“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.
In June 1780, General George Washington told a lie. In fact, he planned a major deception. But as it was intended to deceive the British high command during the Revolutionary War, most Americans would likely forgive him. Washington, with the aid of Major General Lafayette, wanted the British to believe that the French army under the command of Lieutenant General Rochambeau was soon expected to arrive in North America to help the Americans liberate Canada from the British yoke.