“‘Delivered by the Power of God’: The American Revolution and Nephi’s Prophecy,” Ensign, Oct. 1987, 45
To accomplish his purposes, the Lord has helped valiant persons fight their battles.
Even though it seemed impossible for the children of Israel to escape ruthless chariots, Moses assured them that “the Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace. … And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night.” (Ex. 14:14, 21.)
As Joshua and his men fought at Gibeon, Joshua commanded:
“Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon.
“And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies … for the Lord fought for Israel.” (Josh. 10:12–14; italics added.)
The Lord answered the Nephites’ prayers for help as they defended their liberty:
“The Nephites were inspired by a better cause, for they were not fighting for monarchy nor power but … for their homes and their liberties, their wives and their children, … for … their church. …
“When the men of Moroni saw the fierceness and the anger of the Lamanites, … they cried with one voice unto the Lord their God, for their liberty and their freedom from bondage.
“And they began to stand against the Lamanites with power; and … the Lamanites began to flee before them. …
“Now, the Lamanites were more numerous, yea, by more than double the number of the Nephites; nevertheless, they were driven [away]. (Alma 43:45, 48–51.)
Following the Nephite victory, Moroni told Zerahemnah, the Lamanite leader: “But now, ye behold that the Lord is with us; and ye behold that he has delivered you into our hands. … this is done unto us because of our … faith in Christ. And now ye see that ye cannot destroy this our faith.” (Alma 44:3.)
Divine intervention was also significant in the American victory in the Revolutionary War. Just as the Lord protected and sustained Israel anciently, he also provided for those appointed to accomplish his purposes in the American struggle for independence. It had come time to establish a nation where the gospel could be restored, where the Church of Jesus Christ could flourish in a climate of religious freedom, and from where the gospel could be carried to all nations. Inspired and sacrificing leaders,1 sustained by a power beyond themselves, would establish a remarkable new form of government. The time had come for the American colonists to gain their independence from England in order for Nephi’s prophecy of a people “delivered by the power of God out of the hands of all other nations” (1 Ne. 13:19) to be fulfilled and for the gospel to be restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith.
The power that protected, sustained, and inspired the American Continental Army2 also prophesied of their delivery to freedom. In particular, certain events of nature helped fulfill Nephi’s prophecy that “the power of the Lord [would be] with them.” (1 Ne. 13:16.)
Early in the war, the most effective strategy for the Americans was to fight, then retreat so that the inexperienced Continental Army would not engage the more disciplined, superior force of combat-hardened British troops on their own terms. As General George Washington struggled to understand fully and apply this concept so as to give his army experience and keep them out of the enemy’s hands, Providence acted as their rear guard.
In February 1776, Washington planned to take Boston by first placing artillery on Dorchester Heights, overlooking Boston Harbor. He hoped to draw the British forces into a battle over Dorchester Heights, diverting their attention while he landed his army in Boston by way of the River Charles. The plan was ill advised at best; as historian James Thomas Flexner points out, the inexperienced Washington could easily have lost his prestige and half his army by committing such an engagement. If he had, “the cause could … have collapsed.”3
On the night of 4 March 1776, Washington’s men placed prefabricated fortifications on Dorchester Heights. The next morning, at daylight, the British commanders were astonished to see the gun emplacements that had been erected overnight.4
The Americans continued to position their artillery on Dorchester Heights and the British prepared to attack these positions by embarking their troops onto Castle William, a fortified island General William Howe would use as the staging area for the British attack. All was proceeding as Washington had hoped until what one Briton described as “[a] wind more violent than everything [he] had ever heard”5 descended on Boston. Even after the storm subsided, large waves prevented any amphibious British assault from Castle William. Plans for both the Dorchester Heights attack and Washington’s capture of Boston were cancelled. Both generals—Washington of the Colonial army and Howe of the British forces—blamed the weather for their foiled plans.
Flexner points out that, had the storm not occurred, “there would have been such a battle as the Continental Army actually engaged in only once, at Fort Washington, when the entire American force that was engaged fell to the enemy. In all other battles, the patriots had access to escape routes through which if they found they could not stand up to the trained European regulars [they could retreat]. But the troops Washington had intended to land in Boston could never have regained their boats. They would have been trapped. They would either have had to annihilate the British or be themselves entirely defeated.”6 Such a loss by the Continentals could have meant the end of the war for independence—“the cause could either have collapsed or shriveled away.”7
The sudden, unexpected storm had saved Washington and his young army and had given him time to develop military strategies that would make the inexperienced American army more effective. Still, it would take another mistake on Long Island and another fortuitous intervention of the elements to teach General Washington the lessons he needed to learn. As Washington grew as a leader and strategist, he did not hesitate to attribute his protection to “the gracious interposition of Heaven.”8
The British soon withdrew from Boston and sailed toward New York. Washington, anticipating this move, marched on New York. There, several events led to another miraculous rescue of the American soldiers.
Washington split his command and landed most of his troops on Long Island’s Brooklyn Heights. He had only ten thousand troops to guard a fifteen-mile front, while General Howe embarked approximately fifteen thousand British and Hessian soldiers at Gravesend Bay, Long Island. He left four thousand soldiers behind on Staten Island as reinforcements.
Washington had placed his troops in a dangerous position by dividing his command and positioning most of his soldiers on an island where they would be dependent upon the weather and obtaining enough boats to retreat. More important, any attempt by the Americans to retreat from Long Island could easily be cut off by the superior British naval forces that could sail up the East River. In fact, the British, by sailing up the East River, could land troops behind Washington and surround his army. The prospect for the Americans was serious. If Washington were to lose ten thousand men at the outset of the war, the Declaration of Independence would most likely not gain the public support to fuel the fires of freedom.
However, once again the elements intervened. On 26 August 1776, Howe’s reinforcements were delayed by a strong northeast wind and an ebbing tide that “compelled the fleet to drop down the bay and come to anchor.”9 At nine o’clock the next morning, the Americans could hear the British cannons in the American rear. In a brilliant night march, the British General Henry Clinton had slipped by the east side of the Americans and had captured eight hundred prisoners, including Generals John Sullivan and William Stirling.
At this point, Washington, instead of retreating across the East River, reinforced the American positions on Brooklyn Heights and waited for Howe’s assault.
Seeing the entrenched American troops, British General Howe decided to delay his attack until the fleet had entered the East River. But the British ships were held back again by another strong northeast wind. Then torrents of rain fell, further hindering the fleet in the East River and subduing the efforts of the British troops on land. Howe began to raise siege works along Washington’s lines when, according to historian Henry B. Carrington, “The rain [became] so incessant, and accompanied by a wind so violent, that the British troops kept within their tents, and their works made slow progress.”10
Finally, on the night of 29 August 1776, Washington, recognizing the opportunity to make a tactical retreat, ordered his troops across the East River. The first unit embarked at ten o’clock. But at midnight, the wind changed. Just as the British advance had earlier been halted by the elements, this time the Americans’ retreat was threatened with disaster. Sloops and other sailing craft could not sail, and there were too few rowboats to complete the evacuation in one night. According to Carrington, “the wind and tide were so violent that even the seamen soldiers of Massachusetts could not spread a close reefed sail upon a single vessel; and the larger vessels, upon which so much depended, would have been swept to the ocean if once entrusted to the current.”11
Washington was urged to abandon the evacuation; but then, miraculously, the wind abruptly shifted, allowing the Americans to cross the river in the predawn hours. Nine thousand men were moved in that retreat, and historian Bart McDowell records that “after dawn, as the last of the army sailed away, one young captain noted that the boats moved under ‘the friendly cover of a thick fog,’”12 which “increased the danger of panic, but also prevented discovery.’”13
Historian Christopher Ward points out that “freakish Nature [had] again favored the Americans.”14 Washington “had snatched a beaten army from the very jaws of a victorious force, and practically under the nose of the greatest armada ever seen in American waters.”15
The challenge still remained, however, for Washington to keep the American army out of the hands of a pursuing, disciplined force of combat-hardened troops.
The American Continental Army retreated from Long Island to White Plains, New York. As General Howe prepared to attack the American fortifications there, he claimed he was delayed by inclement weather. Carrington notes: “A north-easter came down upon the camps at midnight, raging wildly for nearly twenty-four hours; but before the advance was attempted, Washington had again rescued his army by withdrawal to the heights of North Castle, and occupied a position too strong to warrant assault.”16
The winter of 1776 brought more trials to the Americans. Inexplicably, Washington allowed Continental forces to defend Fort Washington and Fort Lee on the Hudson River. Both forts were taken by the British shortly afterward. The American Continental Army lost hundreds of cannons and guns, more than three hundred tents, one thousand barrels of flour, and many blankets and utensils—supplies they needed for the coming winter. Men deserted, patriots defected to the enemy. Historian George Bancroft reflects upon the moments of despair for the American cause:
“The spirit of the Most High dwells among the afflicted, rather than the prosperous; and he who has never broken his bread in tears knows not the heavenly powers. The trials of Washington are the dark, solemn ground on which the beautiful work of the country’s salvation was embroidered.”17
Because of the distressing condition of the tattered but unbowed soldiers, the American Continental Congress on 11 December 1776 called for a day of fasting and humiliation: “Resolved, That it be recommended to all the United States, as soon as possible to appoint a day of solemn fasting and humiliation; to implore of Almighty God the forgiveness of the many sins prevailing among all ranks, and to beg the countenance and assistance of his Providence in the prosecution of the present just and necessary war.”18
Shortly after the resolution on fasting, three important events occurred. On 13 December 1776, General Howe disclosed his decision to suspend military operations in New Jersey until spring. He was returning to Philadelphia with most of his army, and he was making no concerted effort to pursue Washington’s army across the Delaware River. On that same date, the American General Charles Lee, who had delayed advancing his troops and who had failed to cooperate with Washington, was captured by the British. General John Sullivan (who had earlier been returned in a prisoner exchange) took Lee’s place and promptly marched to join forces with Washington, providing him with a large enough force that Washington wrote he might, “under the smiles of Providence, effect an important stroke.”19 On that same day, 14 December 1776, Washington wrote to Governor Jonathan Trumball and General William Heath about the possibility of initiating a counteroffensive.20
Prodded by the approach of December 31—the expiration date of the enlistment of many of his troops—Washington decided to attack Trenton on Christmas Eve. And once again, the weather played a major role in the outcome of the battle.
Washington advanced on Trenton on the night of December 24. There was a full moon that night, but his movements were cloaked by a “sky … so shrouded by dense clouds that darkness covered everything.”21
Washington’s plan was to take three columns of men across the Delaware River, but because of drifting ice,22 two of the three columns did not cross. The column that did was led by Washington, and on Christmas Day they surprised and defeated the Hessian mercenaries holding the town.
The failure of all troops to cross the river turned out to be a blessing. Had the column closest to the Hessian sentinels near Trenton crossed, they might have alerted the defenders long before Washington’s troops arrived. The Hessians could have defended Trenton until reinforced by Cornwallis, and Washington may have been trapped on the Trenton side of the Delaware without all of his troops.
This surprise victory, the first victory of the American forces, was a turning point in the war. It gave a needed morale boost to soldiers and citizens, restored confidence in Washington as commander, and caused foreign nations to take notice of American determination and abilities.
Despite the victory, Washington still worried that his men would return home when their enlistment expired on December 31. He therefore made a personal appeal to them, pledging his own credit against the bonus he offered if they stayed another six weeks. But it was not the money that motivated the troops to stay; “the troops gathered and General Washington spoke as well as he could. Would volunteers step forward? An awkward and terrible moment followed. Not a single man stepped out. The general simply tried again, returning to repeat the arguments. Something in this second appeal struck the hearts of those cold, battlesick men. A few came forward, then more. Then almost all.”23
After the battle of Trenton, the British moved to engage Washington. But the weather grew mild, and the British army was delayed by heavy mud on the roads. As British General Lord Cornwallis halted the night before he expected to engage the Americans, Washington held a council of war. With no retreat possible over the Delaware, he needed to find a way out of engaging Cornwallis’s troops. He decided to attack the British rear guard at Princeton.
The plan proved to be successful, but not without assistance, once again, from the weather. As Cornwallis approached, the weather grew colder, making the roads passable. Washington took advantage of the frozen roads and swept down on Princeton while a party of men decoyed Cornwallis by burning fires and making noise. The surprise attack on Princeton confused the British and allowed the Americans to retreat to secure winter quarters on the New Jersey heights.
The weather affected the outcome of several other battles as well. On 16 September 1777, Washington again faced General Howe at White House Tavern where, after the battle had begun, “a storm of unusual severity put army and ammunition out of condition for use, filled the small streams, parted the combatants, and ultimately gave to the British the barren acquisition of the city.”24
Fog intervened in favor of the Americans a few weeks later at Germantown, on October 4, when an American offensive against General Howe “was neutralized and turned into a repulse by the interposition of dense fog, which confused the troops and compelled a retreat, but thereby secured the [Americans] from the pressure of overwhelming forces”25 sent by Cornwallis to General Howe’s aid.
With divine intervention, the American army had not only survived in spite of mistakes and misjudgments, but had also managed to strike a few blows. But an even greater challenge to the American Continental Army’s endurance lay ahead—at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777–78.
The American Continental Army had received the Lord’s assistance a number of times. But few times did they need his help more than in the winter of 1777–78 at Valley Forge. The American troops were besieged with cold and hunger, suffering from bitter weather, tattered clothing, and insufficient food. Surgeon Albigense Waldo described the conditions in his diary:
“Here comes a bowl of beef soup full of dead leaves and dirt. There comes a soldier. His bare feet are seen through his worn-out shoes—his legs nearly naked from the tattered remains of an only pair of stockings—his Breeches are not sufficient to cover his nakedness—his shirt hanging in Strings—his hair disheveled—his face meagre.”26
Some authors refer to a dramatic, unusual early spawning of shad, a type of fish found in many Atlantic Coastal Rivers, up the Schuylkill River that runs through Valley Forge. They claim that on 23 February 1778, this event alleviated the famine.27 Throughout these months, Washington continued to be plagued with insubordination of officers,28 lack of support by government officials and members of Congress, supply delivery problems, and loyalists who continued to supply the British. It seems only natural that, amid such problems, Washington would seek divine guidance to aid in the future course of the American colonists’ cause.
Although some historians regard Washington’s prayers at Valley Forge as apocryphal, records indicate that he knew the power of prayer. In one order, he directed all officers and soldiers “by their unfeigned and pious observance of their religious duties, [to] incline to the Lord, and Giver of Victory, to prosper our arms.”29 At the conclusion of the alliance with France, on 5 May 1778, he directed:
“It having pleased the Almighty Ruler of the Universe propitiously to defend the Cause of the United American-States and finally by raising us up a powerful friend among the Princes of the Earth to establish our Liberty and Independence up[on] lasting foundations, it becomes us to set apart a day for gratefully acknowledging the divine Goodness and celebrating the important event which we owe to his benign Interposition.”30
While Washington’s references to Deity, prayer, and thanksgiving do not reveal him to be an eighteenth-century orthodox Christian,33 he did recognize the reality of a Creator. Since he expressed his gratitude for divine assistance on many occasions, it is likely that he prayed for that assistance in his leadership and decision-making. If so, the conditions at Valley Forge would most certainly have elicited a petition to our Father in Heaven.
In any event, prospects for the American cause began to improve. On 15 July 1779, General Anthony Wayne captured a British garrison at Stony Point on the Hudson River. The British fleet, hearing of the battle, prepared to sail up the Hudson River and engage the Continentals before Washington’s sources of intelligence anticipated.34 The sudden arrival of the raiding British fleet could have turned that American victory into a defeat. However, the fleet was held back by unusual, strong, northerly winds that “came sweeping down the Hudson River.”35 This gave Washington time to take the captured supplies and disappear before the British forces of General Clinton arrived.
The courageous attack on and capture of Stony Point marked the end of British raids on New England, and it renewed the commitment of American allies. The focus of the war now shifted to the southern states, where several events during 1780 and 1781 set the stage for the decisive Battle of Yorktown.
Two American victories highlighted the winter of 1780–81. On 7 October 1780, the Americans defeated the British forces at Kings Mountain, South Carolina. Three months later, American General Daniel Morgan smashed the forces of British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton at Cowpens, South Carolina. Some historians claim that the American Morgan offered battle at Cowpens partly because the swollen Broad River was running deep and fast across his line of retreat. In any case, these two battles resulted in Cornwallis’s loss of the best elements of his light-armed infantry.36
After the Battle of Cowpens, General Cornwallis pursued American General Greene to the North Carolina-Virginia border. He assembled his troops on the banks of the Catawba River and attempted to convert his entire force into light infantry—even destroying his personal baggage train in order to pursue Greene more swiftly. But his efforts were unsuccessful. By the time he caught up with the Americans, they were on the other side of the Catawba River, swollen after the American crossing “on account of a great fall of rain.”37
Another river-crossing problem prevented British-American confrontation a month later. The British army under Cornwallis made a forced march over bad roads through heavy rain to intercept Greene before he crossed the Yadkin River at Trading Ford. The British reached the ford at midnight, only to learn that Greene had crossed earlier in the evening, taking all the available boats with him.
After several days’ delay caused by the weather, General Cornwallis attempted to cross the Dan River into Virginia to intercept the American troops. Again, the Americans had crossed the day before, taking all the boats with them.
Obviously, some historians scoff at references to “instances of providential succour,”38 saying that General Greene’s knowledge of the terrain and his carefully-laid plans caused the American victories. But others point to the amazingly propitious timing of the rising rivers as evidence that “these determining events … are not beyond the recognition of nature’s Master.”39 Had the Americans not been able to keep ahead of the British forces, they could have been forced into a major engagement with an anxious, determined Cornwallis.40 One historian states, “If Greene’s little army were overtaken and destroyed, Cornwallis would find his way to join forces with the British in Virginia. … The whole region would be completely and perhaps finally subjugated and permanently held by the British Crown.”41
Greene’s exhausted American troops pushed on. Historian Christopher Ward describes their camp:
“They never set up a tent. The heat of the fires was the only protection from rain and sometimes snow. They started each day at three in the morning and hastened forward to gain a distance ahead of their pursuers that would give them time for breakfast—breakfast, dinner, and supper in one—because this was their only meal for the day.”42
Plagued by desertion, sickness, and a lack of supplies, Cornwallis gave up the chase of Greene’s men and marched to Hillsboro, North Carolina, to rally support for his army. After winning a battle at Guilford Courthouse that cost the British many casualties, Cornwallis moved back into Virginia. Even though the Americans had been defeated in that encounter, the American army was still intact after an orderly retreat.
The stage was set for the Battle of Yorktown.
The British defeat at Yorktown proved fatal to British rule of the United States. This time, the elements, which had intervened to aid and protect the Americans time and again, year after year, foiled Cornwallis’s escape.
It helped, too, that Cornwallis found himself in Virginia without assistance from the British fleet in the York River. Admiral de Grasse and his French fleet had inflicted damage on the British fleet, and Admiral Graves had taken the English ships back to Sandy Hook, New York, for refitting. The British fleet arrived in New York about the same time Washington and the French Count de Rochambeau reached Williamsburg for the siege of Yorktown.
Cornwallis was not prepared for the siege. He had sent three thousand of his troops to Sir Henry Clinton to protect New York from a rebel attack, and he had not anticipated that the French and Americans would have heavy siege guns. Undermanned and receiving bombardment from the allies, Cornwallis withdrew from the outer defense lines of Yorktown and set up headquarters in a cave.
By 16 October 1781, Cornwallis knew that remaining in Yorktown would lead to British surrender. That night, he attempted to escape across the York River by boat. Once again the elements intervened. He described that night in a letter to British General Clinton:
“Sixteen large boats were prepared, and upon other pretexts were ordered to be in readiness to receive troops precisely at ten o’clock. With these I hoped to pass the infantry during the night, abandoning our baggage, and leaving a detachment to capitulate for the town’s people, and the sick and wounded. … After making my arrangements with the utmost secrecy, … at this critical moment, the weather from being moderate and calm, changed to a most violent storm of wind and rain, and drove all the boats, some of which had troops on board, down the river. It was soon evident that the intended passage was impracticable, and the absence of the boats rendered it equally impossible to bring back the troops that had passed.”43
The French fleet had not sealed off the York River above Yorktown, and had Cornwallis been able to ferry his army across the river and march northward, he might have been picked up by the British fleet on the Delaware.44 In fact, Washington feared that just such a move by Cornwallis would deprive the American allies of a decisive victory over the British.45
As it was, Cornwallis was forced to make a formal surrender to Washington on 19 October 1781. Although the Treaty of Paris was not signed until 1783, the war in America, for all intents and purposes, was over. The wind that had saved Washington at the war’s outset also sealed the fate of the British at the war’s conclusion.
Heroic patriots alone did not achieve the American victory. Without providential intervention, the small, outnumbered force of Americans would not have won their independence. But an American victory was essential in order for a new nation to be established where the gospel of Jesus Christ could be restored.
The events that had transpired fulfilled the prophecy that Nephi had written more than 2,300 years earlier:
“And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld that the Gentiles who had gone forth out of captivity did humble themselves before the Lord; and the power of the Lord was with them.
“And I beheld that their mother Gentiles were gathered together upon the waters, and upon the land also, to battle against them.
“And I beheld that the power of our Father in Heaven was with them, and also that the wrath of God was upon all those that were gathered together against them to battle.
“And I, Nephi, beheld that the Gentiles that had gone out of captivity were delivered by the power of God out of the hands of all other nations.” (1 Ne. 13:16–19.)
Washington recognized the hand of our Father in Heaven in America’s struggle. His final military order of the war, issued 18 April 1783, noted the assistance of the Creator:
“The Commander in chief orders the Cessation of Hostilities between the United States of America and the King of Great Britain to be publickly proclaimed tomorrow at 12 o’clock … after which the Chaplains with the several Brigades will render thanks to almighty God for all his mercies.”46
Examining the events of the American Revolution with an eye of faith shows that the Lord directed events to accomplish his purposes. And when we understand why he helped bring such events about, we, too, may be led to exclaim, as did the prophet Isaiah:
“Sing unto the Lord; for he hath done excellent things: this is known in all the earth.
“Cry out and shout, thou inhabitant of Zion; for great is the Holy One of Israel in the midst of thee.” (Isa. 12:5–6.)
An environment was now established in which an inspired constitution could be created that would provide a level of religious freedom vital for the restoration of the gospel through the Prophet Joseph Smith.