(Read First Two Chapters Below)
Days like this made Matt Hawkins miss living in New England. It was barely ten o’clock in the morning and the bank’s outdoor digital display was already cruelly flashing ninety degrees. He rolled down both windows on his vintage Chevy C-10 pickup in a futile attempt to stay cool. Factory-installed air-conditioning was offered on the ’66 half-ton model, but evidently the original owner didn’t live in the South or had been too cheap to install it. Even the truck’s old drum brakes didn’t bite like they used to, and Matt had gotten pretty good at rolling stops. On a day like today, avoiding a complete stop meant avoiding instant sweat and suffocating heat. The air was thick with humidity as he sat and waited for the red light to flip to green.
The interior of the truck was a classic 1960’s minimalist vision—a bare-metal dash and a simple instrument panel that could be read without having a PhD. The enormous steering wheel looked like it belonged on the old Boston Whaler he and his father used to go fishing in along the north shore of Massachusetts. And on hot days like this, the steel-gray vinyl bench seat would stick to his skin and rip the hair from the back of his legs if he got out of the cab too fast. But the old Chevy had been love at first sight for Matt. It had great lines and an eye-catching, graceful body. He had passed by it one day, sitting in a drugstore parking lot with a For Sale sign in the windshield. On impulse, he did a U-turn and an hour later had written a check for it. That was like him. He definitely leaned to the impulsive side of the personality curve. It was a trait that had mostly worked out for him over the years. Mostly; but not all of the time.
That had been eight years ago. Right after what some would call an irrational change of careers. He had acquired a large antiques business smack-dab in the middle of the historic district of Savannah, Georgia. He shook his head in disbelief at how a Yankee kid from Boston ended up in the heart of the South, and at the strange turn of events that had landed him there. A sudden horn blast from the car behind him interrupted these musings, as the traffic light mercifully changed to green. A couple of blocks later, just south of Forsyth Park, he pulled into a small parking lot outside of the Bull Street Library. To his pleasant surprise, he found an empty space in the usually full lot.
As he made his way up the stately marble steps of the oldest library in Savannah, he couldn’t help but be impressed by the beauty of its neoclassical architecture. Built in 1916, Bull Street was Matt’s favorite library in town. Its design was impressive, but what he really loved was the Robin Hood mural that covered the entire south wall of the children’s section, just to the right of the main entrance. The mural had been painted during the mid-1930s as part of the government-funded WPA program. He had developed a real fondness for WPA-era paintings—not only because he admired Roosevelt’s program that had put thousands of unemployed craftsman, artists, musicians, and other tradespeople back to work—but because of the social realism the art captured.
“Hey, Doug,” Matt called out, upon reaching the second floor office of the branch director.
Doug Stone looked up from his computer, “Hey, Matt, what’s going on? I haven’t seen you since our last book sale.”
Matt had met Doug shortly after he had acquired his antiques store. He had approached him with the idea of purchasing out-of-circulation books that the library had neither the need nor room for any longer. Over the years, their relationship had grown, and now Doug would always call Matt a few days before the announced start of the library’s periodic sales, giving him first dibs on books before the sale opened to the public.
“I know, I’m sorry, but I’ve been crazy busy with the store. Let’s try to grab a Sand Gnats game before the end of the season,” Matt offered.
The Savannah Sand Gnats were a Single A minor league team affiliated with the New York Mets that played in a cozy stadium just a few miles southeast of the library. Both men had played ball in college and had taken in a few games together over the years. In fact, it was through Doug that Matt had come to discover the fascinating and rich history of baseball in Savannah, where players like Shoeless Joe Jackson, Babe Ruth, and Hank Aaron, all household names, had played at one time or another.
“I’ll take you up on that game; let me know a night that works for you,” Doug replied. “Come on, let’s head down to the basement. I’ve got a few boxes set aside to check out.”
He guided Matt through a locked door and down a narrow back staircase that led to the basement level of the library. As they snaked their way down two levels, Matt marveled at the ingenious design of the black wrought iron book stacks. Constructed so that they ran floor to ceiling from the basement all the way to the top level of the library, they served the dual function of load-bearing wall as well as secure storage for thousands of books.
Reaching the basement level, Doug pointed to a half dozen corrugated boxes. They were filled with early twentieth-century books that the staff had discovered while cleaning out a long-forgotten storage space under the basement stairwell. “Take a look through these and see if there’s anything of interest to you.”
Matt squeezed past Doug, knelt down, and began sifting through the old books. He separated them into two piles and, after he was done, the “yes” pile contained a stack of oversize atlases dating from the 1890s through the 1920s. Matt had always been fascinated with old maps, loving their unique and unbiased window into the past. Nice old atlases, particularly with colorfully drawn maps, sold pretty well in his store. People in Savannah loved their history, and a vintage atlas gave them a chance to look smart to their visiting houseguests. And it didn’t hurt that such a book also looked great on a coffee table.
“I’ll make you an offer on these,” Matt said.
After some minor haggling he left the building, loaded down with two heavy boxes. He hoisted them into the back of his truck and made his way back toward his shop on Monterey Square.
Savannah had a total of twenty-four squares, and each square had its unique character and symmetrical beauty. James Oglethorpe, who had founded the city in 1733, is credited with developing the original master plan that laid out the city in a grid-like fashion around four open squares, originally intended to provide the colonists with space for military exercises. Fate had a hand in preserving that beauty when, in December 1864, the city was spared destruction by General William Tecumseh Sherman during the Union army’s devastating March to the Sea. Sherman, charmed by the city, made Savannah his Christmas gift to President Abraham Lincoln.
When Matt and his now ex-wife had first visited the city twelve years earlier, Savannah’s beauty and history had also captivated him. But so much had changed in his life since then. He had been married and now he was single. He had been a successful trader on Wall Street in Manhattan and now he owned an antiques shop in Georgia. He had been a lifelong northerner and now he resided in a small southern town. And it had all started with that first visit to Savannah to attend the wedding of a college friend.
The best word to describe Matt back then was driven. He was competitive, focused, knew what he wanted, and usually got it. He had been born and raised in a disciplined, but close-knit family on the north shore of Boston. His father had owned a machine shop and his mother had waited tables to help make ends meet. He was the youngest and brightest of the four Hawkins kids. His grades had earned him an academic scholarship to the Ivy League—Brown University in Rhode Island. At Brown, he had excelled in both academics and sports, and had even been offered a small contract to play minor league baseball in the Cleveland Indians farm system. Instead, he had accepted a job at Goldman Sachs in New York City and eventually became a trader on the bond desk. It was during this time that he had met his wife, who had been raised in the New York area and worked in the fashion industry.
By any measure, Matt had been successful, but he had always felt there was something missing from his life. The honest workingman’s values of honesty and integrity, which had been instilled in him by his father, were hard to find on Wall Street. And the sense of community and family on which he been reared was lost amid the hustle and grime of New York City.
Maybe it was the timing that had made the difference. He had already grown disenchanted with Wall Street, and his marriage was suffering. He had proposed after a brief whirlwind romance, and they had eloped. But the honeymoon was short-lived and their personalities began to clash almost immediately after moving in together. Despite being a highly compensated bond trader, Matt wasn’t caught up in the materialism that Wall Street success breeds. She was. He recalled how, during that trip twelve years ago, he had taken a long walk around Savannah’s historic district when something inside him just clicked. He needed to make a change. With his usual decisiveness, he had quickly set in motion a series of events that would alter his life forever.
Somehow, he convinced his wife to move to Savannah where he found a job as a financial advisor in a boutique financial services firm. He would be making only a fraction of his Wall Street income, but he didn’t care. His friends thought he was nuts, but he took to his new life right away. Unfortunately, his wife didn’t. It took less than a year for her to leave their new southern home, and their divorce was final in less than two. Chalk the failed marriage up to one of those times when Matt’s impulsiveness had backfired.
Even though his competitiveness, charm, and brains had paved his way to Wall Street, his real love was history. A childhood field trip to Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, a living history museum depicting early New England life, with historians in costume and period buildings, had planted a seed in Matt at an early age that he had never nurtured. Now he had the chance to pursue that childhood passion. After the divorce was finalized, he made a clean break from his past. He quit the world of finance for good and used his last Wall Street bonus to purchase a somewhat dilapidated 6,800 square foot mansion on Monterey Square. The previous owner had been running it as an antiques business for close to thirty years.
Matt bought the building and the inventory in it, and never looked back. He converted the third floor of the 1850s-era mansion into a living space for himself and continued running the antiques business out of the lower floors. He was a quick learner and parlayed his love of history into his career. His ability to make connections and close a sale—skills he had honed on Wall Street—helped him build a steady clientele.
The building, which had been marketed to him as the “last unrestored grand mansion in Savannah,” had fallen into considerable disrepair over the years. By the time he had purchased it, paint was peeling in sheets from the walls and there were gaps, shaped like Paleozoic continents, clearly visible in the crumbling plaster ceilings. But Matt could see that the old place had good bones. He saw it in the marble fireplaces, original bronze and crystal chandeliers, and floor-to-ceiling windows. He felt it when his hand ran over the smooth, varnished surface of the sturdy mahogany staircase banister that snaked its way elegantly up to the third floor. All these things hinted at what the house had been, and Matt hoped, could be again one day. Unfortunately, at the time, the house paralleled the state of his personal life: both required a considerable amount of repair. Eight years later, he had put enough plaster and paint into the old place that it was now more chic than shabby. His personal life, however, continued to be a work in progress.
He pulled the truck into the driveway behind his store, unloaded the boxes of atlases, and lugged them through the ground floor entryway, above which hung a small black metal sign that read HAWKINS ANTIQUES in white stenciled lettering. It was still early and there appeared to be no customers, none that Matt could see anyway. But this didn’t mean there weren’t any in the store.
With three floors chock-full of eclectic antique furniture, paintings, mirrors, books, statuary, and countless smaller decorative items, there was really no way for Matt to tell if someone was roaming around in the place or not. Every room had its own unique cross-section of treasures that customers were left on their own to discover. As if excavating through the layers of the earth, from the crust to the mantle to the core, one room might contain a pair of Empire chairs perched precariously atop a Victorian-era sideboard, with a sixteenth-century Persian rug underneath. Store policy was to let customers wander and, if they had a question, to simply holler for help. Not the most sophisticated of customer service models, but nobody seemed to mind. Exploring was part of the shopping experience and it worked.
Christina was behind the counter when Matt entered. She had just hung up the phone and, in her usual flippant way, said, “So let me guess, you picked up a first edition Moby-Dick for a buck because the pinheads at Bull Street didn’t know what they had.”
Christina had graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design, also known as SCAD, a couple of years before, but still needed to work for Matt because she couldn’t sell enough of her somewhat bizarre abstract paintings to pay her bills. She was a good kid and a dependable worker with a good eye for the eclectic, so Matt tolerated her sarcasm and occasional rants against the injustices of society.
He threw her a sideways glance and, with a half-smile, said, “No, smart-ass, just some early twentieth-century atlases.”
“How thrilling,” she answered, with mock enthusiasm. “Pretty soon we can open a library of our own. I swear, Matt, you need to stop buying books from that old library until we sell the ones you bought like three years ago.”
“Oh, come on, Christina, it’s not that bad. Books make good filler for the store. And besides, we sell a few of them every month.”
“Speaking of which, did you sell anything today?” he volleyed back, keeping the good-natured but never-ending banter going between them.
“No, because that would require having an actual customer walk in the door. Seriously, the only person in here this morning was old Mrs. Higgins. She’s poking around upstairs somewhere, assuming she hasn’t keeled over. Not that it would matter. She never buys anything anyway.”
Business was never as bad as Christina made it out to be. In fact, revenues had increased steadily over the years. She just loved to bust Matt’s balls whenever the opportunity presented itself. But beneath her crass exterior, she had great affection for him, even though it rarely surfaced. This had a lot to do with the long list of men in her life, starting with her father, who had treated her like shit. So she was still learning how to behave toward someone like Matt, who genuinely had her best interests in mind.
“Be nice. She’s a sweet old lady with lots of great stories. You have to get over the fact that ‘just looking’ is part of the antiques business,” he said. “The next nine people through that door could all be tire-kickers, but the tenth one might be the whale that makes our month.”
“First of all, I’m always nice to Mrs. Higgins and I do listen to her boring stories, with a plastic smile pasted on my face, even though I’ve heard them all before. Second, you haven’t landed a whale since your Wall Street days. And third, I still think we should charge an entrance fee to keep the tire-kickers away. Remember that magazine article I e-mailed you? There’s that store in California that charges shoppers five bucks to shop in their store. If you buy something, the money gets applied to the sale, but if you don’t buy anything, we keep the deposit.”
“Remind me again why I should take business advice from a woman who changes the color of her hair from pink to blue on a regular basis and who has a tattoo on her arm that reads ‘Rage Against the Machine’?” he said with a smirk. “Never mind, I’m going to go price these atlases. Try to sell something, will you.”
He made his way out of the room to find a quieter place to take a closer look at his cache of books.
Valley Forge, PA
It was the lowest point of the Revolutionary War for George Washington. Never before, in the almost three-year-old fight for independence, had the commander in chief of the Continental Army been more anxious. If his men weren’t dying from disease, they were deserting by the dozens; close to three hundred officers alone had resigned since the past summer. What was once an army of more than 11,000 soldiers had been reduced to a force of less than 5,000 starving, desperate men huddled around campfires. Floggings had been stepped up in recent weeks out of necessity to maintain discipline and stave off mutiny. And additional sentries had been placed along the perimeter of the camp, in a futile attempt to stem the tide of daily desertions. Washington wrote to Congress warning that an all-out collapse of his army was a real possibility.
For two months, the Continental Army had been waging a losing battle against winter’s fury, encamped on the high ground above the Schuylkill River, twenty miles northwest of Philadelphia. The men had worked relentlessly through the month of January to build close to two thousand fourteen-by-sixteen-foot wooden cabins, designed to sleep twelve enlisted men apiece, using timber harvested from nearby forests. A makeshift village had now been completed, but the orderly rows of small, drafty wooden huts with leaky roofs provided little more than the most basic form of shelter. Provisions continued to be scarce, and the men were forced to survive on rations of flour, living for days, sometimes weeks, without any meat whatsoever. In stark contrast, the British Army, under the command of General William Howe, was ensconced in the relative comfort of the city of Philadelphia, less than a day’s march away.
These were some of the thoughts that consumed Washington, as he and his devoted wife, Martha, hosted a modest dinner for two of Washington’s top generals, Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox, and their wives Caty and Lucy, respectively, at Washington’s cramped but tidy stone farmhouse. The farmhouse served as Washington’s temporary home and military headquarters while at Valley Forge. The simple dinner that had consisted of pork stew, assorted breads, and pudding had come to an end, and the servants had begun to clear the table.
“George, are you listening?” Martha looked with some concern at her husband, who was clearly distracted and not paying attention to the conversation at hand. “Caty just asked if there was any news from Congress regarding your request for additional provisions. But you seem to be somewhere else.”
Nathanael Greene jumped in to rescue his superior, “It’s quite all right, Martha. My wife surely understands that the general has many responsibilities that keep him preoccupied.”
“No, no, Nathanael, Martha is right. My sincerest apologies, Caty. My mind does seem to be filled with many matters at the moment,” replied Washington. “But unfortunately, I have little in the way of good news to share from our esteemed congressional assembly, currently holed up in York. My urgent requests for more provisions have fallen on deaf ears. They seem more inclined to spend their time making foolish plans with Gates and his new Board of War, rather than focusing on our plight here.”
There had been no love lost between Washington and General Horatio Gates during the almost three-year struggle for independence. Gates, who in his own opinion, was unjustly passed over for the position that Washington now held, had been working political back channels to lobby for a supervisory role over the man whose job he coveted. The prior November, shortly after Washington’s successive defeats at the battles of Brandywine and Germantown, Gates had gotten his wish. Congress created the Board of War, inserting essentially a new layer of command between themselves and the man serving as the commander in chief of the Continental Army. General Gates, the hero of the recent American victory at the Battle of Saratoga, was appointed president of this new executive agency. Now, all military strategy decisions had to go through the Gates-led Board of War.
“But how can they be so blind to the atrocious conditions here?” asked Caty incredulously. “Do they not care that these poor men are half-naked and literally freezing to death every day?”
Catharine Littlefield Greene, known as Caty, had been friends with George and Martha Washington since her husband, Nathanael Greene, was first summoned to Boston after the outbreak of the revolution in 1775. Caty was younger than her husband by more than a decade and was blessed with uncommon beauty and an equally uncommon, especially among women of her time, willingness to express her opinion. But rather than suppress his wife’s inquisitiveness and candor, Greene reveled in it. And her natural beauty and disdain for playing the part of a genteel wife of a general had made her a favorite of Washington’s over the past few years.
“Ah, but my dear Caty, if only I could dispatch you to York to prevail upon our noble assembly, I have no doubt that our camp would be overflowing with ample provisions!” declared Washington, to good-natured laughter from his guests.
Henry Knox interjected, “Unfortunately, in addition to conducting a war against the British, we must also wage political battles with our own Congress, let alone the Board of War’s preposterous plans for attacking the British in Canada. At least the British are clear with their hostile intentions, whereas our enemies in Congress operate behind the veil of politics to usurp our commander’s authority.”
The first major decision of the new board was to send a force of more than two thousand troops north of the border on an ill-conceived mission to invade Canada. In a clear slap in the face of Washington, Gates chose the Marquis de Lafayette to lead the incursion, effectively separating Washington from one of his fiercest supporters and protégés, the young Lafayette. Washington had met the wealthy nineteen-year-old French aristocrat the year before and it hadn’t taken long before he developed a fatherly bond with the young nobleman. The tall and slim Lafayette was an intelligent and exceedingly passionate revolutionary. And although lacking battlefield experience, he proved to be a fast study and quickly became a member of Washington’s inner circle of trusted confidants.
“Gentlemen, let us retire to the privacy of the next room, to spare our wives of such depressing talk. Ladies, as always, time with you offers such a welcome diversion from this dreary place. Please forgive me, for I must borrow your husbands for a short while,” Washington said. And with that, the three men pushed back from the table and made their way to the adjoining room that served as Washington’s office, to continue their conversation by the warmth of a small stone fireplace.
After the three generals were safely out of earshot of their wives in the other room, Washington spoke directly to his longtime friend and comrade-in-arms, Nathanael Greene, “Nathanael, what is the current state of the troops?” He winced from a sharp pain in his mouth caused by his crudely constructed dentures that rubbed against a sensitive section of his lower gums. A constant reminder of how few of his own teeth remained.
Major General Nathanael Greene stood at just under six feet tall, and possessed a firm but even disposition that had made him one of Washington’s most dependable officers. Greene was considered a gifted military strategist and Washington valued his counsel perhaps more than any other. “Well, sir, the situation is quite bleak. The food crisis has gone from bad to worse. With last week’s blizzard making normal routes impassable, the few meager supplies we were getting have now ceased altogether. The men have not had meat in more than a week and are subsisting on nothing more than fire cakes at this time. Twenty men, maybe more, are dying each day from disease, made worse by the lack of food. Morale has plummeted and desertions continue to rise,” replied Greene evenly.
“What about the foraging parties sent out to secure cattle and provisions from local farmers?” Washington asked.
“Unfortunately, they have had very little success, primarily due to the fact that the farmers are more likely to sell to the British forces because they pay in solid pounds sterling, which far outweighs the depreciated value of our own Continental currency,” said Greene.
“Dammit, don’t these people understand we are fighting for their independence, too?” scoffed Washington, as he tossed a small log onto the waning fire. Incredulous, he continued his questioning of Greene: “Of the 10,000 men who entered Valley Forge, what’s your best estimate of the number fit for service today?”
“We’ve lost close to 2,500 to death, desertion, and resignation since December. Of the remaining 7,500 men, I believe that another third or more are unfit for duty due to weakness from dysentery, typhus, influenza, and other maladies,” Greene said.
Washington grimly did the tally in his head, “My God, that leaves us with a fighting force of less than 5,000 able-bodied men!” Turning again to Greene, Washington asked, “And how many British troops do we believe General Howe now has encamped in Philadelphia?”
“Our spies believe there are between 10,000 and 12,000, but there are rumors that massive reinforcements have been requested that could push the number of British troops to 17,000 or more,” replied Greene.
Washington turned to Henry Knox, his rotund chief of artillery, who was refilling his tankard of wine. He asked, “Henry, what about the horses?”
Prior to the war, Henry Knox had been a Boston bookstore owner with a love of history and a special interest in artillery. Washington and Knox had formed a bond of friendship in the early days of the fight for independence that had only gotten stronger over the years. Knox had subsequently been promoted to brigadier general, serving as Washington’s chief of artillery. In that role at Valley Forge, he was responsible for establishing a perimeter defense to safeguard the winter encampment.
“More than five hundred horses have perished and most of the rest are too weak from starvation to be of any use to us. If attacked tomorrow, we would not be able to deploy our artillery effectively for battle. Nor would we be able to take our cannons with us if we are forced to retreat to a new location across the river,” replied Knox. He shifted uncomfortably in the stiff wooden Windsor chair. The finely turned spindles crackled loudly under the stress of his considerable girth.
With the flickering flames of the fire casting eerie shadows across his face, Washington said, “With all the spies and double agents about, let alone the scores of deserting soldiers making their way to Philadelphia, it is inconceivable that General Howe remains ignorant to our dire situation. And if these rumors regarding a request for more troops are true, then perhaps the British are readying for a winter attack to take advantage of our current vulnerability.”
“It is exactly what we would do if the situation were reversed,” exclaimed Knox. “May I ask if there is any news on the proposed alliance with France that Mr. Franklin is attempting to secure?”
The Continental Congress had previously dispatched diplomats Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane to France with the intent of securing a treaty that would both recognize American independence and commit the French to a military alliance with the upstart American nation. While such an alliance would significantly enhance the American chances of victory, there had been no word of progress from the distinguished American emissaries.
“I’m afraid we cannot put our confidence in a foreign power at this point. Even if an agreement were to be signed today, it would be months before troops or provisions would reach our shores. No, gentlemen, we are on our own. Not only can we not count on the French; we do not even have the support of many in our own Congress. And I’ll be damned if I will put my army’s fate in the hands of that corrupt agency headed by Horatio Gates,” Washington said.
After a long silence, with the only sound coming from the ticking of the walnut case clock in the corner of the room, Washington continued, “I think we can all agree, gentlemen, that given the current state of our troops bivouacked here on this frozen ground, an imminent attack by Howe’s army would have catastrophic consequences for our cause. I think the time has come for us to rethink our options. Carefully but quickly, for all my instincts are telling me that Howe is indeed meditating a stroke against our army here at Valley Forge.”
After a brief pause, he continued, “Almost 25 years ago, I found myself in a predicament that I care not to repeat. Ironically enough, at the time I was a major serving in the British Colonial Militia during the French and Indian Wars, at Fort Necessity. As you know, we were defeated because we were outgunned, outmanned, and undersupplied. It was either negotiate surrender or face a certain bloodbath. But we waited too long and had no leverage with which to negotiate. It was only by the grace of God that our troops were allowed to safely return to Virginia, in return for surrendering the fort.”
“But, Your Excellency, if you mean reconciliation, you must remember Congress’ failed negotiations with Howe a year ago last September. The talks failed because the British refused to recognize our independence,” replied Greene, surprised that his commander had raised the topic of surrender.
“We are not the same army we were then, Nathanael,” Washington said, his voice rising ever so slightly. “We may have to open the door to negotiations with General Howe on terms that may not be as favorable as we would ideally like. If we don’t take decisive action now, we may soon be completely out of options.”
“But, sir, Congress would never allow opening discussions with Howe without their consent. And our enemy Mr. Gates would most assuredly manipulate the situation at the expense of your reputation,” countered Greene.
“You’re quite right, and that’s why we will need to act independently of Congress. We need to communicate directly with Howe, via courier, to understand his current terms for a negotiated surrender. At a minimum, by taking this route, we may delay or even postpone indefinitely an attack by the British,” argued Washington, who appeared more anxious than either general had ever seen their commander in chief.
After some thought, Greene said, “I agree that with every passing day our position weakens, and that we cannot sit idly by waiting for an inevitable attack from Howe. But to open the door to surrender is a decision that cannot be undone, sir.”
“I understand that all too well, my friend,” Washington stated solemnly. He then turned to Knox and asked, “Henry, where do you stand?”
“As I said earlier, if I were Howe, I would not hesitate to take advantage of my strength in numbers and strike a final, decisive blow against my weakened enemy. So I cannot disagree that the advantages of opening negotiations outweigh the risks at the moment.” Knox replied.
“The hour is getting late, gentlemen. As always, I thank you for your invaluable counsel. Let us sleep on it and we’ll speak again in the morning. I trust you will keep a conversation of this import in the strictest of confidence,” Washington said. He stiffly rose from his chair by the fire, signaling that their meeting had come to a close.
Washington awoke earlier than usual the next morning. He made his way quietly downstairs, from the second-floor bedroom used by him and Mrs. Washington to his office on the first floor, where the flurry of daily activity had yet to begin. In the quiet chill of the predawn hour, he sat at his Queen Anne desk and put on his oval-lens spectacles. After a few last moments of indecision, he thrust his favorite quill pen in ink. By the light of a single candle, he began to draft a secret letter to General William Howe, commander in chief of the British Army.
Later that same morning, Washington summoned General Greene to his headquarters. Upon his arrival, Washington directed Greene back outside into the cold, gray morning so they could have a private discussion. Once outside, Washington reached into his overcoat and discreetly handed the letter over to Greene, which had been secured with his personal wax seal. “Nathanael, there is only one man I trust with delivering this letter. I cannot stress the severe consequences for us all if it were to fall into the wrong hands,” he said, his condensed breath bridging the frigid divide between the two men.
Greene, shivered as much from the cold as from the recognition that the letter he now held in his hands was the secret surrender letter they had discussed the prior evening. “Am I to understand this is the surrender letter to General Howe?” he asked.
“It is. And I want you to leave immediately, with a military escort, of course, to personally deliver it to Howe in Philadelphia. You are to return without delay with his reply. Do you understand?” Washington asked.
“I do, sir. I will make preparations to leave within the hour,” Greene said dutifully. He was shocked that Washington had made his decision so quickly, but as always, he would honor his commander’s orders and deliver the letter as instructed.
It was late in the day by the time Greene and his personal escort reached Philadelphia. Once there, however, they discovered through their local spy network that General Howe had departed unexpectedly that very morning for New York and would be gone at least a week. Greene turned straightaway back to Valley Forge with the undelivered letter in hand.
His traveling party, however, did not have enough daylight left to make it back before nightfall, so they decided to make camp for the night en route. Sitting alone by a small campfire late that evening, doubt began to overtake Greene. He trusted Washington implicitly, but wondered why the general had acted in such haste and chosen not to share the final wording of the letter with him or Knox. In the dim light of the waning fire, he anxiously turned the letter over and over in his hands and wrestled with the questions that had been weighing on his mind throughout the day. What was the current state of mind of his commander and friend? Just how far did he go with his offer of a negotiated surrender? Should his loyalty be to Washington or to the country for which he was ready to sacrifice his life in the name of independence? He stared at the wax seal, the only barrier between him and the answers to these vexing questions.
And then, in a moment of clarity, he made up his mind. Duty to country must outweigh loyalty to his commander. His decision had been made, so he broke Washington’s official seal and read the letter.
Greene knew that by breaking the seal he had violated Washington’s confidence and that he could never return the letter to him without the broken seal being discovered. Instead, he decided to concoct a story of spotting British patrols upon his return trip, which had forced him to make the prudent decision to burn the letter rather than run the risk of letting it fall into unwanted hands. But the truth was that he never did burn the letter. Upon his return to Valley Forge the next morning, Washington accepted his explanation, after which Greene returned to his quarters that he shared with his wife, Caty, and stowed the letter in his brown, tooled-leather portmanteau personal effects trunk. Whether or not he intended to destroy the letter and simply forgot about it, or whether he had other motives for keeping it, nobody would ever know—because Greene never spoke of it again.
In the weeks and months that followed, a series of significant events occurred that changed the tide of the war for the American cause. The flow of provisions increased significantly and Washington’s troops began drilling daily under the tutelage of a Prussian officer, Baron von Steuben, who arrived unexpectedly at Valley Forge in late February. As a result, the Continental Army’s discipline, health, and morale improved dramatically. More importantly, a treaty with France was signed that secured the promise of French allied troops, muskets, and provisions.
Washington never again revisited talk of surrender.