George Washington’s War Diary

TOPICS: Documentary Editing, Featured Document(s), George Washington, Revolutionary War, Washington or Custis Family

by Benjamin Huggins, Associate Editor
June 23, 2016

Washington's first entry. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Washington’s first entry. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. Click on image to enlarge.

In my most recent blog post, I mentioned that General Washington kept two diaries during the Revolutionary War: his weather diary (which he maintained from January to June 1780) and his journal kept from May to early November 1781. In this post, I want to discuss the latter diary.

Written entirely in Washington’s own hand, the journal shows almost no corrections, suggesting that Washington may have copied the entries into the diary after writing a draft. The journal consists of two volumes: the first covering May to August 14, 1781, and the second spanning from August 14 to November 5, 1781 (the entry for August 14 is split between the two volumes). Washington opened his war diary with a statement of regret:

I begin, at this Epoch, a concise Journal of Military transactions &ca. I lament not having attempted it from the commencement of the War, in aid of my memory and wish the multiplicity of matter which continually surround me and the embarrassed State of our affairs which is momently calling the attention to perplexities of one kind or another, may not defeat altogether or so interrupt my present intention, & plan, as to render it of little avail.

Historians (and editors of his papers) also lament that Washington did not keep a diary during the whole of the war. The journal provides insights that editors cannot find in his other papers, which makes the journal extremely valuable for editing documents during this period. Two examples demonstrate this value.

On June 5, South Carolina Governor John Rutledge visited headquarters to confer with the commander in chief. Only one letter in Washington’s papers written at the time gives a hint that Governor Rutledge visited Washington, and in that letter to Joseph Jones of June 7, Washington gives no details of the meeting—for that, we must rely on his diary entry for June 5:

Governor Rutlidge of South Carolina came to Head Qrs. with representations of the situation of Southern affairs, & to sollicit aids. I communicated the plan of Campaign to him & candidly exposed the true State of our Circumstances which convinced him—or seemed to do so—that no relief cd. be given from this army till we had acquired a Naval Superiority and cd. transport Troops by Water.

On August 14, Washington recorded one of the most momentous decisions he ever made. Only in his diary did he commit the reasons for this far-reaching resolution:

Matters having now come to a crisis and a decisive plan to be determined on—I was obliged, from the Shortness of Count de Grasses premised stay on this Coast—the apparent disinclination in their Naval Officers to force the harbour of New York and the feeble compliance of the States to my requisitions for Men, hitherto, & little prospect of greater exertion in future, to give up all idea of attacking New York; & instead thereof to remove the French Troops & a detachment from the American Army to the Head of Elk to be transported to Virginia for the purpose of cooperating with the force from the West Indies against the [British] Troops in that State.

Washington's signature on the first page of his war journal. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Washington’s signature on the first page of his war journal. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

This was Washington’s decision that began the campaign that culminated in the Battle of Yorktown in October.

The diary ends abruptly in the midst of the entry for November 5, in which Washington was noting the plans to send two brigades of his army to operate with Major General Nathanael Greene’s army in South Carolina and Georgia. In a twist where a letter must help explain the journal, Washington’s letter of November 6 to his aide-de-camp Jonathan Trumbull Jr., explains the reason for the sudden ending. Sadly, Washington’s stepson John Parke Custis had become gravely ill during his stint as a volunteer aide with Washington at Yorktown. The general had rushed to his bedside at the estate of the Bassets at Eltham:

I came here in time to see Mr. Custis breathe his last. About Eight o’clock yesterday Evening he expired. The deep and solemn distress of the Mother, and affliction of the Wife of this amiable young Man, requires every comfort in my power to afford them; the last rights of the deceased I must also see performed; these will take me three or four days; when I shall proceed with Mrs. Washington and Mrs. Custis to Mount Vernon.

Unfortunately (especially for the editors of his papers), Washington never re-started his journal. (How nice it would be to have a journal to give us Washington’s reaction to the famous Newburgh conspiracy of 1783). Washington’s war journal can be viewed here. A fully annotated version of the diary, taken from volume three of the Diaries of George Washington, can also be found at that link.

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