The Day of Victory
General Washington faces the uncertainties of our first people's war and people's peace, for even a great general must ponder the price men pay for democracy.
When he awoke on the cool brisk morning of the twenty-fifth of November, in that gray time between the dawn and the sunrise, it was with the partly conscious realization that today was different from other days.
Today was a part of November in the year 1783, yet today was marked indelibly. At first he didn't know how that should be, or why, sensing only vaguely that he was here in his headquarters on Manhattan Island, half asleep, half awake, trying to find himself. He was tired, as he had been so often of late; a man grows tired as the years find him and add up. He would have liked to lie in bed for a few hours more but he knew that to be quite impossible.
He had been dreaming and had awakened from the dream, and he knew it was quite wrong what so many people said, that you couldn't dream the same thing twice; he knew you could, not twice but a hundred times, and the dream was always the same.
In the dream he came home. In the morning he came home, riding up through the fields while they were still wet with dew. He would go through a field of rye so that the dew would put a polish on his boot tops, and the horse would stamp and dance, the way they do in a field of wet grass. The smells would be sweet, the magnolia blossoms like a thousand lanterns; and he rode right up to the house.
He rode up and old Jackson took his horse. He kissed Martha and it was as if he hadn't been away at all, except perhaps down the road to see a neighbor about selling a newly weaned colt. That was the way in the dream.
Jackson said, "Good morning, sir, Mr. Washington," and Martha scolded about his boots. The dogs frolicked about him eagerly and Jackson was smiling broadly as he said over and over, "Mighty good to see you, sir, Mr. Washington, mighty good to see you."
And, awake now, he knew that it was eight years no, more than that, and he knew how this day was different.
Dressing, he thought of all the times through the years that he had anticipated this day. Some things stood out more than others; he remembered the time in '76 or was it '77 when he met a mother who had lost her son, and wanting to say something anything yet able to think of nothing, blundering as a man does, blurted out, "What he died for I think it will be worth the price."
"What did he die for?"
Trying to explain, he found himself incoherent and she said, "Will this ever be over? Or will it go on and on? And how many more must die?"
And now it was over. He remembered a man who had lost everything, house and family, a man in the ranks who said, "The devil is that you can't think of an end there is no end. It goes on and a man forgets about peace."
And now it was the end.
He remembered the defeats, the endless hammering defeats, when they all screamed, "Give up! Give up!" When they pleaded, "Peace at any price." When they begged him, "Make us terms." Freedom was a dream. He remembered '76, '77, '78, '79, running away always, hacked, bleeding, leaving brown clots in the summer dust, scarlet splashes in the winter snow, the beggars' army, the winter encampments where they lay and starved and died, the logic with which wise men reasoned that they couldn't win, temperate men that they couldn't exist, judicious men that they couldn't even retreat.
He remembered the plots, the pettiness, the traitors, the defeatists, the weak and the brave, the shoddy and the glorious.
He remembered the women and then it was better. He was a man who had loved women, many women. There was a time when he could dance twelve hours, with a woman on either arm and a quart of wine under his belt. He remembered the women who had carried the wounded into their houses, the women who had fed the beggars, the women who had taken his hand and said they trusted him.
Thinking of the women made him look in his mirror, stare at the long bony face, the tight mouth, the pale gray eyes and the thin red hair. An old man and yet when it started he had been young.
When Washington came out of his room General Knox was waiting for him. Knox was a fine combination of sedateness and excitement, hugely fat, his pudgy hands folded across his stomach, his eyes deep in wrinkles of flesh.
The commander-in-chief said, "Today it is, Harry."
And Knox nodded his big head as casually as he could.
That was the way it was.
"A good day," Knox remarked. "I think we'll have sunshine."
"That would be nice."
"Cool, but not cold.''
And why not speak of the weather, he thought, the weather being one of the few things always present. He looked at Knox with new interest, the way you look at men condemned, the way you look at anyone before parting Knox the faithful, the loyal, the one man beyond suspicion, the one other man who had never lost faith. Knox was fat and paunchy and haggard, the way a fat man can be haggard, and he looked old. Things made men old. Knox was only thirty-three now; when it began, he had been a boy of twenty-five.
"Think of Knox as a boy," he said to himself.
It was quite impossible. How did one take up where one left off? Then Knox had been a bookseller, a chubby talkative boy with a wife and children, but that was eight years ago and more. And Knox spoke about the weather and it was natural, he thought, quite natural.
And Knox, in turn, staring at the very tall well-dressed thin man who had come from the bedroom, a Virginia farmer once but that too forgotten found more words impossible.
"We will go down to the city slowly," the tall man said and added, "the first time in all these years, Harry. How do you suppose it will look?"
Knox shrugged and somehow managed to say, "And then?"
"And then I'll go home," the Virginia farmer smiled.
GOING home was something that had never been out of his mind, never for a day, hardly ever for an hour. Eight years had not turned him into a military man and now he realized that he had never really been a soldier, but rather a private citizen whose life had been temporarily disturbed, who had found that he could not live with certain things as they were and had set out to change them. He had put on a uniform and he was going away for a little while.
His wife had known better, holding both his hands then, she stared at him as if she had seen him for the last time, tall, pock-marked, skinny, a man she knew so well, all his little foibles and faults, and knowing that when he went all the props would go from under her life.
"We'll manage," she said and agreed smilingly that it would just be a short time.
He knew she was lying; they both knew, and stared at each other.
"Well, it has to be done," he had said. "You can't live with a thing hanging over your head."
"You can't," she agreed.
They were reluctant to discuss basic causes and the words freedom and liberty never were spoken. She reminded him about his woolen underwear.
"I know you don't like to wear it," she complained fretfully.
"But I will."
"And change out of damp clothes."
He nodded, reminding her which fields he planned to plow and seed for the coming year. "I mean, if I am not back," he explained.
"Don 't drink too much."
He said he wouldn't and she knew he would. "It will be only a little while," he said, "and then I'll be back."
They were camped in Harlem now and New York City was ten miles to the south.
"That is why I thought we would start early," General McKay said, "and march slowly."
"Yes " He was called back to reality by the expression on McKay's face.
"You won't be going home, sir?" McKay said softly.
"Yes, I'm going home."
They were alone in the drawing-room of the house he had made his headquarters. Speaking quickly, almost desperately, McKay said, "You know, sir, this is only the beginning this must be only the beginning!"
He was a tall heavy-set man, dark eyed, with deep hollows in his cheeks; brave enough in battle, the Virginian recalled, but fighting with a fury that had no other purpose than the easing of some burning resentment within him. For eight years McKay had lived for no real end; peace seemed to bewilder him. Now he clenched and unclenched his hands as he spoke "What have we got, sir? What have we got, now that it's over?"
"A great deal, I think," the Virginian said slowly, watching General McKay through narrowing eyes.
"Do you? I think we have nothing, sir. For eight years we've fought and bled out our guts and for what? For the rest of them to live on the fat of the land. I tell you, sir, there's something better than being a half-pay broken veteran, swilling in taverns you see "
The Virginian was watching him with a face as cold as ice but he couldn't stop now; McKay had begun and he must go on.
"You could do it," McKay said. "We have the army, the power, and best of all, the victory. We've won the war and whatever is left now is ours by right. A single coup, a march on Philadelphia Congress will run like rabbits and then it's ours "
"Have you spoken to anyone else about this?" The tall man's voice was curiously controlled.
The Virginian reached out, took McKay's lapel in his big fist, drew the other close to him and said softly, "I ought to kill you I am still your commander-in-chief, you know, and I ought to kill you. Who are the others?"
McKay shook his head and the Virginian flung him away so violently that he stumbled and fell.
"Get out! Get out!"
And he was going home, quietly, as he had planned. How his head ached! Was there no peace for him, no rest? "I could stay," he told himself. "But for how long?"
If it couldn't go on without him it was no good. It had to go on without him, otherwise all their eight years of fighting were for nothing at all. It was better that he didn't know the men McKay had taken into his confidence. This was no longer war, that you could fight with guns and force. A nation, a republic, was no more than the men who made it.
Somehow in the next few days he would have to fight as he had never fought before, but without weapons and alone. He had to go home; all the eight years had been for this, that he should become a private citizen, lay down his arms and go home.
MORE immediate things pressed upon his attention: the occupation of the last city the enemy held. They were coming back to a New York they had lost a long time ago, so long that it was difficult to remember all the details.
He thought of the men who had been with him when the Continental Army lost New York, in '76. There was old Israel Putnam, dragged away from his farm and his fields. He would never forget old Israel's constant complaint of rheumatism. He was more loyal than most, braver than men half his age.
He thought of Mifflin, who was now President of the Continental Congress Mifflin who stood by so calmly while Lee and Reed plotted against him, seven years past. And what would Mifflin say to this new nightmarish plot? What would old Tom Paine say, who had pleaded with the troops all the way on that lonely retreat from Hackensack to Trenton?
And what of Nathanael Greene, who had started the thing as a rosy-checked Quaker boy and was now a seasoned and veteran commander? Thinking of Greene, he remembered the handsome blade who could not keep his eyes from the ladies; Greene had danced and flirted into this war, but it had done something to him, changed him as it had changed so many others. But through all of it Greene had stood fast along with Harry Knox, who was chief of artillery.
Knox lasted, nothing had changed him, nothing could. And then the tall man, thinking of what McKay had said, wondered whether Knox had been one of those spoken to about a frightened Congress fleeing from Philadelphia, a military dictatorship and if so, why had Knox said nothing to him?
The Virginian tensed, telling himself that this thing must be fought calmly and expertly. If he lost his own head, what then?
Knox entered the room, saluted, laid an affectionate hand on the other's arm and said, "Sir, you will lead the troops, won't you?"
"You lead them, Harry."
"If you wish, sir. It's a great honor."
"Of course it's an honor, Harry," and then Knox looked at him, not quite certain whether he was being gently laughed at or not. The tall thin man paced along the drawn-up ranks, struck with the thought, once he was outside, that he was reviewing them for the last time, holding on to that thought, yet unable completely to realize it this November morning of 1783.
These were his men, these tattered weary ill-dressed veterans. He sought for the strength in them and found it not plots and not a march on the Congress, but a strength that comes out of years of fighting shoulder to shoulder.
There was Miles Crock, with him eight full years; George Ross who had enlisted at fifteen; Jacob Fusterbee, close on seventy, tough as leather; Adam Wheelright, Fuller Jackson, Moses Dane, Jeremiah Danbury, Isaac Watson, Isaac Crane, so many Isaacs, so many Jacobs and Jeremiahs. He said to one, "Going home?"
"Yes, sir home."
And asked him for the first time, "Are you married?"
"And all this, eight years, what have you got out of it?"
"I reckon we've won, sir. Things go on. We're a stiff-necked breed and we went in because we like our own ways. I figure the time ain't wasted "
For all of them it was much the same at least, he hoped so, pleaded so to himself, looking into their faces. Once he could not have named ten of these men and now he knew a thousand names. Once he had curled inwardly at the sight of their dirty shirts, patched breeches and rusty muskets; but since then something had happened to him as well as to them. Leaving them he felt lonely and desolate; he sought for the one thing he wanted to take with him, a knowledge of their strength.
As he walked on, the men's faces turned after him. Eight years had made them soldiers, tough, lasting, well trained the best soldiers in the world, he often thought, in spite of the fact that they wore no uniforms, that their feet were wrapped in rags and sacking. The world's first citizen army, they had done their job, and unlike the professional fighters of other nations, they would become householders once more. But did they realize that?
Stopping in front of one of them, a face that had been at Brooklyn, White Plains, Trenton, Brandywine, Valley Forge, Yorktown, he offered his hand.
The other took it shyly.
He would have liked to say something that mattered, like "Good-by, old comrade believe in what we've fought for, believe!" but he could say nothing and the man who took his hand began to weep, the tears rolling unashamed down his face.
Good soldiers though they were, that was more than they could stand. They roared and clustered around him, hundreds and hundreds of them, reaching for his hands, his arms, just to touch a bit of his clothes, roaring at the top of their lungs.
And in that moment a wave of awful fear passed through him; he saw how what McKay had suggested was possible, if he were just to say the word.
He said nothing, just stood motionless.
GENERAL HENRY KNOX led the troops, walking his horse in silence and watching the tall Virginian who rode with the dignitaries, Governor Clinton, Pierre Van Cortlandt and others. And once the Virginian caught his eye and could have sworn that Knox's glance said, "What will you do? How will you manage it? Or will all the years we fought be for nothing?"
Someone was saying to the tall man in buff and blue, "Really, sir, it's a shame they can't make a better show."
"Better show?" His thoughts were miles away.
"I mean, sir, even in triumph it would be better if they had uniforms instead of rags, I mean if only to produce "
"They are citizen soldiers," the tall man said coldly. "That's hard to understand, isn't it?"
The other mumbled something and the Virginian's mood changed. Watching the marching men, he said, "I think they understand look at the way they march."
He was trying to think it out. The war had been won; the men would go home and try to put things together where they had left off. Some would succeed and some would fail; that was the price and he realized it was a larger price than had been paid for the victory. Did the men know? Were they strong enough?
People forget, he told himself. Here was a new country and a new world and everyone would be too busy living to remember the few thousand poor devils who gave it to them. Things were that way and gratitude was a short-lived virtue.
Someone was saying to him, "But the enemy will see them, and that won't make the best impression, will it?"
"Why, I don't know," the Virginia farmer said, more lightly than he felt. "Why, I really don't know."
AS THE troops approached New York City the weather turned colder and the men licked up their pace. They marched smartly and with precision, and the thud, thud, thud of their feet echoed over the fields and woods.
A brisk November wind, blowing from over the Palisades, sent dead leaves swirling among the ranks, and occasionally, when they came to an open space on a bluff, they could see the little whitecaps dancing on the Hudson. A single small boat scudded along, its white sail dipping again and again as in salute.
Someone picked up a song. They sang The Green Hills of Pennsylvania, The Pretty Lady of My Heart, The World Turned Upside Down and last of all, their own mocking doggerel, Yankee Doodle. In fine spirits they roared it out, swaggering as they marched along, tilting their long muskets from side to side.
And everywhere along the line of march people had gathered to applaud and gape, boys swaying on fences, clusters of townsfolk who had walked up to welcome them, cheering the way cheers are given for the victors.
The Virginia farmer no longer listened to the chattering of the great men who rode with him. He was living over the time eight years ago when his army fled like rabbits from these same fields and woods of lower Manhattan.
Frightened and defeated and beyond hope: that was what everyone had said. They said that it was all over then, eight years ago, when it had scarcely begun. The faint of heart came out of their holes and pleaded with him to understand that it was all over. And he had been too stolid, too stubborn, too insensate.
He had gone on with the lost fight against impossible odds. Now it was all very far away; eight years dims everything, including suffering; and as he rode along he tried to reach back and understand why the cause had never been lost.
He remembered a letter he had written to his wife, in which he had said, "For me, there is no way back until this is over. You know how I love my home, yet if this last for twenty years, I must stay by it until it is over."
Governor Clinton was saying, "We hear rumors that the men are dissatisfied, even that they would mutiny and march on Philadelphia."
"And that they would set me up as a dictator? You need not be afraid to say it."
"I've heard that. I trust you, sir believe me, everyone trusts you if you could stay?"
"It would accomplish nothing. Who am I? I fought a war with them. I am going home. They will go home too."
"But will they?"
"We aren't soldiers, we are men who took up guns for a little while, do you understand? And now we will put our guns away. We are not a people who live by guns." He could quiet Clinton but in himself there was an aching doubt.
They were in the city now. Two redcoat files had been drawn up and the Continentals were to march between. The redcoats, disarmed, stood at attention, so stiff and straight and precise that they reminded the Virginian of wooden dolls. Anxiously he looked at his own men; they were not precise; they walked with a swagger, slouched, rolled their shoulders.
There was a difference.
The drums played and the Americans marched between, and now, somehow, no one cheered, no one spoke because this was so finally, so completely the end.
He had planned, some time before, to slip away quietly; but now he was relieved when word came to him that they would all be gathered in Fraunces' Tavern, where they would expect him to say something before he went.
He had made it clear and they knew that he was going away, that he would become a private citizen, just a man, just a farmer. They wanted him for a little while more as he had been for eight years and he in turn knew that in Fraunces' Tavern he would find the answer to the question that perplexed him.
He wore his buff and blue uniform, the uniform he had always worn and which his fellow officers had copied as a symbol of their esteem. He would continue to wear it until he arrived home and then Martha would put it away. She would reseam it and lay it, full of camphor, in a cedar box.
Now at the end, when it seemed that the going home he had planned for so long might be put off indefinitely, the details of the life he had left eight years ago became clearer than ever. Long, long past, it had been something that he accepted, the broad fields, the houses, the trees and fences, the horses and dogs, all his, the property of a very rich man. Martha was a wife who could annoy a man, she had a long tongue, she could scold with the best, as when he lost at cards, as he so often did.
"Of course you lost."
"I sometimes win," he would protest.
"Do you? Either way, it seems a childish fashion of finding pleasure."
HAVING no children of his own, sometimes a realization of loneliness would strike him in the face like a wet cloth and then the emptiness would grow and grow. Then, in those days when everything had been his by right, he had no defense against the dark moods; when they seized him it would seem as if there was little enough reason for him to live.
And suddenly it was gone, his security, his wealth, his broad acres, not taken from him, but at the same time not his by right. Nothing was his by right, not the house, not the life he lived, nothing.
All of it had to be won, to be paid for; the simple right to exist had to be won and wealth was nothing. The right to walk as a free man on his own soil had to be paid for in blood and suffering. Even eight years was not too high a price; when there is only one way the price is not measured.
Now he looked forward to seeing them in Fraunces' Tavern. How could it be any different for those who had served alongside him?
He recalled the time Martha had come to the terrible winter encampment at Valley Forge, to live there with him for a while, and the way she had said, "Has it always been as bad as this?" softly, almost fearfully.
"Sometimes better, sometimes worse."
He wasn't wearing his woolsey and suddenly she began to scold but this time there was a difference in her scolding; she too had realized that the good things have their price. Holding her in his arms then, he saw clearly how all his values had changed.
"Will there ever be peace again?" she asked him.
"I think so."
He felt that there would be peace and war and peace for many, many years. Men would have things and those things would be theirs by right and then suddenly it would all be nothing unless it was paid for.
IN FRAUNCES' TAVERN, which still stands on Broad Street, they were waiting for him. They had been speaking about many things, the little knot of officers who commanded the army of the United States of America, recalling this and that. Fat rapidly aging General Knox had just finished telling how in '76, when they had lost the city, he had tried to make a stand on a little hill just to the north. And apologetically, "You know, I was just a boy, twenty-six then. I thought it was all over how many times did we think that? He never thought so. Now it seems incredible that he's going away. To go back well, he was able to do the rest. I suppose it right to go back."
"If you have something to go back for "
Copely, a colonel of cavalry, said, "If he goes back, I go back and if he says, 'Follow me to hell,' I follow him there."
"You could see him saying that? I tell you, he goes home. Haven't I lived and eaten and frozen and starved with him for eight years and do you think for nothing, for some cheap revolt after all those who have died to make a place where people can live? Then I tell you, you don't know him."
"We know him "
Knox said huskily, "There is only one way " feeling a terrible aching fear that perhaps he had been cheated, that perhaps all this had been for nothing, and then added, "It's the only way; you trust him; it has to be that way."
"There might be another way," Alexander Hamilton said thoughtfully. "We'll know when we see him."
They looked at Hamilton, who had loved the Virginian, hated him, been willing to die for him, turned against him and then for him; they knew Hamilton's ambition.
"It's in what he says and does, isn't it?" someone said softly as if in that phrase summing the whole matter up.
"Yes, in what he does."
Then the Virginian came in and there was a sudden hush. Watching them he stood at the door and then he smiled, and still no one said anything.
"I've known you when you were more talkative," he said.
"Sit down," he nodded. "Haven't we been on our own feet long enough, gentlemen? We've earned the right to be comfortable, to sit in chairs and stretch our feet at the fire."
"You're leaving today?" Hamilton asked. Everything hung on his words and they watched him anxiously.
He refused to think of plots and schemes and said quietly, "I'm going to resign my commission and go home. It's a right I have earned, I think. I am a farmer, gentlemen, not a soldier. The war is over but I'm afraid the peace is just beginning. It will be a good feeling to take off our uniforms after all this time, won't it, gentlemen?"
They stared at him.
The only sign he gave was when he poured a glass of wine. Then his hand trembled slightly and a few drops poured over the edge.
"To our good health and to a long, long peace!"
They drank with him. Then he bit his lip and turned away for a moment. On almost every face there was an expression of realization combined with relief.
McKay said, "Sir, will you take my hand?" stared at Washington and added, pleading, "What is one to know, sir? I'm human; if I wanted too much, I'm empty of that now "
He remembered McKay in battle; it didn't matter whether he liked McKay or hated him; it mattered what the others thought and now all of them were watching. The war was over, men go home because they believe in what they fought for.
He took McKay's hand and when McKay murmured something about being forgiven, the tall Virginian pretended nor to hear. He drank another toast and said, "I wish you all that's good, health and happiness. Go home and live quietly but remember that things come high. We've paid the price, we know."
They poured another toast all around and drank to one another. Knox shattered his glass in the hearth.
The tall man said, "Come to me, each of you."
Knox came first; they grasped hands, the tears running down their faces.
To Whitehall Ferry they all walked together, with their own ragged troops lining each side of the street. The sky was overcast and there was promise of an early snowfall. The troops held their cloaks tight about them and the drums took up a marching beat. The Virginian kept looking at his men; he was no longer afraid; somehow the issue had been decided; a democracy had been made and for many years it would go on. And so nebulous was the whole thing that he was not quite sure now how he managed to turn it so.
"Perhaps I was a fool to be afraid," he thought. Now he could think of nothing but that he was going home.
At the ferry a barge was waiting to take him over to the Jersey shore. The boatmen had already cast off and now held the craft to the docks with their hooks. The boatmen were cold and impatient.
Turning at the last to his friends, the Virginian found nothing he could say; the surge of happiness and gratitude inside him could not be put into words. Awkwardly he stepped into the barge.
"Ready, General Washington?" the mate of the crew demanded.
He nodded. The boatmen pushed off; the oars bit at the water.
AT THE dock, men and officers stood in a close silent group. Their eyes were on their commander and now as never before they knew him and understood him. They were bereft, yet at the same time strangely happy. Almost to a man there were tears on their cheeks, yet looking at each other they were not ashamed. Knox bit his heavy lips, shook his head like a shaggy bear; Hamilton was like a boy, crying without effort to halt the flow of tears, and McKay was looking at something he had never seen before, smiling curiously. Copely clenched and unclenched his hand, and Mercer stood mute, head bowed.
Just before the boat rounded the point of the Battery, the tall man took off his three-cornered hat and dipped it in salute.
They returned the salute and then the boat was gone.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The long struggle of Washington and those ragged patriots who fought with him means more to Americans today than ever before. Readers who are eager for more about that epic campaign will find it in Howard Fast's book, The Unvanquished, which tells the story of Washington and the first year of the American Revolution.
Woman's Home Companion - February, 1943