Literature Study Guides1776Part 3 Chapter 6 Summary

1776 | Study Guide

David McCullough

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1776 | Part 3, Chapter 6 : The Long Retreat (Fortune Frowns) | Summary



In the aftermath of defeat, Joseph Reed writes to his wife that though he is alive and well, his spirits are not. He recognizes that risking the fate of America in defense of New York is senseless. The army itself is in a state of despair, breaking into houses and ransacking them. Many begin deserting with their arms and ammunition, and Washington's leadership is being questioned. Others, such as Colonel Henry Knox, blame Congress for the way things are being run. Washington begins to lose confidence in the capability of his remaining army and wonders whether New York is a lost cause entirely. He asks Congress to advise him whether to abandon it or to burn it down entirely. Congress writes back that he is to leave New York with no damage because they believe they will be able to recover it. Meanwhile, Admiral Howe begins moving his ships up the river to wait across from a large cove in New York, and Washington grows nervous about from which direction they will attack.

General Nathanael Greene returns to duty after his illness and immediately advises Washington to abandon New York at once, echoing a sentiment many had thought but hadn't dared to speak. He also argues in favor of burning the city since it will never be able to be recovered from the British once the Americans leave. He urges Washington to convene a war council. While some on the council—including Reed—call for immediate withdrawal and burning the city if the British open fire, they are overruled by the majority who think the city should survive. Washington also expresses to Congress his fear of being outflanked by the British, and the inexperience of his army to face it. Yet he seems unable to make up his mind about whether to abandon New York entirely. Greene encourages Washington to reconvene the war council, since the situation seems "so critical and dangerous." In Philadelphia on the same day, Congress decides to send a delegation to meet with Admiral Howe. Howe attempts to persuade them to "put a stop to these ruinous extremities," and advises them to "[tread] back this step of independency." Yet Congress remains firm, and nothing comes of the meeting, except that it brings to a pause the movements of the British.

Washington's second war council meeting results in resolving to abandon the city. As plans get underway, the British begin a "grand military exertion," with warships moving up the East River. General Henry Clinton prepares to invade New York at Kips Bay, though he is unhappy about the plan of operations and offers his own ideas until the last minute. The invasion is set for Sunday, September 15th; had Howe waited one more day, the Americans would have evacuated the city, and the British could have walked in. At Kips Bay, however, about 700 soldiers are manning the trenches, running on exhaustion and no food. They are "the greenest of green American troops," farm boys who have only recently joined the army. They spy the five warships that have anchored only 200 yards away. A few hours later 4,000 British and Hessian soldiers descend, and the warships begin to pulverize the cove with gunfire. The American troops flee for their lives. Washington hears the cannons and rushes from his post, encountering soldiers running away the entire way there. He commands them to hold their ground to no avail, and finally exclaims in disgust, "Are these the men with which I am to defend America?" Although two more Continental brigades arrive, the sight of so many fleeing in panic causes them to turn and run. Furious, Washington himself rides to within 100 yards of the advancing Hessians and is only deterred when two of his aides grab his horse and turn him back around.

Another 9,000 British troops come ashore at Kips Bay and head into New York, where they are heartily welcomed by the Loyalists. Meanwhile, Washington still feels furious and embarrassed of his troops; the Connecticut militia members who abandoned Kips Bay and deserted are branded as cowards. This only serves to deepen some of the animosities between the troops of New England and those of other states. Henry Knox reflects in a letter that the failures occurred because of inexperienced officers and an exhausted leader: "The general is as worthy a man as breathes, but he cannot do everything and be everywhere." General Howe, for his part, feels pleased by the British success, believing he has seized New York with as little bloodshed as possible for his men. Taking New York is the key to his strategy, and the city is now in his hands.

The next morning, sequestered miles away in Harlem Heights, Washington receives word that the British are advancing. He sends out a reconnaissance party, which runs into the British and is outnumbered four to one. They are forced to retreat, with the British in hot pursuit. Washington orders a counterattack, and the British bring 5,000 more men in response. Although the struggle lasts for hours, the Americans hold their own, and the British begin to give way and finally retreat, now with the Americans in pursuit. Washington worries it might be a trap and calls off the attack. Still, the American troops see it as a genuine victory, which renews their confidence. Their position at the Harlem River is also advantageous, which the British also realize. Still, General Howe plans how to outmaneuver them, while also wondering if the rebellion has perhaps run its course. Meanwhile, a raging fire breaks out in New York, burning a large part of the city to the ground. Rumors abound that the rebels started the fire, but no evidence is found. However, Captain Nathan Hale is "apprehended" by the British and admits to being a spy, upon which General Howe orders him hanged without a trial.

The American soldiers who are leaving the army aren't just deserting—they are defecting to the other side. Even Joseph Reed is becoming so demoralized that he considers quitting his post. Washington is the only one who still seems imperturbable. Privately, however, he is discouraged and miserable. He tells Congress that "unless some speedy, and effectual measures are adopted ... our cause will be lost." He also realizes the problem is not the men in his army but those who lead them. Congress decides to strengthen the army by offering money and land in exchange for service and to stiffen punishment for disobedience and desertion.

On October 9th, three British warships make it up the Hudson and force passage beyond the American forts, despite efforts to block the river with sunken ships. Washington observes the entire scene, and is aghast to realize his forts are virtually useless. Despite this fact, he never considers changing his strategy or repositioning his army. The British, for their part, are once again planning to outflank the rebels by water. Admiral Howe commands 150 ships to sail upstream. Washington quickly realizes that remaining in Harlem Heights is a trap and his troops must withdraw quickly. Lord Stirling and General Sullivan rejoin the army, thanks to a prisoner exchange, and reassume their commands. General Charles Lee, second-in-command, shows up too, returning from South Carolina. The army is cheered especially by the return of Lee, whom some in Congress see as a "potential savior."

Washington gives the orders for his army to leave Harlem for White Plains, 18 miles north. He leaves behind 1,000 men to hold Fort Washington. One of the men, John Glover, spots the British ships moving in and rushes forward with his men who fight and inflict heavy casualties, stalling them and stunning General Howe, who worries there are more American troops lying in wait. Still, Howe's troops move forward, hoping to bring the rebels into open field to be destroyed in one fell swoop. General Howe brings his troops to occupy a higher ground than the Americans, putting the British at an advantage. The Battle of White Plains commences, and though the British win, they suffer twice as many casualties as the Americans. Washington moves his troops to stronger position on high ground. The Americans are then shocked when the British begin heading in another direction, southwest towards the Hudson. Washington debates whether to pull his remaining troops out of Fort Washington and leaves it up to Greene to decide.

In the meantime, Washington decides to divide his army again, four ways. The largest section remains with General Lee east of the Hudson. Washington takes 2,000 men to the other side of the river, to be joined by New Jersey and Pennsylvania reinforcements. Washington and Greene appear to have reversed roles, with Washington ready to abandon New York and Greene holding out for a last stand at Fort Washington. The British, for their part, have key intelligence about American plans, thanks to an American staff officer turned traitor who defects to the British from Fort Washington, bringing with him maps of the fort and its cannons. A packet of letters from Washington and his commanders has also fallen into British hands, revealing tactics and tensions. General Howe sends one of his colonels to deliver a message: "surrender the fort or face annihilation." The commander of the fort responds that he will defend it "to the very last extremity."

General Howe sneaks 30 boats down the river to lie in wait, and the assault comes the next morning, with four times the number of British troops as the Americans defending the fort. After a fierce battle, the Americans are forced to surrender their fort and lay down their arms; the British now have nearly 3,000 prisoners. Both Washington and Greene are ashamed, knowing how badly mistaken they were in their judgment. Even though Greene bears some of the blame, Washington never comes out and condemns him—rather, he keeps him close by out of loyalty and respect. General Howe's next emboldened move is the seizure of Fort Lee, but when the British troops arrive, they find it abandoned—the rebels had received advance warning. Washington and his men flee into New Jersey.


Since the mental state and emotions of General George Washington are rarely revealed in his letters (his wife Martha Washington burned most of them), McCullough supports his observations with insights from one of Washington's closest confidantes, Joseph Reed. The defeat the rebels have faced after their losses in Long Island have brought morale to an all-time low, and doubts are running high. Reed writes home to his wife that it is "a mere point of honor which keeps us here," and, like Washington, he leaves the outcome up to "the dispensations of Providence." Men like Reed and Washington are put in an uneasy, tense position: an entire army is under their command, fighting for independence, and one wrong decision can spell defeat. They must present a face of determination and assuredness at all times, no matter their private doubts. With the defeats in battle stacking up, doubts about Washington's capabilities are also running at an all-time high, which threatens his ability to effectively command his troops. One colonel writes to a delegate that he fears "General Washington has too heavy a task, assisted mostly by beardless boys." McCullough here highlights the existential tension of exactly what kind of superhuman it would take to successfully lead an army with the very fate of a country's independence at stake. Every decision Washington might make seems to lead to a dead end of defeat. Reed confides yet again to his wife that they are "between hawk and buzzard," meaning that they cannot stay and yet don't know how to go. Washington adds to Congress that "on every side there is a choice of difficulties." At times, his inability to make a decision or put it in the hands of someone else means a mistake, one that will always land on his shoulders.

McCullough also points out that with the hindsight of history, it's easy to see how one minor move might have changed entire outcomes, something he emphasizes by highlighting the luck of things such as weather events. For example, if General Howe had waited one more day to invade New York, he and his troops could have walked into the city without resistance. Instead, lives are lost and the toll is heavy.

The psychological toll is also mounting on the American troops, as McCullough describes their complete disorder. When the troops who flee Kips Bay are reprimanded by Washington, General Nathanael Greene notes that Washington's behavior seems "close to suicidal." Tensions also mount between the American troops from different regions, and McCullough depicts a commander and army in a state of psychological fracture. Colonel Henry Knox is more forgiving in his assertion that "the general is as worthy a man as breathes, but he cannot do everything and be everywhere."

The pressure Washington and those around him have put on him is enormous. By comparison, General Howe seems able to rest on the laurels of his well-trained army rather than rally them in the way Washington has to with his army. This highlights yet again a fundamental difference between the two leaders and brings up the question of which tactic is more likely to lead to victory: a stronger army or a stronger leader? What could Washington have accomplished with an army like General Howe's? Although Washington continues to make mistakes due to his indecisiveness and worrying, General Howe makes comparable mistakes due to laziness and overconfidence. There are many moments at which Howe can make the decision to advance upon the rebels and take them out, but he seems in no rush or is unable to see his advantage.

Washington's one shining moment as a leader in this chapter is his decision to lead a counterattack. It comes at a moment when his troops badly need the bolstering, and as Joseph Reed notes, "the pursuit of a flying enemy was so new a scene, that it was with difficulty our men could be brought to retreat." The move is ultimately one that fails, but it rouses men's spirits for just long enough to keep the army's momentum going. It takes the British by surprise, which is also a necessary lesson for both sides. When Washington is emboldened to make quick and powerful decisions, rather than wring his hands, he can trust his instincts to lead his troops well. But Washington also begins to realize that his tried and true tactic that served him well in Boston—taking over the highest point—doesn't work as well in New York. Washington and his troops are forced to retreat twice from their high ground, in Harlem Heights and in White Plains. It's become a tactic the British are familiar with, and so it no longer takes them by surprise—they are ready for it.

McCullough addresses again the issue of morale among the American soldiers, who are "deserting as if leaving a sinking ship." He notes that "it was far from an army of heroes only." The psyches of the soldiers seem to wax and wane in accordance with how well they are doing as a whole and how well their leaders are commanding them. Washington, for his part, agonizes over the state of his troops and understands why they are leaving: there is no money, stability, or punishment in it for them. Men joined the army in a flurry of excitement over what they believed in, but belief is not enough to sustain them in the long-term or motivate them to stay and make a career out of it. Washington also knows "the problem with the army was not so much the men in the ranks as those who led them." His commanders and officers are largely untrained in battle, let alone leading huge numbers of men into one. Washington's commanders, for their part, have their own doubts about his abilities, and, according to McCullough, to "some who were closest at hand he seemed a little bewildered and unsuitably indecisive." This trickle-down effect of doubt is hugely detrimental to the strength of the entire enterprise.

Yet Washington's cool-headedness and ability to reason also earn him credit—he realizes in time that to stay in New York is a death trap for his army given how the British have overtaken the waterways. Even though it is painful to retreat, he must make the most practical decision to save his troops, and the country, in the long run. It's interesting to note that here Washington and Greene reverse opinions—where once Washington was reluctant to abandon New York, now Green reasons that "one more retreat could be devastating to the army's already demoralized state." While this may be true, Washington must weigh morale against actual lives lost, of which there will likely be many if he remains. Even though he knows it's the right decision, when Washington witnesses the British seize Fort Washington he is in despair, writing to his brother, "I am wearied almost to death with the retrograde motions of things." For every slight advantage he gains, his army seems to lose even more ground. Every decision he makes is questioned in hindsight, and both he and Greene know they have made blunders. Washington makes the same mistake he made before in dividing his army and hints he may be lacking confidence in repeating himself.

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