Benjamin H. Newcomb, Review of Revolutionary War Series, Volumes 8 & 9

Review of The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series, Volumes 8 & 9
The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography

Reviewed by Benjamin H. Newcomb

These two substantial volumes, covering five months of the Revolution during which no major battle occurred, testify to the resolve of the editors and publishers of the Papers of George Washington to provide a complete resource for scholars. Nearly all the papers printed here are military documents, and the four letters to relatives and friends also included provide military news. No letters to Martha Washington have been located, although some are noted in other correspondence. Nor is Washington’s serious illness in March 1777 mentioned. Those interested primarily in military affairs will profit most from these volumes.

Scholars familiar with Washington’s generalship will find no major surprises. They have previously noted his views of officers and soldiers, his concept of duty, his preoccupation with detail, and even his insider effort to buy for himself used army horses while instructing Quartermaster General Thomas Mifflin to “keep my name out of the question” (8:598). These volumes amplify what is known, providing considerable detail on important matters.

Volume 8 begins with January 6, 1777, when Washington established his headquarters at Morristown, New Jersey. He remained there until May 28, when, to confront a possible advance of General Sir William Howe’s army across New Jersey to Philadelphia, he moved about twenty miles south to Middlebrook, adjoining Bound Brook. By June 10, the date Volume 9 closes, Washington was still uncertain about the British army’s next move. Throughout the period, Howe’s delay in initiating any offensive both amazed and encouraged him. Washington termed the last week in February 1777 “one of the most critical periods which America ever saw” because Howe could, if he had any inkling of the depleted ranks of the Continental Army, push through Washington’s troops toward Philadelphia (8:433). He believed Howe had 10,000 men in New Jersey; the American force was 4,000, mostly militia and raw recruits. About three weeks later, a report to Washington from a spy indicated that the British intended to attack Morristown but delayed because they overestimated the number of Washington’s troops. Because Howe was overcautious and Washington had too few troops, no major fighting occurred in New Jersey during this period.

Small detachments of the two armies fought seventeen minor engagements in New Jersey, mostly between British foragers and American forces trying to check them. Washington calculated in January 1777 that the British would run low on provisions, particularly horse fodder, so stopping foragers would delay Howe’s inevitable movement against him. According to Washington the British got the worst of these skirmishes, “owing to our Superior skill in Fire Arms” (8:439). Sizeable British raids on Peekskill, New York, and Danbury, Connecticut, captured or destroyed American supplies, but the scarcest supply was men, and Washington was careful not to lose them.

Washington was occupied with every imaginable sort of business while at camp–foreign officers’ commissions, clothing, pay, smallpox inoculation, uniform colors, and incompetent buglers, but primary in his mind was raising and retaining troops. He lamented that recruits for the Continental forces “do not come in at all (tho’ I hear that Town and Country are full of them)” (8:452). Pennsylvania was as lax as any other state in raising troops. General Horatio Gates, commanding in Philadelphia, noted that officers disputing rank and men deserting left Continental regiments undermanned. By April Pennsylvania recruiting was characterized as “very backward” (9:128). Washington became convinced that Pennsylvania Continental Army colonels were engaged in massive fraud, recruiting so few men for their regiments because they pocketed the bounty money and listed men as deserted who were never enlisted. He blamed the officers of the Eighth Pennsylvania Regiment for its high desertion rates-126 of 684 had deserted by June 1777, because, according to the soldiers, the officers were guilty of fraud and mistreatment. Washington had little expectation of raising volunteers by paying bounties; he wanted a draft in which the rich, the timid, and the Tory would have to hire substitutes.

Washington, with few Continentals, began to turn in desperation to state militia. Although, as Mark V. Kwasny points out in Washington’s Partisan War, 1775-1783 (1996), they made positive contributions, Washington dealt them much more criticism than praise in this five-month period. They were undependable, “there today, & gone tomorrow” (8:439). Militiamen went home with the arms and equipment that the government issued them. Because militia officers were interested only in concocting schemes to increase their pay, they gave little attention to discipline. Some militia troops plundered citizens under the pretense of their being Tories. Washington warned that the militia should be kept away from regular troops because it would “spread the seeds of licentiousness among the regulars” (9:127). The militia failed in several cases to provide adequate defense against British and Tory foragers. The Pennsylvania militia did not turn out in a force as large as Washington expected, and many returned home after a dispute with General William Alexander, “Lord Stirling,” over the distribution of supplies. Some states planned to raise what were called “colonial” troops because they could not rely on their militias to turn out to defend the state. Washington opposed this because these forces would compete with the Continental Army for recruits.

Washington encountered significant problems with the capabilities and behavior of officers. Only a few generals earned his reprimands. He noted Generals William Heath and Joseph Spencer particularly lacked spirit. Washington reprimanded Heath for letting officers loiter, gamble, and drink with enlisted men, and for falling back rather than checking British foragers. He criticized General Adam Stephen’s account of a skirmish in which Stephen claimed the advantage but actually was routed. Washington also had to upbraid Lord Stirling. Field officers gave him more difficulty. A lieutenant colonel paid bounties in counterfeit money, retaining the genuine continental dollars issued to him. Other recruiters gambled bounty money away. He accused the field officers of lounging in “ease and dissipation” (9:446). To avoid going on march, officers falsely claimed that clothing or arms had not been supplied. Washington believed that officers drew large sums which were misappropriated to finance their high living rather than paid to the men. He warned colonels against discharging or furloughing men at critical times. To remedy this behavior, Washington insisted that none but gentlemen be commissioned as officers.

The editing equals the high standards that the multivolume sets of papers of the great white fathers maintain. Random checking of letters to Washington found no transcription errors. Annotation is lengthy but very helpful, particularly in quoting other primary source material. Although some reviewers have questioned the value of such expensive labor-intensive editing, it clears the path for scholars and students, and is in my judgment worthwhile. It is not clear from any note or preface why some letters are appended to others out of chronological order and set in footnote-sized type. Although they are listed in the table of contents and index these letters might be missed because they are different in appearance and heading. The index is complete and accurate, with adequate cross listings. The one map, the same in both volumes, is excellent for New Jersey, but a map of southern New York and western Connecticut, where military action took place, should also have been included.

Benjamin H. Newcomb
Texas Tech University


Newcomb, Benjamin H. Review of The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series, Volumes 8 and 9 in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, volume 124, numbers 1/2 (January/April 2000), 214-17.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *