Suddenly, it seemed, that desperate prayer had been answered: a patriot paladin appeared on the scene. Less than nine weeks before Washington’s troops retreated to Valley Forge—the main column arrived there on December 19—the Continental army had scored a decisive victory. On October 17, at Saratoga in eastern New York, American forces, under the command of Gen. Horatio Gates, inflicted the first major defeat of the war on the redcoats, their German mercenary auxiliaries and Indian allies. For Gates, the 49-year-old English-born son of a duke’s housekeeper, it was a moment of both tactical and symbolic triumph. The dashing John Burgoyne, campaigning down from Canada to split the states and crush the Revolution, was ignominiously forced to surrender himself and his army to the gruff, battle-hardened American, himself a former British officer. “One cannot underestimate the importance of Saratoga,” says Ferling. “It is this victory that induces France to come into the war.”
Gates’ success greatly lifted American spirits. But his victory also drew attention to the fact that Washington, his superior officer, could claim no equivalent battle honors. Within Congress, criticism of Washington’s performance escalated. Perhaps, some legislators suggested, the victor at Saratoga would make a better commander in chief than the general who had not prevented the British from taking Philadelphia.
Massachusetts Congressman James Lovell was scarcely alone in his view, as he wrote Gates, “The army will be totally lost unless you . . . collect the virtuous band who wish to fight under your banner.” Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, contrasted Gates, “exulting in the success of schemes planned with wisdom and executed with vigor and bravery,” with Washington, “outgeneralled and twice beaten.”
Most of the delegates at York, however, along with the majority of the Continental army’s officers and its ordinary soldiers, continued to esteem their commander in chief. They were well aware that it was Washington who had kept the army from dissolving, despite the paucity of resources provided by either the strapped and deeply shaken Congress or the newly independent states. When it was suggested to hulking Gen. Daniel Morgan, whose corps of riflemen had played a decisive role at Saratoga, that a handful of senior officers intended to resign unless Washington was removed, he unhesitatingly responded, “Under no other man than Washington as Commander-in-Chief would I ever serve.”
Washington knew well that he was blamed, in certain quarters, for the poor performance of his army. But he was faced with far more pressing matters. He had troops to feed, clothe, prepare for battle—and, most important, inspire: he understood that he must rally his remaining troops—about 11,000 all told at Valley Forge—and dissuade them from deserting. The commander of the Continental army was, according to Philander D. Chase, editor of The Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia, “astute enough to take a longer view of things. He understood that criticism, fair or unfair, real or apprehended, was part of the price that he had to pay to remain an effective leader and to achieve the aims of the Revolution.”