Volume 25: March – May 1780

Jacket Essay

Bad weather plagued Gen. George Washington’s army during its winter encampment near Morristown, N.J., far into the spring.  Finances caused further woes for Washington.  Commissaries lacked both cash and credit to obtain provisions, and food shortages meant restless troops.  Only vigorous exertions by largely anonymous supply officers kept Washington’s army intact.  Recognizing these grave financial needs, Congress passed reform legislation in March, but any benefit from the new system lay in the future.

Washington tried to be optimistic as he tackled present challenges.  Numerous officer resignations worried Washington, who felt the loss of such experienced men undercut the army’s effectiveness.  Sensitive about morale, he pursued negotiations for a general prisoner exchange.  Talks broke down quickly, however, because British negotiators acted only on local military authority rather than on the authority of the king. To Washington, that approach failed to recognize the legitimacy of the United States as a nation.

Armed conflict as well as administrative perplexities occupied Washington’s thoughts.  At no point could he escape the reality that soldiers fought, soldiers died, and survivors—both comrades and loved ones—grieved.  Raids into the patrol areas generally east of Morristown caused significant casualties on 22 March and 16 April.  A larger confrontation unfolded around Charleston, S.C., where a British expedition from New York City encircled the city and its defenders under Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln.  Washington sent additional reinforcements and encouraged the beleaguered Lincoln, but Charleston’s surrender on 12 May eventually came as no surprise.

Washington hoped for better things from a congressional “Committee at Headquarters,” appointed to deal directly with the principal army officers to solve vexing supply questions.  Such an approach promised some good after previous verbal sniping.  Additionally, Major General Lafayette returned to the United States from France to announce the coming of a French expeditionary army.  The king wanted this force to serve under Washington.  The possibilities for this allied command undoubtedly excited Washington, who only recently had extended himself to pay proper respect to French minister La Luzerne during that official’s visit to Morristown.

Army responsibilities left Washington little opportunity to address his personal business, but he doted over a carriage purchase and offered the usual futile financial advice to his stepson John Parke Custis.  Legal engagements undertaken years earlier for George William Fairfax and George Mercer provoked headaches.  Despite Washington’s conscientious efforts, these entanglements persisted until after the war.

Washington never quailed from a personal or public obligation.  Very much the realist, he knew that his army faced steep odds.  Determined to overcome all obstacles, Washington strode ahead, fully aware that he shouldered the heaviest burdens of the revolutionary cause.

The correspondence volumes of The Papers of George Washington, 1748–99, published in five series, include not only Washington’s own letters and other papers but also the letters written to him. The ten-volume Colonial Series (1748–75) focuses on Washington’s military service during the French and Indian War and on his political and business activities before the Revolution.  The massive Revolutionary War Series (1775–83) presents in documents and annotations the myriad military and political matters with which Washington dealt during the long war.  The papers for his years at Mount Vernon after leaving the army and before becoming president have been published in the six-volume Confederation Series (1784–88). The remaining years of Washington’s life are covered in the Presidential Series (1788–97), which includes the papers of his two presidential administrations, and the four-volume Retirement Series (1797–99), which includes his correspondence after his final return to Mount Vernon.

William M. Ferraro, ed., The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series volume 25, 10 March – 12 May 1780. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2017.

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