Review of The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series, Volumes 4 – 12
The Journal of Southern History
Reviewed by Charles Royster
Since publication began in 1985, the volumes of the Revolutionary War series of The Papers of George Washington have been edited by Philander D. Chase. For the most recent three volumes-10, 11, and 12-Chase has been chief editor of the project as a whole. The Revolutionary War series has become a more collaborative effort, with special responsibility in the hands of Frank E. Grizzard Jr. The project has continued to be a model of scrupulous editing and timely publication. Volume 4 appeared in 1991, Volume 12 in 2002. This series and the Presidential series are still in progress. The colonial, confederation, and retirement years, as well as diaries and journals, have been published. It is possible that Philander Chase will be the last editor of The Papers of George Washington, seeing to successful completion a monumental undertaking that lie joined as an assistant editor more than twenty years ago. The period from April 1776 to December 1777 included the most active and dramatic movements of Washington’s army during the eight years and nine months of war, except the capture of the British force at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781. The next volumes of the Revolutionary War series will cover the winter encampment at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, the more systematic training of American soldiers, the somewhat anticlimactic close of the high-level recriminations long known as the Conway cabal, and the battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, in June 1778, as the British army withdrew from Philadelphia to New York City. Notwithstanding these much-discussed episodes-which, in December 1777, still lay in the future-George Washington and the soldiers under his immediate command were finished with large-scale fighting by the end of the period covered in Volume 12. Contemporaries and historians have censured some of the military decisions of both Washington and the British commander, Sir William Howe, in the campaigns of 1776 and 1777. Washington’s ill-advised and poorly executed attempts to hold Long Island and Manhattan ended in his retreat southward across New Jersey. Yet Howe never seemed to wish to take the fullest advantage of the Americans’ weaknesses and mistakes. Washington’s most important success in combat-the documents are in Volumes 7 and 8-was the surprise attack at Trenton on December 25-26, 1776, and the ensuing resurgence of the American effort in New Jersey. The Continental Army’s biggest victory in 1777 belonged not to Washington but to Major General Horatio Gates, whose forces near Saratoga, New York, surrounded and captured the invading army under Major General John Burgoyne. Meanwhile, Washington twice lost battles in Pennsylvania, and the American capital, Philadelphia, fell to the British. Sir William Howe went into winter quarters and asked the ministry in London to relieve him of command.
All the while, George Washington worried about keeping his army intact, recruiting a new force in 1777 to replace short-term soldiers, and acquiring food and supplies for his men-approximately 11,000 of them at the start of autumn operations. Washington’s immersion in concerns of combat, politics, and logistics affects the character of these volumes. Letters to Washington substantially outnumber letters from him, and many of the latter survive in the handwriting of his young aides. Of course, he did not confide his thoughts to his subordinates or to members of Congress after the retreat across the Delaware River, when he told his kinsman Lund Washington that if recruiting failed early in 1777, “1 think the game will be pretty well up” (Vol. 7, p. 291).
The Continental Army in all its detachments never numbered more than about 35,000 men, and Washington never commanded in person more than about one-third that number. Washington often told anyone who would heed him-and many who would not-that he wanted an army that “moves like Clock-work” because, without his men’s assiduous exertions, “it is no better than an ungovernable Machine, that serves only to perplex and distract those who attempt to conduct it” (Vol. 6, p. 360; emphasis in original). He was frequently perplexed and distracted during the months covered by these volumes. But he contributed to his army’s defeats by dispersing his forces, by succumbing to flank attacks, and by trying to defend indefensible positions. His complicated, synchronized, nighttime advance on the British from differ- ent directions ended in an American rout at the battle of Germantown. Notwithstanding such missteps of Washington and his men, amply dramatized in these volumes, the Continental Army and its commander persisted. The victory at Saratoga and perseverance despite reverses helped to convince the government of France to make its aid overt and to recognize and ally itself with the United States. Ultimately, then, the story that emerges from the documents in these volumes is one not only of maneuvers and engagements but also of sustaining cohesion and effort amid defeats.
The editors have adhered to their long-standing policy of restraint in annotation. There is no excursus such as Julian P. Boyd’s thirty-four-page essay on Benedict Arnold’s brief stay at Westover plantation in Volume 5 of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton, 1952). Nevertheless, battles are complicated in their communications as well as in their events, and the docurnents that came to Washington provide no context or explanation for their contents. Consequently, we find for the battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, an “Editorial Note” that is substantially longer than the eight short letters it ably explains (Vol. 11 pp. 187-201) Many footnotes contain extensive quotations from contemporary texts bearing upon the main document. By Volume 12, it takes 712 pages of text and notes-to cover two months in 1777, despite the omission of “routine” documents that are available in a CD-ROM edition of the papers (Vol. 12, p. 713).
One of the rare generals who could give up his rank and go home without hesitation or regret, Washington often thought about his estate at Mount Vernon when he wished to give his mind a rest. He envisioned changes and improvements to be executed by his and his wife’s slaves and other workers, a diversion he kept up even when Lund Washington’s report on crops was bad, as it was at the end of 1777. As the American cause seemed to be collapsing in December 1776, Washington worried about having his papers evacuated from Mount Vernon to the Shenandoah Valley. Late in life he contemplated building a separate structure at Mount Vernon “for the security of my Papers of a public nature” (Retirement series, Vol. 1, p. 142). Concerned about his own record and reputation, he also understood that his papers were an integral part of the history of his nation. Anyone concerned with that history owes a debt of gratitude to the editors of The Papers of George Washington.
Louisiana State University
Royster, Charles. Review of The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series, Volumes 4-12 in The Journal of Southern History, volume 69, number 1 (February 2003), 146-48.