Volume 26: May – July 1780

Summary of the Volume Introduction

When this volume opens, on 13 May 1780, the bulk of the Continental army was posted in its winter encampment at Jockey Hollow, N.J., and GW continued to maintain his headquarters at the nearby Ford Mansion in Morristown.

Among the most significant events in May 1780 was Major General Lafayette’s arrival at GW’s headquarters and his announcement that a French expeditionary force would be dispatched to North America—a decision for which Lafayette had lobbied while in France in 1779 and early 1780. After conferring with Lafayette, GW began preparing for the French arrival. He dispatched officers to Cape Henry, Va., and to the Rhode Island coast, the most probable landing sites for the French expeditionary force. He also took action by directing his friend and Continental army physician James Craik to establish and provision a hospital in Providence to receive those French troops who became ill during the voyage. By June, GW believed the appearance of the French force was imminent, and his correspondence conveyed an urgency to have all preparations completed. However, the squadron carrying the expeditionary corps did not enter Newport Harbor until 11 July.

To be ready for joint operations with the French, GW wanted the states to reinforce the army with both Continental troops and militia. He urged the Committee at Headquarters to call on the states to complete their Continental regiments by draft to their authorized strength of 504 rank and file, which would produce a Continental force of 20,000 troops. On 2 June, GW called on the states for a large reinforcement of militia regiments to supplement the troops already being sent to their Continental regiments.

Another key theme in Revolutionary War volume 26 includes the surrender of American forces at Charleston, S.C, on 12 May 1780. Apprehension, hope, and uncertainty over the fate of the American garrison at Charleston marked his correspondence throughout May. The complete investiture of Charleston by the British in late April and the unrelenting bombardment of the city prompted its capitulation on 12 May.

Slow mail and other issues caused delays in the receipt of firsthand accounts of the surrender, and GW had to rely heavily on often erroneous intelligence reports for information on Charleston’s fate. For instance, one account that pronounced the Continentals “all well” on 1 May made GW somewhat hopeful. Jabez Bowen, deputy governor of Rhode Island, erroneously reported on 17 May that the Continentals still controlled Charleston. These are but a few of the inaccurate reports with which GW had to contend.

GW first suspected the fall of Charleston from a copy of an extraordinary issue of James Rivington’s Royal Gazette (New York), dated 29 May, that announced the surrender. GW informed Col. Elias Dayton on 31 May that it contained “too many marks of authenticity.” By 11 June GW had little doubt about the surrender, and official dispatches of the capitulation finally reached Philadelphia on 14 June.

In addition to making preparations for the arrival of the French expeditionary force and to concerns over the southern theater, GW also struggled to keep the army fed during the period of the volume. Provision shortages that had plagued the army in the winter and early spring continued into May. Transportation issues also contributed to the scarcity of supplies, especially of meat and salt provisions. GW appealed to commissaries and other officials for relief. Provision shortages also plagued the garrison at Fort Schuyler, N.Y., and Maj. Gen. Robert Howe’s brigades stationed in the New York Highlands. GW’s appeals to officials had a positive impact. Commissary Solomon Southwick notified GW of available beef in Rhode Island and offered to ship 400 barrels. By late May, there was also a delivery of pork and cattle to camp.

Supply problems also threatened order and discipline. The scarcity of provisions, as well as pay and clothing issues, incited a mutiny in the Connecticut line on 25 May. During the mutiny, soldiers disobeyed officers, performed unauthorized military maneuvers, and paraded under arms. The revolt, though, did not spread.

The aftermath of the mutiny saw the confinement of some soldiers and a careful assessment of the incident by GW. Acknowledging that provision shortages, arrears of pay, and currency depreciation had contributed to soldiers’ grievances, GW understood that action must be taken to remedy supply shortages other complaints.

Shortly after the mutiny, GW confronted a large-scale incursion of the enemy into New Jersey. Intending to capture Morristown, with its artillery park and valuable supply depot, or bring GW’s small army to battle, the British in the nineteen days between 6 and 24 June launched two thrusts from Staten Island and Elizabethtown Point toward Springfield and Morristown. The British offensive led to two battles: Connecticut Farms on 7–8 June and Springfield on 23 June. Although GW was not immediately present for either battle, his generalship proved crucial to the favorable outcome of both. In the first, his rapid march with the main army from Morristown to Springfield, combined with tenacious defense by a Continental brigade and the Jersey militia, thwarted British plans. In the second battle, GW’s judicious selection of Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene to command the army’s rear guard resulted in effective handling of that force against the main enemy advance. GW’s careful but rapid march with the bulk of the army back toward Springfield avoided Gen. Henry Clinton’s intended surprise attack from the Hudson River. These battles, which saw large numbers of militia turn out to oppose the British and also displayed superb defensive fighting by the Continental troops, ended any further attempts by Clinton to invade New Jersey.

Finally, Intelligence-gathering was a major concern for GW in May and June 1780. His apprehension that British troops returning from Charleston might bolster enemy forces for a new offensive kept GW focused on obtaining information from New York City. The temporary withdrawal of a spy from the Culper espionage ring forced him to seek new agents and networks to supply vitally needed intelligence on British movements and intentions. Through his long-time agent John Mercereau, GW succeeded in setting up a reliable spy in New York.

The multitude of troubles GW faced in these weeks, many of which he had dealt with for much of the war, led him to pen one of his most revealing letters. On 19 May, he wrote to his relation and estate manager Lund Washington: “You ask how I am to be rewarded for all this? There is one reward that nothing can deprive me of, & that is, the consciousness of having done My duty with the strictest rectitude, and most scrupulous exactness—and the certain knowledge, that if we should—ultimately—fail in the present contest, it is not owing to the want of exertion in me, or the application of every means that Congress and the United States, or the States individually, have put into my hands.” Such determination enabled GW to persevere and eventually emerge as the victor in the war.

To learn more about the volume, read an interview with the editors or see the editors’ volume dedication.

Benjamin L. Huggins and Adrina Garbooshian-Huggins, eds., The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series volume 26, May – July 1780. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 2019.

Purchase from the University of Virginia Press.