We are excited to announce that later this year, Revolutionary War Series, volume 26 of The Papers of George Washington will appear in print. This volume covers the period between May 13 and July 4, 1780.
Washington faced some of his thorniest fights with state leaders over the deployment of Continental troops. He summed up his problem in a letter to his friend Gouverneur Morris: “When I endeavour to draw together the Continental troops for the most essential purposes I am embarrassed with complaints of the exhausted defenceless situation of particular states and find myself obliged either to resist solicitations made in such a manner and with such a degree of emphasis as scarcely to leave me a choice, or to sacrifice the most obvious principles of military propriety and risk the general safety.”
“You will, upon the whole, find many advantages by cultivating a good understanding with the Civil Authority.” On Feb. 3, 1780, Gen. George Washington sent this advice to Col. Stephen Moylan, commander of a Continental dragoon regiment, after issues had arisen with the Connecticut state government regarding the winter encampments of the cavalry in that state. Two weeks later, as the disputes between Moylan and Gov. Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., continued, Washington told the colonel, “It is always my wish to accommodate, where no great injury can result to the service.” These two statements crystallize Washington’s philosophy in dealing with the governors.
Washington announced to Congress his victory over three Hessian regiments posted at Trenton, N.J., on the morning of Dec. 26, 1776. For most of the previous two months the general and his army had gone from defeat to defeat, with the worst of these being the fall of Fort Washington. Now, in one swift blow, Washington had restored his faltering reputation and lifted the army’s morale.
“This is a most unfortunate affair and has given me great Mortification as we have lost not only two thousand Men that were there, but a good deal of Artillery, & some of the best Arms we had.” So wrote General George Washington to his brother John Augustine Washington in November 1776 about the loss of Fort Washington.
With this letter of August 31, 1776, Washington reported his first defeat to Congress. Four days previously, British forces under General William Howe had defeated the advanced elements of Washington’s Continental Army deployed along the Heights of Guana on Long Island. Now, the weakness of the fortifications on Brooklyn Heights, where Washington had approximately 9,500 troops, and the fear that British warships might enter the East River and cut his communications with the city of New York had compelled him to evacuate the island.2 (Washington’s reference to his “Family” meant his military aides-de-camp and secretaries.) But the defeat was also one of Washington’s greatest moments of the war.
General Washington sent this notice to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, from his headquarters at Cambridge, Massachusetts, on March 19, 1776. The long siege of British-occupied Boston was over. The letter was one the general had long hoped to send: his first victory dispatch to Congress. He had taken command of the Patriot army surrounding Boston in early July 1775, and he had dedicated all his effort since to achieving the result he reported to Hancock on March 19.
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.
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.
In the years before he became commander in chief of the Continental Army in the Revolution, Washington kept diaries of, in his words, “Where & how my time is Spent.” Many of these journals have survived, and they have been printed in volumes I, II, and III of the Diaries.1 But during the war, Washington kept a diary only during two periods.