Review of The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series, Volume 1
The Journal of Southern History
Reviewed by Charles Royster
The first volume of the Revolutionary War series of The Papers of George Washington–edited by Philander D. Chase and Beverly H. Runge under the general editorship of W.W. Abbot–begins the huge task of documenting more than eight years of warfare from the perspective of the American commander in chief. This volume covers the first three months, during which Washington was appointed to command and tried to bring some order to the force besieging the British in Boston.
As in the volumes of the Colonial Series, the editors have striven for literalness in printed representation of the manuscripts. The annotation eschews citation of secondary works. The notes show the editors’ great resourcefulness in amassing background information and in providing cross-references to related documents. In a few instances the choice of emphasis may seem idiosyncratic. If all of Washington’s public letters were annotated with the degree of detail lavished on his private letter to Lund Washington of August 20, 1775 (pp.334-40), the series might swell almost indefinitely. Chase and Runge’s command of the sources leave little doubt that they are capable of such thoroughness, but their preface enunciates a policy of selectivity, focusing on documents that attracted Washington’s personal attention.
Future volumes, one hopes, will contain maps of professional quality, which are essential for comprehending Washington’s military objectives and activities. The editors ought not to rest content with reproducing the freehand drawings that they find among the manuscripts.
From the beginning Washington often adopted the cautious Fabian policy that, although he preferred aggressive audacity, circumstances forced upon him. Departures from it, such as the invasion of Canada in 1775, usually came to grief. In a letter of July 27, 1775, he summarized his approach, little realizing that he would have to persevere in it for so long: “to secure in the first Instance, our own Troops from any attempts of the Enemy, and in the next, to cut of [sic] all Communication between their Troops and the Country; For to do this, & to harass them if they do, is all that is expected of me; and if effected, must totally overthrow the designs of Administration . . .” (p. 183). Washington’s initial attempt to submerge colonial and regional distinctions in the army, his effort to instill a regular army style of discipline, and his ambition to build an officer corps imbued with both revolutionary ideals and professional competence met repeated frustrations. But his strategy of keeping his army intact to harass the enemy eventually did thwart the British administration’s designs.
No small part of this success came from Washington’s assiduous and patient attention to the minutiae of military life, as well as to the indispensable political support for the army’s recruitment and operations. The volumes of the Revolutionary War Series will show the centrality of Washington in fuller detail than ever before. By publishing many documents for the first time and by careful delineation of their relation to each other, this project will also add to our knowledge of many other aspects of the American Revolution. Philander D. Chase, Beverly Runge, and W.W. Abbot deserve our thanks and congratulations.
Louisiana State University
Royster, Charles. Review of The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series, Volume 1 in The Journal of Southern History, volume 69, number 3 (August 1986). 449-50.