nor victory. Now attired in his old blue coat and battered cock hat, his breeches spattered with grease, he merely shuffled out the tavern’s front door. His captors hustled him upon a horse and sounded a bugle as Charles Lee was led away to a British camp at Brunswick.
Trenton, New Jersey
“What’s going on?” Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall questioned. The gruff, fifty-year-old “Hessian Lion” spoke no English. He spoke only war—and contempt for his Amerikanischen adversaries. Before him, he saw a body carried forward. Another Hessian soldier hobbled past him, assisted by two more grenadiers, blood still seeping freely from the bandages wrapped tightly just above his left knee.
“Another ambush, Colonel Rall. Corporal Schmidt killed. Shot straight through the heart. Private Keller wounded,” answered Lieutenant Andreas von Wiederholdt, who had recently begun to appear much older than his forty-four years. His soldiers could not venture a step outside this miserable village of Trenton without being fired upon by these rebel madmen. Even being within its limits offered little safety. A shot from the woods—blam!—might be fired into the back of an unsuspecting sentry patrolling Trenton’s outskirts. And what could anyone hope to do about it?
Wiederholdt and his men could no longer rest decently at night. They remained on constant alert, fitfully sleeping in their blue-and-black uniforms, ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice and confront a patriot’s musket. The darkening bags under Wiederholdt’s eyes and the disheveled nature of his own once invariably neat, brass-buttoned uniform revealed that.
A column of men appeared on the horizon, on the road leading northward out of the town, but they were too far away to clearly identify. Was it the Americans? Daring to attack us directly? Wiederholdt’s bony face froze in fear. But now he noticed something—shafts of reflected sunlight danced about the head of each figure advancing toward him, emanating from the tall, pointed, polished brass helmet that each Hessian grenadier so proudly wore. It was, Wiederholdt now saw, merely Lieutenant Jakob Piel’s company trudging home from a fourteen-mile march to the British outpost at Princeton. A small, very relieved smile played across his thin lips.
Rall could not but help notice Wiederholdt’s cascading emotions. “Ha!” he joked to his subordinate. “You see Americans everywhere! Are you a soldier or an old woman?”
Wiederholdt silently accepted the insult. Who is Rall bluffing? he thought. He knows what’s going on; that it’s unsafe for messengers—or anyone—out there. These Americans hate us. They see us as invaders—oppressors. That’s why we have to send a hundred troops to guard a single messenger to Princeton!
But Wiederholdt was not about to maintain his silence about everything. “Colonel Rall,” he said deferentially, hoping not to agitate his commandant too much, “perhaps we should now move to fortify Trenton. I know Colonel von Donop has recommended erecting redoubts on both the upper end of town and along the river.”
“Donop!” snapped Rall. “Dummkopf! Let the Americans come! So much the better! If they dare to come we will have at them with our bayonets—and that will be the end of George Washington!”
(George Washington’s headquarters)
Outside the farmhouse of Robert Merrick
Ten miles north of Trenton Falls
Bucks County, Pennsylvania
Perhaps it would be the end of George Washington—and of his revolution.
Colonel Rall certainly thought Washington was on the ropes.
General Lee had thought so as well.
And so, though he hated to admit it, did Thomas Paine.
It was no comfortable Philadelphia print shop in which Paine now sat. Patriotism meant more than words to the English-born pamphleteer. At forty, he now wore the short brown jacket and feathered hat of his unit of the Philadelphia Associators militia, “The Flying Camp.”
Since August, Washington had done nothing but retreat. But while so many others had fled (only two days earlier he had been among those ordered to evacuate Fort Lee), Paine had remained and now, by flickering campfire light, employing the taut calfskin of a Continental Army drumhead as his desk, he scratched out the words of a new pamphlet. Hard circumstances demanded hard truths. Events mandated a call to action worthy of a sounding trumpet.
Normally, Tom Paine wrote slowly and painfully—but that was a luxury he could no longer afford. He paused—but only for his smallish hand to dip a sharpened quill once more into the blackness of his pewter inkpot. His piercing blue eyes ablaze, he rapidly composed word after word in the fine penmanship he had learned as a boy in England. Before long he’d completed his task.
“My good man! Come here!” Paine demanded of an army courier, a rough-hewn frontiersman from the Pennsylvania backwoods who was mounted atop a horse that looked like it had served with its rider in the French and Indian War. “I’m Thomas Paine. I hear you are bound for Philadelphia, to the Continental Congress.”
The courier stared blankly at Paine, who seemed a tad too excited for his tastes. He said nothing, but his horse flicked its tail—more out of habit than anything else. It was now too cold for flies—or any other sort of insect.
“Well, man? What is it?” Paine demanded, drawing out each syllable so this dimwit before him might better understand his simple question.
“Aye,” came the answer in a harsh Scotch-Irish brogue, “Philadelphia.”
“I mean to ride with you, soldier. I need to return to my print shop. To have something printed of importance to our cause. How fast can you ride?”
The messenger eyed Paine with contempt. “Fast enough for General Washington, sir,” he answered. He was clearly annoyed by this Paine fellow, whoever he was.
But Tom Paine didn’t care whom he offended. He wanted his words printed—while there was still an army to read them to.
“Any word yet from General Gates?” General Washington asked.
Washington had entreated Horatio Gates to join his forces, but Gates pled that he was simply too ill to travel. Like Charles Lee, he seemed strangely reluctant to meet with his commander—or to follow simple orders.
“No, General,” came a voice from the back of the room. It belonged to another general. “But, enough of Gates. We have plenty of business before us, and I must repeat what I said yesterday: we must retreat to Philadelphia to safeguard our capital and our Congress. The very existence of our government is at stake. And besides that, we have suffered the capture of so many—not to mention the thousands more whose enlistments have expired and have simply gone home. Two thousand from Maryland and New Jersey alone! And who knows how many more have simply deserted our cause? We must safeguard Philadelphia at all costs.”
Silence filled the room, which was crowded with the Continental Army’s senior staff.
George Washington was often slow to speak. Now, in this very crucial moment, he again paused before answering. Was he simply composing his thoughts? About to agree, or disagree with this unpalatable proposition? Or was he waiting, as he often did, for as many officers who so wanted to speak freely?
No one said a word.
Nathanael Greene might have been one to speak up, but his recent counsel to hold Fort Washington in upper Manhattan had proven so disastrous that he hesitated to offer any advice at that moment. It would take a while for the marvelously capable Rhode Islander to regain his confidence, so on this morning Greene merely shifted his feet and kept his gaze downward.
A young artillery officer, Alexander Hamilton, as slight and delicate as a fifteen-year-old regimental fifer, but as hardened as any grizzled veteran of Fort Necessity, stood, arms folded, his back stiffening in barely controlled rage. But it was not for twenty-two-year-old captains to publicly upbraid generals. So he, too, kept his silence.
The normally jovial Henry Knox’s puffy eyes narrowed in anger. If Knox could have marshaled his 280-pound frame to crush this defeatist, he would have gladly done so right then and there. But, as even his many friends would have conceded, General Knox’s ample body contained nary an ounce of actual muscle. Nay, if Henry Knox were to dispatch him, it would have to be by sitting upon the old faker and suffocating him.
Knox gave the idea of retreating to Philadelphia some thought. He was about to set off his booming voice when Washington instead began to speak.
“General,” Washington said, his tone measured but firm, his words addressed to his questioner, “our soldiers take their leave because we retreat. Men enlist for victory, not humiliation. We must, even in this hour of peril—no, particularly in this hour of gravest peril—provide our men with the taste of victory to feed their hungry souls. And I speak not merely about the men under arms but of an entire continent of patriots.
“The enemy has spread his forces thin. They should be pursuing us—building boats and bridges and moving to crush us in our weakness. But, no, instead they rest. We must not rest. We must strike. We have the boats to move back victoriously across the Delaware, just as we once ingloriously fled the other way.
“We must strike! Now!”
“Yes, General,” came the response of yet another general, another senior officer skilled in the art of disguising inaction in the more fashionable garments of logic and reason. “But where would we strike? How? When? Against what units of the enemy? And what do we really know of their encampments and habits? Grand strategies must be grounded in hard intelligence—or they are no procession toward triumphal monuments and arches, but rather to our gravestones.”
Washington began to ponder that point, when suddenly a hard rapping noise at the door broke the silence. A guard announced that a visitor was demanding to see General Washington at once. He could not wait, he said—and he had to see the general alone.
It was all highly irregular, of course, but something told Washington that he should indeed confer with this mysterious visitor.
He abruptly broke off his council of war, letting his critics, all puffed up with fine excuses for retreat, own the last word. When all had departed, Washington sat alone, awaiting this stranger and whatever it was that he might have to convey.
A man, rough-hewn but stout, gingerly dared to enter.
“You demand my time,” Washington instantly challenged him, catching him off guard. “State your name and purpose.”
“I, sir, am John Honeyman,” the man answered in the burr of his native Scotland. “I am a farmer from near to Trenton, and I sell my vegetables to the Hessians stationed in the town. They pay good money—”
“We pay in continental scrip, if you are here to peddle us your wares,” Washington cut him off.
“They pay good money,” Honeyman continued, “but they work for our British oppressors, and I hate them. Neither gold guineas nor Spanish dollars can buy my love for them!”
The glint in Washington’s eyes conveyed the pleasure he felt in those words, a secret satisfaction his ever-guarded lips dared not betray.
Honeyman now reached his point.
“I sell my wares. I take my oxcart to Trenton. I see everything—and I remember everything, sir. I can draw you a fine map. I can tell you where each man is stationed. The very position of each cannon. The hour at which their guards are changed—that there are no fortifications. I can even tell you when their Colonel Rall arises. He is quite the late riser, you know—or you may not know that. Such is what I have to sell to you today, General Washington.”
“Mr. Honeyman,” Washington replied, as he extended a chair to this burly gift from the gods of war and fortune, “please, take a seat. We have much to discuss . . .”
Peter Cochrane House
Brunswick, New Jersey
Charles Lee was not alone. Held captive in a room as disheveled as himself, he was in a long, low house where, just months before, patriots had proudly proclaimed the Declaration of Independence. He was continuously guarded by two unsmiling and silent Hessian sentries. They were silent, however, for good reason—neither spoke a word of English.
Lee was down, but he was hardly out. He still had cards to play, and as long as the British didn’t first hang him as a deserter and a traitor to the Crown, he intended to play every single one of them.
“Captain!” He bolted from his chair, bellowing to a man who stood just outside the door. “Captain Münchhausen, how many times must I ask you? I need to speak to General Howe. I demand to speak with General Howe—I wish to tell him how the rebels can be beaten. I know Washington! I know his tricks.”
Captain Friedrich von Münchhausen, General Howe’s reserved Hessian adjutant, merely turned away in disgust, bounding over a snowbank and onto Brunswick’s Queen Street.
“Is he at it again?” The voice belonged to Cornet Banastre Tarleton, the dragoon who had captured Lee not long before.
Münchhausen nodded in disgust.
“Lee is as perfect in treachery as if he were American born,” Tarleton marveled. “They swallow their allegiance to both king and Congress alternately with as much ease as you swallow poached eggs!” With that he roared back in high-pitched laughter. Of all spoken and written humor, Tarleton valued his own the most.
Münchhausen, however, valued it less. He was not particularly amused at Tarleton’s current jest. Besides, if he were to expend any energy laughing at an Englishman’s jokes, it would be at General William Howe’s.
“Is it too late,” Münchhausen turned the question on Tarleton, “to send this schwein back to the rebels? A man of his character will do much more harm to them when he is on their side than he can on ours.”
Unlike Cornet Tarleton, Captain Münchhausen wasn’t joking.
December 24, 1776
George Washington had no time for rest, not even on Christmas—particularly not on this Christmas Eve.
He sat at his table. On a small scrap of paper, he scribbled the briefest of notes to a staff member. He repeated the process, again and again.
Dr. Benjamin Rush eyed this scene contemptuously. Rush, now a surgeon with Washington’s army, was a member of the Continental Congress. Only a few months before he had boldly signed the Declaration of Independence, but now he feared that George Washington was squandering any chance that America’s fragile independence had to survive. One retreat followed another. If only Horatio Gates were in charge, the doctor thought, if only Charles Lee were still a free man and in command—we would have the soldiers of the Crown on the run.
Washington arose. He nodded to Dr. Rush before leaving the room to summon a guard to deliver the brief messages he had just composed. But as Washington departed, he left one document behind. It floated to the wooden plank floor below where he had just sat.
Rush hurried to retrieve it. He might now learn a little more of what ill-conceived plans ran through this wretched Washington’s mind.
To his great disappointment, there were no detailed battle plans or grand outlines of strategy on the piece of paper that Rush now held in his hands. It contained just three words:
Victory or death.