By Ken Zurski
On July 8 1776, just days after the Continental Congress passed the Declaration of Independence, a copy was sent to General George Washington who was preparing for battle in New York City. Washington was anxiously awaiting word from the assembly in Philadelphia. He knew how important the declaration would be to his troops. That’s because up to that point the New York contingent of the Continental Army, who had been together for nearly a full year, hadn’t fired a single shot yet. They were frustrated, antsy and for the most part continually drunk. The declaration would help boost morale, Washington thought.
Already, talk of such a declaration had been stirring up emotions within the ranks. In May of that year, in words later shaped by Thomas Jefferson, Virginian George Mason drew up a sentence about being “born equally” with “inherent natural rights.” And on June 7, Virginian Richard Henry Lee, introduced a congressional resolution declaring that the United Colonies “ought to be free and independent states.” Even Washington , in the spring of 1776, crafted a statement that supported the idea of independence as an incentive to fight. “My countrymen, I know, from their form of government and steady attachment therefore to royalty, will come reluctantly into the idea of independency,” he wrote.
So on July 9, at six o clock in evening, Washington ordered his troops to gather. He had previewed the contents of the document and included it in his “General’s Orders,” which would be read aloud to the men.
But it came with a caveat. Washington had warned the troops of the consequences that any official documentation of independence would mean if defeated. Treason, he implored, was something the British ruler did not take lightly. Traitors in the past were subject to gruesome disemboweling and beheadings, he explained. Washington himself knew if captured, he would be hanged.
This was literally a fight to the end, he argued.
The men stood with anticipation as the “General’s Orders” were read. Patiently they waited as several mundane paragraphs of typical military reports and directives were announced. One included the procurement of a chaplain assigned to each regiment. “The blessing and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary but especially so in times of public distress and danger,” the missive proclaimed.
“…The Honorable the Continental Congress impelled by the dictates of duty, policy and necessity, having been pleased to dissolve the connection which subsisted between the Country, and Great Britain, and to declare the United Colonies of America, free and independent STATES.”
Upon hearing the words, the men let up “three huzzas” a witness reported. In fact, their enthusiasm led to an act of debauchery that irked Washington. The soldiers marched down Broadway Street and proceeded to topple the large statue of King George III, decapitating it in the process.
Washington was livid. He told the troops that while their “high spirits” was commendable, their behavior was not. The general wanted an army of orderly respectful men, not savages. Even defacing the likeness of the British King was inadmissible in his eyes.
However sanctimonious that may have sounded, Washington must have been pleased that the statue’s 4 ,000 pounds of gilded lead was melted down to make nearly 43-thousand musket bullets.
Washington was also thrilled by his troop’s eagerness to fight. “They [the British] will have to wade through much blood and slaughter before they can carry out any part of our works,” he wrote about the impending conflict.
Then on July 12, several British ships, including the forty-gun Phoenix, cut through a thin American defense and blasted the city. It was a show of force meant to rattle the colonists into submissiveness. It certainly rattled the nerves of Washington’s untested soldiers who were shaken and distressed by the cries of women and children fleeing the blasts. There was little resistance.
Washington later expressed his disappointment. “A weak curiosity at such a time makes a man look mean and contemptible,” he said chastising the troops.
After the embarrassment, British commander William Howe offered Washington clemency for the rebels if the General surrendered. Washington flatly refused.
The following month, it would get worse. Due to more defeats, the rebels were forced to flee New York to Pennsylvania and reorganize. Later that year, in December, Washington would famously cross the icy Delaware River for a surprise attack in Trenton, New Jersey.
The Revolutionary War would continue for another seven years.