George Washington knew how to bite his tongue. His response to insubordination and criticism was usually a dignified silence. Like most people, he was most open when communicating with family. And so, we see his unvarnished opinion about the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in a letter to John Augustine Washington, written October 18, 1777. “[W]ith truth,” he wrote, “…it may be said, that this State acts most infamously, the People of it I mean, as we derive little or no assistance from them. In short they are, in a manner, totally, disaffected, or in a kind of Lethargy.”
He wrote this two weeks after the Battle of Germantown. It is a revealing quote in many respects. It shows a normally very careful Washington speaking his mind to a trusted confidant. At the same time, it is an informed assessment. At Germantown and Brandywine before it, he had suffered from poor local intelligence, bad guides, and incompetent local militia support. In addition to the usual proportion of Tories and loyalists (generally a third, according to John Adams), a large number of Pennsylvanians were pacifists—Quakers, Amish, and Mennonites—and unwilling to resist established authority. Many more simply had little faith in the cause. Washington had, after all, just lost three battles in a row.
Even though Philadelphia was the seat of the Congress for most of the war, eastern Pennsylvania was never a hotbed of revolutionary fervor. Some of the city’s most prominent citizens remained openly loyal to the crown. The war’s most fervent revolutionary patriots came from New England and the mostly Scotch-Irish settlements of the western frontier. Many observers, then and now, have ascribed this to the one thing New England and the Appalachian settlements had in common: Reformed (Congregational and Presbyterian) Christianity. Washington himself belonged to the Church of England, proving that things were not that simple.
On September 22, 1776, William Croghan’s detachment of men from the 8th Virginia arrived at Fort Constitution, high on a cliff looking over the Hudson River and the island of Manhattan. Very soon, they would be part of the most famous campaign of the war.
Months earlier, when the 8th Virginia first formed, its ten companies were ordered to rendezvous at Suffolk, Virginia—south and across the James River from the provincial capital at Williamsburg. Those from the far frontier were the last to arrive. Captain James Knox’s company from Fincastle County (now the state of Kentucky and parts of far southwest Virginia) arrived just in time to join the Regiment as it headed south to with General Charles Lee to defend Charleston.
Captain William Croghan’s company from Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh, now in Pennsylvania) came too late. His company and several dozen stragglers from other companies were attached for the season to the 1st Virginia and sent north to reinforce Washington at New York. After a march that took more than a month, the 1st Virginia arrived at the fort overlooking the Hudson. It was commanded by Nathanael Greene and was charged with maintaining patriot control of the strategically critical waterway. It was called Fort Constitution, but was soon renamed Fort Lee after General Lee got (partially deserved) credit for the glorious June 28 victory at Charleston.
Sergeant William McCarty recorded their arrival. After ferrying across the Passaic River they “marched to the fort, which we came by several camping places and camps on top of a high hill by the North [Hudson] River.” They “halted in sight of the fort and river till Colonel [James] Read [of the 1st Virginia] went to speak to General Greene.” He “returned shortly” and “ordered us to march back up the hill a piece, where it was late when we pitched camp.”
For the next few days, the roughly 140 8th Virginia men detached under Captain Croghan rested and celebrated after their long march. They were issued flour, beef and rum. They got paid for the first time. On the third day there, McCarty wrote “We lay there and our men drunk very hard as they had plenty of money.”
Things soon turned serious, however. The day after their arrival, soldiers across the river were assembled to witness the execution of a man—bound, blind-folded, and kneeling—for cowardice (Washington gave him a last-minute reprieve). Croghan’s men must also have soon learned that the Hessians and Scottish Highlanders had given no quarter at the Battle of Long Island the month before, and had shot as many as seventeen Americans in the head after they had surrendered at Kip’s Bay. If they did not already know it, they learned here that there is no romance in war.
Four days after their arrival, still at Fort Constitution atop the Jersey Palisades, they watched British maneuvers in the river below. McCarty wrote, “The force heard the cannon fire very brisk from the shipping of the English, and we could see them land. We could easy see their camps and every turn they would make.”
Their stay at the fort was brief. They crossed the river to Fort Washington and Harlem Heights where they joined the 3rd Virginia to form a small, temporary brigade. Private Jonathan Grant later attested that they traveled through the Jerseys “to fort Lee on the North River & thence crossed the River to Fort Washington. The enemy at that time was in New York.” Similarly, Private Henry Gaddis recalled that they traveled “to Fort Lee, then we crossed over the North river to Fort Washington.” Days later, they were with the main army and thrust into battle—first at White Plains and later at Trenton. After the latter ordeal, just a handful of them were well enough to participate in the critical victory at Princeton.
The site of Fort Lee and its surrounding camps and artillery emplacements has been partially preserved. Judging purely from McCarty’s account it appears that much of the camping area has been blasted away to make room for the George Washington Bridge. Some of what remains has been preserved as Fort Lee Historic Park. The visitor center and its displays date from the 1976 Bicentennial and, though deteriorated, still tell the story well. Reconstructed buildings and artillery batteries show the site’s purpose, though the existence of trees and surrounding skyscrapers make the site look very different from they way it was in the fall of 1776. The position of the actual fort is in the middle of the town of Fort Lee and called Monument Park. An artistic monument records the presence of the fort and the events that occurred there.
Fort Lee was abandoned during the retreat through New Jersey, a retreat the fort’s namesake pointedly did nothing to assist with. Lee was in fact captured by the enemy and began to advise them on how to defeat the Continentals—a story told in this earlier post. One has to wonder how many people who live in Fort Lee today have any idea that their town is named for a traitor.
is researching the history of the Revolutionary War's 8th Virginia Regiment. Its ten companies formed on the frontier, from the Cumberland Gap to Pittsburgh.
© 2015-2019 Gabriel Neville