Review of The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series, Volumes 2 – 3
The Journal of Southern History
Reviewed by Charles Royster
These two volumes, edited by Philander D. Chase and others under the general editorship of W.W. Abbot, take George Washington’s service as commander in chief of the Continental army through March 1776, when the British withdrew from Boston. Washington’s correspondence with the Continental Congress, state governors, and army officers shows him beset by many anxieties. Most important, he wondered whether he would long have an army to command. The short-term enlistments and militia service undertaken in 1775 expired at year’s end. For months one army disbanded while another was slow to assemble. All the while, the Americans were trying to besiege Boston, invade Canada, and prepare defenses for New York City. Washington was especially alarmed by his soldiers’ unmilitary demeanor and his inability to build a reliable army out of men enlisted for short terms of service. He blamed the Americans’ failure at Quebec on the use of such troops. Washington believed that success depended on Americans’ unity in resisting British force. He urged the governor of Connecticut “to seize on those Tories who have been, are, and that are known will be, active against us” (Vol. 2, p. 379); he gloated over the plight of the Loyalists in Boston when the British were leaving–“One or two have done, what a great many ought to have done long ago–committed Suicide” (Vol. 3, p. 568). Having committed his reputation to the American cause, Washington bitterly censured those who failed to exert themselves as wholeheartedly as did he.
The editorial work by Chase and his colleagues has kept pace with the growing complexity of Washington’s affairs. The approach to annotation in this series is now well established. It is especially useful in recording the disposition of matters raised in the correspondence and in referring to related documents elsewhere in the volumes. The longest notes usually consist of quotations from pertinent contemporary sources. If the editors continue in future volumes to provide no modern maps of Washington’s fields of operations, the annotation of documents describing the Continental army’s battles will present some especially intricate challenges. Even that great exponent of the fog-of-war narrative, Douglas Southall Freeman, relented on this point.
As an editorial undertaking The Papers of George Washington–now expanded to four concurrently published series–vindicates by its thoroughness and productivity the confidence that it has won from those who have supported it and used it. Twenty-five years ago a reviewer of an installment in W.S. Lewis’s long-running edition of Horace Walpole’s correspondence wrote that Lewis’s volumes had acquired an aura of inevitability. The same might be said for the achievement of the editors of The Papers of George Washington.
Louisiana State University
Royster, Charles. Review of The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series, Volumes 2-3 in The Journal of Southern History, volume 56, number 4 (November 1990), 737-38.