The Long Retreat
The Calamitous American Defense of New Jersey 1776
by Arthur S. Lefkowitz
Reviewed by Russ Lockwood
Published by The Uplands Press, 1998.
hardback, ISBN: 0-9642916-7-3
162pgs, 16 B&W illustrations, bibliography, index.
The Long Retreat illuminates George Washington’s withdrawal across New Jersey during the last few month of 1776. It paints a bleak picture of the American Army during a crucial point in the American Revolution, starting with the British capture of New York City and environs, and continues until the American resurrection after the battles of Trenton and Princeton.
Lefkowitz begins the drama with a discussion of strategy about why Washington, who had driven the British out of Boston, chose to defend Long Island, New York City, and Manhattan Island. The battles for these locales, ending with the British capture of the Americans’ Fort Washington on Manhattan Island, offers a stimulating beginning and sets the stage for the rivalry between Washington and his fellow officer, Charles Lee.
The chase begins in The Long Retreat outside Fort Lee, Lefkowitz concentrates on Washington’s efforts to keep the fragile structure of the American Army together and fend off the distinct threat of pursuing British troops. This is not a glorious chapter in the annals of the Continental Army.
“Ross stood by the roadside and counted only 2,000 dirty and poorly clothed American soldiers. He learned that a second column, of less than 2,000, followed a half hour behind. It shook Ross to see how small and shabby Washington’s army was, and to learn that the enlistments of half would expire within days. Meanwhile, they were being pursued by 8,000 enemy soldiers.” (p.86)
And as you might expect, come December 1, some 2,060 troops decided against renewing their enlistments and left, and others began deserting, leaving Washington with only 3,400 troops. While there were other “rebel” troop concentrations across the colonies, the C-in-C and main army was dwindling by the day due to desertions.
The Long Retreat Lengthens
Lefkowitz weaves an interesting tale, juxtaposing the strategic implications of troops, marching routes, and other military details with the personalities of the commanders. Washington and Lee were not getting along as well as they should–and here the blame is placed upon Lee’s shoulders – as the retreat from New York goes deeper and deeper into New Jersey as November changed into December.
Lefkowitz’s research shines through, with a level of detail and supporting evidence to show the hard-pressed American army evading the leisurely British army. Indeed, if there’s a minor nit to pick, it’s the overkill in the footnotes, which are on virtually every page. His writing style is pleasant and moves right along, but the footnotes occasionally take up two-thirds of a page on occasion. While interesting, you’re constantly flicking back and forth between the narrative and footnotes, which can act as a speed bump to the narrative. If the information in the footnote is that important, it seems it should be melded into the narrative. If not, then place these as end notes and get them out of the way of Lefkowitz’s fine prose.
The great battle of Trenton is foreshadowed as the calendar edges towards the New Year–and more expiring enlistments.
Washington halted at Princeton only long enough to drop off two brigades under Stirling, then rushed on to Trenton. He told Stirling to ‘watch the Motions of the Enemy and give notice of their approach.’ this was a bold move since the troops left at Princeton represented almost half his army. But Washington made his intentions clear in a letter to Congress, saying he wanted to get his baggage and stores across the river and then ‘face about with such troops as are here fit for Service and March back to Princeton and there govern myself by Circumstances and the movements of General Lee.’
Meanwhile, the intentions of the British are covered as their leisurely pursuit of the rag-tag rebels was more of a limited pursuit of an already defeated enemy. Washington moved his entire command across the Delaware River and took the boats with him, leaving the British without the means of pursuing any further.
“At Trenton, General Howe was told there were boats at Coryell’s Ferry (the ferry ran between present day Lambertville, NJ, and New Hope, PA) about 15 miles up the Delaware. Howe wanted the boats,and ordered Cornwallis to take four regiments halted at Maidenhead (present day Lawrenceville, NJ) to go after them. At 1:00 am on December 9, Cornwallis left maidenhead with the Reserve and the 2nd Battalion of Light Infantry. they passed through the small village of Penny Town (today’s Pennington) and arrived at Coryell’s Ferry to find the rebels has removed or destroyed all the boats in the area. He also found rebel troops behind makeshift fortifications on the Pennsylvania side of the crossing. Taking no further action, Cornwallis returned to Penny Town at 2:00 that afternoon and bivouacked there. he sent scouting parties up and down the river, but made no serious attempt to cross.” (pg. 123-124)
Washington and his officers had covered their tracks as best they could, even though Trenton contained blacksmith shops, sawmill, and a considerable amount of wood, not to mention the British engineers traveling with the British Army. But Lefkowitz argues that Howe had achieved his objectives, thought that Washington’s force was done for, and now shifted effort to finding Lee with his 7,500-man corps stationed somewhere around Morristown, NJ, and scattering his command in a chain of posts across NJ for the winter. The twin battles of Trenton and Princeton come as an anti-climax, and are not covered in detail – certainly not to the same extent as the retreat and pursuit.
Lefkowitz has written an exceptional work filled with top-notch research, a pleasant prose, and insightful interpretation. The extensive footnotes can be distracting at times, but otherwise, this is a well-produced work on a pivotal time in the American Revolution. I don’t know if Lefkowitz intends to write another book to bring the Revolution into 1777, but I hope so. The Long Retreat deserves a sequel.
>>>New Jersey and the American Revolution is a great companion book to this one.