George Washington Takes Command

TOPICS: Featured Document(s), George Washington, Revolutionary War

by Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
October 21, 2016

Having looked at George Washington’s Revolutionary War diaries in my previous blog posts, I now turn to his Revolutionary War correspondence. In this and future posts, I will be offering my perspective on pivotal letters in Washington’s war career. To start, I focus on his letter to his friend Burwell Bassett, written on the eve of Washington’s departure to take command of the Continental Army. The letter, dated June 19, 1775, reads in part:

Dear Sir, I am now Imbarkd on a tempestuous Ocean from whence, perhaps, no friendly harbour is to be found. I have been called upon by the unanimous Voice of the Colonies to the Command of the Continental Army—It is an honour I by no means aspired to—It is an honour I wished to avoid, as well from an unwillingness to quit the peaceful enjoyment of my Family as from a thorough conviction of my own Incapacity & want of experience in the conduct of so momentous a concern—but the partiallity of the Congress added to some political motives, left me without a choice—May God grant therefore that my acceptance of it may be attended with some good to the common cause & without Injury (from want of knowledge) to my own reputation—I can answer but for three things, a firm belief of the justice of our Cause—close attention in the prosecution of it—and the strictest Integrety—If these cannot supply the places of Ability & Experience, the cause will suffer, & more than probable my character along with it, as reputation derives it principal support from success—but it will be remembered I hope that no desire, or insinuation of mine, placed me in this situation. I shall not be deprivd therefore of a comfort in the worst event if I retain a consciousness of having acted to the best of my judgment. … P.S. I must Intreat you & Mrs Bassett, if possible, to visit at Mt Vernon as also my Wife’s other friends—I could wish you to take her down, as I have no expectations of returning till Winter & feel great uneasiness at her lonesome Situation—I have sent my Chariot & Horses back.1

George Washington by Charles Willson Peale
George Washington by Charles Wilson Peale, 1772.

Although Washington may not, as he claimed, have aspired to the appointment of general in chief, he made it clear by his appearance and actions that he expected a military appointment in the coming war. While in Virginia between the meetings of the first and second Continental Congresses, he had accepted the command of five independent companies of gentlemen volunteers. Every day he wore his blue and buff Fairfax Independent Company uniform while attending sessions of Congress, and he served on several committees considering military matters.2

Although at first some members hesitated to appoint Washington, Congress unanimously elected him general in command of their army on June 15.3 Washington’s commission bore the same date as his letter to Bassett. Congress also provided the new general with a set of instructions in which they made clear his prime duty: “You shall take every method in your power, consistent with prudence, to destroy or make prisoners of all persons, who now are, or who hereafter shall appear in arms against the good people of the United Colonies.”4

Despite his claim that he lacked experience, Washington was one of the most qualified people, if not the most qualified person, among native-born Americans to command the army (and Congress would have elected only a native-born American to be commander in chief). In the French and Indian War during British brigadier general John Forbes’ 1758 expedition against Fort Duquesne, Washington had commanded a provincial brigade, a command higher than that of any other American-born officer. Fellow delegate John Adams recognized Washington’s “great experience and abilities in military matters.”5

As the letters he wrote in his career as general demonstrate (and as I will show in future posts), Washington never wavered in his belief in the justice of the Revolutionary cause, his close attention to the prosecution of his duties, or his strict integrity. His abilities and confidence increased as the war progressed, until in 1780, when the French army arrived at Newport, Rhode Island, he was ready and able to take command of the entire allied army. As his remark about returning to Mount Vernon by the winter shows, Washington clearly believed that the war would be of short duration. In this, he would be disappointed—it would continue for eight long years.

This letter, with full annotation, appears in volume one of the Revolutionary War Series of The Papers of George Washington. In my next blog post, I will focus on Washington’s letter to John Hancock of March 19, 1776, announcing that the British army had evacuated Boston.


1. W.W. Abbot et al., eds. The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 24 vols. to date (Charlottesville, Va., 1985-), 1:12-14.
2. For Washington wearing his uniform to Congress, see Douglas S. Freeman, George Washington, 7 vols. [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948-57], 3:426.
3. See Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, 4 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1961]), 3:322-23, and Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1904-37), 2:91.
4. Instructions from the Continental Congress, 22 June 1775, in W.W. Abbot et al., eds. The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 24 vols. to date (Charlottesville, Va., 1985-), 1:21-23.
5. John Adams to Abigail Adams, 29 May 1775, The Adams Papers Digital Edition, ed. C. James Taylor. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008–2016. [accessed 13 Oct 2016]).