by Lela Trainer, Student Research Assistant
September 9, 2022
April 1776 marked almost a year since Gen. George Washington took command of the Continental army, a critical time for the relatively untested general. Bookended by GW’s successful capture of Boston and the news of the arrival of British troops in New York, the documents in the fourth volume of the Revolutionary War Series cover topics ranging from outbreaks of smallpox among Continental soldiers to assassination attempts on influential members of the army. Perhaps most importantly, it details GW’s struggles as a man and a leader to guide his troops fairly and firmly to victory in the hard-fought battle for independence.
Known as the “birthplace of the American Revolution,” Boston was the site of several major events prior to the war, most famously the Boston Massacre (March 1770) and the Boston Tea Party (December 1773). Because of its status as the center of Massachusetts trade and commerce, regaining control of Boston was one of GW’s top priorities. By March of 1776, the British had occupied the city for eight long years, and although the army under GW restricted enemy troop movements, British ships in Boston Harbor threatened the American war effort.
On 4 March, Maj. Gen. John Thomas, following GW’s orders, led forces to fortify the area overlooking Boston Harbor known as Dorchester Heights. Simultaneously, American cannon fire on the opposite side of town raised such a ruckus that the British paid no attention to the new fortification efforts. Upon discovering the degree to which they had been outmaneuvered, Gen. William Howe evacuated the nearly 11,000 British troops and accompanying Loyalists. Their departure from Boston marked a bloodless end to the British occupation and a resounding victory for GW and his army.
The events documented in this volume begin with GW receiving congratulatory letters in the days following this important achievement. His Virginia neighbor and friend George Mason wrote on 2 April to inform him that “we have just received the welcome News of your having . . . dislodged the ministerial Troops, and taken Possession of the Town of Boston.” Congratulations came from soldiers as well as political leaders. Writing from Williamsburg, Va., on 5 April, Maj. Gen. Charles Lee offered his most sincere congratulations “on the great and glorious event—your possession of Boston.” He went on to remark that the capture “will be a most bright page in the annals of America.” The victory testified to GW’s leadership skills and elevated his stature among contemporaries.
Driving the British from Boston was overshadowed by perhaps the greatest threat the Continental army ever faced: smallpox. The highly contagious disease preyed on soldiers in the close conditions of army camps. The contagion tended to inflict the British less because of its prevalence in Great Britain and previous exposure of British soldiers to the unseen foe. GW himself had contracted the disease at 19 on a trip to Barbados, but he knew very well that most of his men lacked his immunity. For occupied Boston, only men who already had smallpox were allowed into town for fear of starting an epidemic. GW now faced a difficult choice: whether he should inoculate his army against the disease. While effective over the long term, inoculations rendered soldiers unable to fight during their recovery and could trigger an outbreak if inoculated soldiers transmitted the disease before they were fully recovered from the milder illness caused by their treatment. GW released his decision in the general orders for 20 May: “No Person whatever, belonging to the Army, is to be inoculated for the Small-Pox.” Fearing a British attack during the disability of Continental soldiers, GW decided the risk of smallpox was lesser than the risk of a battlefield defeat.
Throughout the war, GW relied heavily on military subordinates, civilian leaders, and others in influential positions. The letters and orders in this volume suggest that GW viewed these men as friends and peers whose insight he valued deeply. One such contemporary with whom he exchanged frequent correspondence was Maj. Gen. Philip Schuyler, a well-respected military figure who fought in the French and Indian War and held political power in New York. Though his health ultimately prevented the fulfillment of his mission, it was Schuyler who GW trusted to plan the invasion of Quebec, and it was through Schuyler that the commander-in-chief received dire reports and troubling intelligence. In a show of trust and friendship between the two men, Schuyler wrote GW on 21 May to convey reports that enemies “intended to assassinate me and my Family & destroy my Buildings.” Schuyler was, in many ways, GW’s principal source for military and political advice at this stage of the war.
A lack of discipline among the Continental troops continued to bother GW. The Continental army was made up almost entirely of men who had never seen combat or served in the field for a sustained period. They were unused to the discipline upon which GW insisted. Camp conditions were often unhealthy, with soldiers caring little for sanitary practices. Frequent supply shortages sparked widespread discontent among the men, some of whom threatened to mutiny. This response from his men disheartened GW, who noted in the general orders for 27 April that “the riotous Behaviour of some Soldiers of the Continental Army . . . has filled the General with much regret, and concern.” Improper behavior was not limited to the camps. The general orders for 25 April acknowledged complaints “of Injuries done to the Farmers in their Crops and Fields by the Soldiers passing over,” which prompted GW to direct commanding officers to take care to prevent such destructive practices on the part of their men.
Because of its status as a major port city, both armies saw New York City as a military target. To further defensive preparations, GW visited Philadelphia in late May and early June to consult with Congress. Besides arrangements around New York City, talks considered Canadian operations. GW disliked being away from his gathering army, and he wrote Maj. Gen. Israel Putnam on 28 May to inform him by an express if reliable intelligence “of the Enemy’s being on the Coast or approaching New York” had come to his attention. As things developed, GW returned on 6 June to New York. On the next day, he wrote John Hancock, president of Congress, that he had “found all in a state of peace & quiet.” That situation would change soon.
During these months, GW earned respect and accepted accolades from all quarters. In a letter of 2 April, Hancock, informed GW about “a Golden Medal” that Congress had ordered to be struck for presentation to him. Hancock noted that the soldiers greatly appreciated that GW took no “Compensation for serving them, except the Pleasure of promoting their Happiness.” Hancock described GW’s willingness to serve his people as “a peculiar Greatness of Mind” and noted that the principles that led GW to accept command of the Continental army were “disinterested and patriotic,” leading his soldiers to “bestow upon [GW] the largest Share of their Affections and Esteem.”
Though GW was under an enormous amount of pressure in his professional life, his beloved Mount Vernon and wife Martha were always on his mind. GW wrote his brother John Augustine on 29 April to inform him that “Mrs Washington talks of taking the Small Pox [inoculation],” but admitted that he “doubt[ed] her resolution.” He need not have doubted; Martha was indeed resolved to receive the inoculation. In a letter dated 31 May–4 June, GW again wrote John Augustine to deliver the update that “Mrs Washington is now under Innoculation in this City,” and reported that she reacted favorably. Throughout the war, GW always had a thought to spare for his wife, who accompanied him to many encampments. She provided a friendly ear and unwavering support. Family meant a great deal to GW, and he wrote his relatives with surprising frequency given his many responsibilities.
The documents in this volume make it clear that GW sought nothing more than the freedom of his country from what he perceived as British tyranny, and that he cared deeply for the men who served under him as soldiers. When he wrote his brother on 29 April, GW confessed that “I am constantly engaged from the time I rise out of my Bed till I go into it again.” Warm emotions roiled beneath GW’s usually cold exterior. Those emotions fueled his humanity, which made him appealing to so many, then and now.