Volume 18: Nov. 1778 – Jan. 1779


The autumn and winter of 1778-79 was a transitional period in the American Revolution. The failure of a Franco-American attack on British-occupied Newport, R.I., in August 1778 had effectively ended the year’s military campaign, and had exposed troubling signs of jealousy and suspicion in the alliance. GW and others nevertheless remained hopeful that French intervention would bear fruit, either by forcing the British to evacuate New York City or by creating an opportunity for the conquest of Canada.

This volume covers the period from 1 Nov. 1778 through 14 Jan. 1779. In early November, GW attentively followed reports of British fleet and troop movements that pointed to an impending evacuation of New York City. Not until the middle of the month did it become apparent that the British commander, Gen. Henry Clinton, had no intention of abandoning the city. Instead, he had dispatched amphibious expeditions to St. Lucia in the West Indies; Pensacola, Fla.; and Savannah, Georgia. The Savannah expedition, which resulted in the capture of that city on 29 Dec., marked the beginning of a British campaign to conquer the southern states, which would last until the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781.

As his hopes for an early entry into New York City faded, GW turned his attention to a plan hatched by Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates and some members of Congress for the conquest of Canada. After gathering information from military officers, commissaries, and frontiersmen, GW concluded that the proposed invasion, which Major General Lafayette had been designated to command, was doomed to failure. On 11 Nov., GW wrote a lengthy letter to Congress detailing his objections, most of which had to do with the difficulties of supplying an army and marching it over hundreds of miles of wilderness to assault well-defended enemy positions. Three days later, however, GW wrote a private letter to President of Congress Henry Laurens explaining an additional, and to his mind more critical, objection: the opportunity that the conquest of Canada by a Franco-American army would create for France to rebuild the North American empire it had lost after the French and Indian War. All nations were motivated by self-interest, GW warned; the French could not be expected to forgo an opportunity to dominate the continent and “give law to these States.” GW’s objections did not immediately put an end to the invasion plans, which would not be abandoned definitively until 1779.

GW’s other concerns included the movement of over 4,000 British and German prisoners captured at the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777, from Boston to new barracks in Charlottesville, Virginia. This lengthy and complicated movement, which began on 9 Nov. 1778 and ended on 19 Jan. 1779, raised problems of supply, escape, and possible interception, but it was concluded successfully. Even more complicated was the army’s dispersal from its camp at Fredericksburg, N.Y., to winter cantonments elsewhere in New York and in New Jersey. As a possible indication of the confusion surrounding this movement, which began in late November and concluded in mid-December, at least forty-eight letters written to and from GW from 20 Nov. to 16 Dec. apparently were lost from GW’s headquarters and have never been found—a much higher proportion of missing letters than for any other period in the Revolutionary War.

Among the more intriguing distractions in an otherwise tedious daily round of military administration was the development of an increasingly sophisticated espionage system in British-occupied New York City. Working closely with Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge and a ring of spies using the alias “Samuel Culper,” GW experimented with new methods of detecting enemy military plans and activities, and of corresponding with his agents. Especially interesting was a new recipe for invisible ink that John Jay and his brother Sir James Jay introduced to GW on 19 November. Impressed by this recipe, which was so secret that its elements remain unknown to this day, GW would use it in covert correspondence for the remainder of the war.

“Giving up all Idea, this fourth Winter—of seeing my home and Friends” (to John Augustine Washington, 26 Nov.), GW spent the period from 22 Dec. 1778 to 3 Feb. 1779 in Philadelphia, conferring with Congress on the state of the army and discussing plans for the 1779 campaign. Although the Continental army had been much improved by reforms introduced at GW’s instigation the year before, and although it marched and fought better under new methods of drill taught by Major General Steuben, there remained much room for improvement. Most alarming was the army’s atrocious supply system, which would collapse again the following winter at Morristown, N.J., despite the efforts of GW and Quartermaster General Nathanael Greene to fix it. Martha’s presence in Philadelphia helped to ameliorate GW’s heavy burden of administrative and political duties; but Lafayette’s departure for France on 11 Jan. 1779 deprived him of a trusted friend and military advisor at a time when the war was taking on an entirely new character as the focus of military campaigning shifted decisively to the south.

Jacket Essay

Volume 18 of the Revolutionary War Series covers the period 1 November 1778 through 14 January 1779. It begins with George Washington at Fredericksburg, New York, watching New York City for signs that the British are about to evacuate North America. The British had very different intentions, however, dispatching the first of several amphibious expeditions to invade and conquer the Deep South. Congress, meanwhile, mulled plans for the formation of a Franco-American army and the invasion of Canada. Washington worked hard to quash these plans, which he considered both impractical and dangerous. On 11 November, he wrote a long letter to Congress laying out the military reasons why the invasion could never succeed. Three days later, he wrote another, private letter to the President of Congress, warning that a French army in Canada might attempt to reestablish France’s North American empire, transforming allies into oppressors. While Congress reconsidered and ultimately scrapped its plans, Washington oversaw the transfer of the captive Convention Army from Boston to Charlottesville, Virginia; planned for the dispersal of his own army to winter cantonments across New Jersey; and rode to Philadelphia in late December to open crucial discussions with Congress about the reorganization of the Continental Army and American strategy for the 1779 campaign.

Edward G. Lengel, ed., The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series volume 18, 1 November 1778 – 14 January 1779. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2008.

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