Volume 19: Jan. – Apr. 1779


This volume begins on 15 Jan. 1779, when GW was in Philadelphia consulting with members of a congressional committee of conference on a range of military concerns. The day-to-day specifics of these conversations are largely unknown because no notes or minutes apparently were kept. A good sense of some of the subjects discussed, however, can be gotten from the three letters and the set of remarks that GW sent to the committee between 20 Jan. and 2 February. These documents highlighted the need to improve compensation and benefits for officers in order to pump up their deflating morale and keep them in the army. The goal that GW aimed at was “to make the Officers take pleasure in their situation.” Short of that goal, he warned: “If they are only made to endure it, the Army will be an insipid spiritless Mass, incapable of acting with Vigor and ready to tumble to peices at any reverse of Fortune.” Additionally, GW called upon Congress to provide proper support for the rank and file, especially in regard to clothing, and he advocated for a more streamlined and efficient administrative structure, particularly in the artillery corps and supply departments.

GW left Philadelphia on 2 Feb. and resumed direct command of the Continental army’s winter encampment at Middlebrook, N.J., four days later. His selection of this location and the distribution of his forces showed a well developed strategic and logistical capacity. The Watchung Mountains jutting up sharply from the coastal plain provided a natural defensive position (which GW already had used to good effect in forestalling a British advance across New Jersey in June 1777). The Raritan River and its tributaries supplied water for the men, who found plenty of space in bordering fields to build huts, and sufficient timber on the slopes for fuel and construction purposes. A farming region from which provisions could be drawn extended west beyond the mountains on a plateau. Good roads connected Middlebrook to the Continental outposts in Elizabeth and other northeastern New Jersey settlements where detachments closely watched the British forces stationed on Staten Island. Other roads led north to Morristown, and traffic flowed between the equipment magazines at that place and the repair facilities established at the artillery park near Pluckemin, a few miles northwest of the main camps. Included in this volume is a contemporary view of the artillery park, something rarely found for any Revolutionary War site, as well as a modern map of the entire Middlebrook encampment drawn from documentary evidence, period maps, archaeological findings, and topographical data.

From the rather cramped first-floor office in his quarters at the Wallace House, GW oversaw what can fairly be described as a voluminous correspondence during the remaining weeks of winter and the first weeks of spring. A significant number of these letters concerned the always problematic issue of rank, which required GW to display delicate political sensibilities in mediating between his subordinate officers and state officials, who controlled appointments below the rank of general. GW’s standard tactic was to refer disputes about the merits of individual claims to boards of general officers and then pass judgment on their conclusions. In this way, he kept above the ceaseless clamor and freed up time and energy for tasks that could not be delegated. There also was abundant correspondence related to recruitment. While eager to secure new enlistments, GW constantly admonished recruiting officers “to prevent any impositions on the public by suffering new Bounties to be paid to any who are already engaged for the War.” He also forbade the recruitment of British deserters and any man who was likely to be lukewarm in his commitment to army service. To improve the training and management of the army, GW extended himself to facilitate the completion of Major General Steuben’s Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States. Final drafts were reviewed and revised during the army’s encampment at Middlebrook, and Congress ordered the publication of this military instruction manual on 29 March.

Managing prisoners taxed GW almost as much as the challenges of how to reorganize and energize the Continental army. British efforts to supply the Convention Army—soldiers who had fallen into American hands at Saratoga and recently had been relocated to Charlottesville, Va.—provoked fears in GW that the operation might be used to gain intelligence about the lower Chesapeake Bay. To block any such designs, he allowed the British supply vessels to proceed only as far as Hampton Roads, Va., where their cargoes would be turned over to Governor Patrick Henry for delivery. GW, of course, continued to use every available opportunity to interrogate prisoners and parolees, both American and British, for intelligence about the enemy. At the same time, GW sympathized with the plights of the many prisoners who appealed to him for assistance either directly or through relatives. However, the unwillingness of the British to recognize the United States as a legitimate power and apply the accepted rules of warfare to the exchange of prisoners greatly circumscribed GW’s ability to secure the release of any individual prisoner.

Discovering British intentions had been an obsession for GW since the first day of the war. During the period of this volume, he eagerly awaited and read regular reports from Samuel Culper, the pseudonym used by Abraham Woodhull, who spied on British officers and camps in and near New York City. Intelligence arrived more frequently in letters from Brig. Gen. William Maxwell, who commanded at Elizabeth, New Jersey. Shortcomings in American intelligence and security arrangements were exposed when a British night attack in late February against Elizabeth from Staten Island came close to surprising the Continental detachment in that town and capturing New Jersey governor William Livingston at his home nearby. GW’s intelligence network was more successful in alerting him to British plans for a raid on the Connecticut coast from eastern Long Island. Maj. Gen. Israel Putnam and other officers in that state were preparing for an anticipated enemy landing at New London when inclement March weather persuaded British general Henry Clinton to cancel the operation.

Besides remaining vigilant to meet and deflect British raids, GW devoted a great deal of thought during the period of this volume to the strategic dimensions of the war. He pondered reports of British troop transfers to the southern states and the Caribbean and undoubtedly received news of their initial military victories in Georgia and South Carolina with apprehension. GW’s letter of 15 March to Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, who then commanded the southern department, demonstrated his understanding of the need to delegate authority in such situations: “I am so utter a stranger to the Country in which you are, that I cannot pretend to offer my opinion upon the measures that ought or ought not to be pursued. Of this however I am confident, that your Abilities and activity will accomplish whatever can be done.”

While GW could do little about matters in the South, the same was not true about unsettled conditions along the Pennsylvania-New York frontier. Agreeing with Congress that settlers in that region must be protected against raids by Indians of the Six Nations and their Loyalist allies, GW began planning a punitive expedition by inquiring far and wide for information about that rugged and largely unknown expanse of mountainous terrain. Sifting through long letters from both officers and civilians who had direct or indirect knowledge and could speak about the geography of the area, GW sought to determine the most favorable routes for moving large troop columns and their supplies and to identify places where the attackers might be delayed or ambushed. To organize the mass of raw data, GW compiled in his own handwriting a table with answers to more than a dozen questions and appended pertinent extracts from other sources, which ranged from the observations of a prisoner who recently had traversed the region to the recollections of an old trader who had not been in the area since the 1750s.

Quite properly, GW maintained a skeptical attitude throughout the planning process, but an absence of precise and certain information did not translate into a lack of boldness. GW initially envisioned a three-pronged convergence on the Six Nation villages strung along the Chemung River Valley in New York. The main Continental force would march north from the Delaware River, cross the Susquehanna River at or near Wyoming, Pa., and then strike into the heart of the border region. Supporting columns would advance from the west and the north, the former from Fort Pitt and the latter from the vicinity of Albany. Because of the distance and unreliable routes involved, GW eventually reduced the role of the Fort Pitt column to a feint and focused his efforts on assembling the troops and supplies for the central force. For command of this important expedition, GW preferred Maj. Gen. John Sullivan, but he offered the assignment first to the more senior Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates as military protocol required. When Gates declined for health reasons, as GW anticipated he would, the command immediately devolved on Sullivan.

Although prospects for a telling stroke against Indians and Loyalists along the northern frontier, as well as hopes for improved relations with French allies, may have buoyed GW’s spirits, financial and political realities checked any flights of optimism. “Nothing I am convinced but the depreciation of our currency,” GW wrote to his Massachusetts friend James Warren on the last day of March, “aided by stock jobbing & party dissentions–has fed the hopes of the enemy & kept the Arms of Briton in America untill now.” His indignation rising, GW asked: “Is the consideration of a little dirty pelf, to individuals, to be placed in competition with the essential rights & liberties of the present generation, & of millions yet unborn? shall a few designing men for their own aggrandizement, and to gratify their own avarice, overset the goodly fabric we have been rearing at the expence of so much time, blood, & treasure?” For himself, GW answered, “Forbid it heaven!” Whether enough of his fellow citizens would answer with similar resolve and display the requisite virtue to secure American independence remained an open question.

In a military and political environment where masculinity was so dominant, the muted but persistent presence of women should not be overlooked. Among the residents at the Wallace House was Mary Wallace, wife of owner John Wallace, and more remarkably, her pious and mentally vigorous 98-year-old mother, Mary Maddox. No correspondence connected to these women has been identified, but it is fascinating to speculate on how GW and Martha Washington interacted with these female occupants of the headquarters as they went about their days and nights in the modest spaces of the dwelling. Feminine voices are heard clearly in letters to GW from Maria Farmer, who sought a pass to visit behind British lines, and Marianne Camasse Deux-Ponts, who recommended a French officer for continued service in the Continental army. An entertainment at the artillery park on 18 Feb. to mark the first anniversary of the alliance between France and the United States brought together officers, their wives, and local citizens, including nearly a hundred women, to dine and dance. Less elaborate social gatherings that involved men and women apparently occurred at dinners with some frequency. Rather poignantly, a woman, or women, evidently motivated Major General Putnam to request leave from GW in late January so he could “lay an Anchor to windward for a Wife.” Widowed for the second time in October 1777, Putnam received GW’s reluctant consent for leave but failed in his quest, for he never married again.

Jacket Essay

Volume 19 of the Revolutionary War Series documents Washington’s activities during the winter and early spring of 1779, when the bulk of his army was encamped at Middlebrook, New Jersey, strategically situated where the Watchung Mountains rise from the coastal plain in the middle of the state. Washington took advantage of the relative quiet of this period to consult with a congressional committee of conference in Philadelphia. He returned to Middlebrook in early February and devoted himself yet again to reorganizing and reinvigorating the Continental Army. Recruitment problems, disputes among officers over rank, and compensation woes had grown old, but Washington corresponded at length with state officials and Congress in order to keep an effective fighting force in the field.

Winter camp also allowed Washington to consider future military operations. Emphasis fell on planning a punitive expedition against Indians of the Six Nations and Loyalists whose raids had terrorized settlers along the Pennsylvania-New York frontier. Washington’s most immediate challenge was simply understanding the geography of this largely unknown region, and he sought information from anybody who had direct experience with the terrain and the Indian inhabitants, a group that included army officers, prisoners, land surveyors, interpreters, traders, and missionaries. Washington carefully sifted through these reports, observations, and opinions. To aid analysis, he consolidated the most pertinent materials, in his own handwriting, into a comparative table, and appended significant related items. His final plan called for the main force to cross the Susquehanna River at or near Wyoming, Pennsylvania, and strike into the heart of the border region while a supporting column advanced from near Albany, New York. After Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates declined Washington’s offer to command this expedition, citing health reasons, it was accepted by Maj. Gen. John Sullivan, who left his post at Providence, Rhode Island, to begin preparations at Middlebrook.

In a late-February reply to Mount Vernon manager Lund Washington’s question about selling slaves, the general expressed his confidence in the eventual success of the American struggle for independence as well as his personal resolve, saying, “if we should ultimately prove unsuccessful (of which I am under no apprehension unless it falls on us as a punishment for our want of public, & indeed private virtue) it would be a matter of very little consequence to me, whether my property is in Negroes, or loan office Certificates, as I shall neither ask for, nor expect any favor from his most gracious Majesty, nor any person acting under his authority.” By every measure, Washington remained indispensable to the Revolutionary cause.

Philander D. Chase and William M. Ferraro, eds., The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series volume 19, 15 January – 7 April 1779. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2009.

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