A great day for the Army
The 19th of April 1783 was not just another spring day for the American Army encamped at New Windsor and Newburgh near West Point. At noon on this day 200 years ago, General Washington's Proclamation of a Cessation of Hostilities became effective. Several days before, the Continental Congress approved the draft treaty that would ultimately end the American Revolution. It was eight years to the day since the shot heard round the world was fired.
Although military victory had come at Yorktown, a satisfactory peace agreement did not occur until early 1783, and then only after perseverance, persuasion, and considerable negotiating skill by the American commissioners in Paris.
Known as the Treaty of Paris (1783), its significance was profound and far-reaching. It has been cited as the third most important document in American history, ranking just behind the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
For the Army, its immediate consequence was the Cessation of Hostilities, an armistice, until the formal signing in Paris on Sept. 3, 1783.
Washington's proclamation was the precursor of the deactivation of the Continental Army, which by now was one of the finest light infantry forces in the world. The demobilization of the Army under his leadership occurred swiftly as officers and men returned home and looked to other pursuits. By the 13th of June, Washington's main body of troops was drawn down to less than one-fourth its original strength. The deactivation of units in other areas of the country proceeded at the same pace.
The treaty was a prelude to the Republic. Vitally important, the independence won on the battlefield was recognized by Great Britain in the first article of the treaty. The vast boundaries of the new nation were established with remarkable certainty, and the recognition of valuable fishing rights off the Grand Banks was of special interest to New Englanders. The principal American negotiators - Franklin, Jay, and Adams - had proved themselves worthy of a difficult task.
The contributions of France in helping resolve the military conflict cannot be overlooked. However, it must be remembered that, notwithstanding its occasional shortcomings, the American Army had become the embodiment of a cause. The amalgamation of colonial troops from the 13 colonies into the Continental Army helped create a sense of nationhood. The bloody campaigns, the bitter winters, the deprivation, the unbelievable suffering of troops
ofttimes poorly equipped, inadequately clad, underfed, and sometimes not paid were the price for the victory which made possible the Treaty of Paris.
The revolution was a war that was waged principally under the direction of the Congress and without an executive branch of government. From the moment the last signature was struck on the Declaration of Independence, every signer became a fugitive. Consequently, a greater burden devolved upon the Army for prosecution of the conflict.
Yorktown was a testament to the long road that had been traveled from Concord Bridge. The Army kept the pledge in that bottom line of the declaration:
And for the support of this declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred Honor.
Yorktown was the bridge between the declaration and the Treaty of Paris. The post-treaty environment would trend inexorably toward the Constitution and the new Republic as the Articles of Confederation proved inadequate.
From the vantage point of two centuries, it still stands as a tribute to the Army that despite serious grievances and differences with Congress - largely about pay - it disbanded with relatively few incidents, although not without a certain bitterness and disillusionment.
The Treaty of Paris was the first stone in nation building. It enabled the development of a fledgling country and opened horizons for the unfolding drama of the American Repub-lic.
After the Cessation of Hostilities, when the soldiers of the Continental Line were mustered out, they were permitted to keep their muskets as a mark of their service. A memento of the ''times that tried men's souls.''
For the rank and file, the formality of a treaty signing in Paris in September was a distant epilogue to a foot soldier's war - a diplomatic sequel that probably went un-noticed, or was not fully appreciated, for they were unaware of the greatness they had achieved.
In December of the same year at Annapolis, General Washington appeared before the Second Continental Congress, the body which in 1775 had elected him Commander-in-Chief, to resign his commission so he might return to civilian life.
The American Revolution was over.