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.
The weak and inefficient government under the Articles of Confederation tested George Washington’s renowned patience and restraint. As shown in the fourth volume of this series, the still young nation experienced a trying and uncertain time. Unfavorable attitudes toward the government in April 1786 became much harsher over the progressing months. A substantial contributor to the growing public unease was the prolonged rebellion in Massachusetts from August 1786 through February 1787.
The Revolutionary War series opens with George Washington’s Address to the Continental Congress on 16 June in which he declares, “I do not think my self equal to the Command I (am) honored with.” Throughout the documents that cover the three months between 16 June and 15 Sept., the new commanding general grapples with uncertainty. He doubts his own abilities as well as the competence of the forces he now leads.
Documents in the first volume of the Colonial Series tell a coming-of-age story that showcase George Washington’s rapid transformation from 1748 to 1755. GW began his career working as a professional surveyor on the frontier, then the fringe of his society, but in less than five years became one of Virginia’s most distinguished soldiers. What started as quiet adolescence in the country with a comfortable occupation turned into the tale of a young man confronting the dangers of a military career while caught in the middle of a burgeoning conflict and political intrigues.
An unfortunate understanding persists that George Washington achieved greatness through his magnificent character despite a marginal intellect. Contemporaries, such as Timothy Pickering, spread this notion by pointing to how Washington relied on aides and secretaries to write so many of his letters, particularly during the Revolutionary War, and plenty of subsequent biographers and commentators have picked up on the idea. It is ridiculous to demean Washington for requiring assistance while acting as commanding general of the Continental army because that position often demanded multiple letters a day, with many involving complex or highly sensitive matters. Moreover, Papers of George Washington editors have discovered documentary evidence that Washington involved himself directly in the drafting of all correspondence and confirmed their final form with his signature. Further supporting this evidence are the innumerable textual notes in the Revolutionary War Series where Washington in his own handwriting modified words, phrases, or sentences in drafts prepared initially by aides or secretaries.
At the height of the Revolutionary War in 1779, a large part of Gen. George Washington’s responsibilities, which he shared with the Continental Congress, consisted in clothing and supplying the Continental army, providing transportation to move the supplies, and maintaining manpower. Without these his army could not fight, and his indefatigable effort to supply these things for his soldiers was impressive. His perseverance in this area was a key facet of his generalship. At the same time that he had to deal with these issues, however, Washington detected among his countrymen an apparent decline in patriotic zeal, which he held responsible for the lack of effort by some states in providing manpower and provisions for the army.
Very few documents survive with direct information on Mary Ball Washington. That reality has allowed latitude for analysis and conclusions. Arguably, the most important letter prompting a negative view of his mother was one George Washington wrote his friend and Virginia legislator Benjamin Harrison on March 21, 1781.
In a previous blog post, my colleague Lynn Price described the contradiction of Bushrod Washington (nephew to George Washington, and the owner of Mount Vernon in the early 19th century) owning slaves and at the same time serving as the first president of the American Colonization Society. For a man to lead a purportedly “antislavery” organization while holding people in bondage seemed, to many, hypocritical. Abolitionists in Washington’s time who pointed out this contradiction did not always do so politely.
George Washington was known to have a temper as a young man, and his ability to master that flaw promoted his rise to leadership positions. That emotion, however, likely lurked beneath his typically composed exterior. Purportedly, it exploded in the sizzling heat of the battlefield at Monmouth, N.J., on June 28, 1778, when Washington saw troops under Maj. Gen. Charles Lee withdrawing contrary to orders. An observer later recalled that Washington’s wrathful bellowing shook the leaves on the trees. Legitimate doubt surrounds that recollection, but unquestionable documentary evidence can be advanced to support Washington’s capacity for anger.
Currently, the editors at the Washington Papers are working on volume 31 of George Washington’s Revolutionary War papers, and we have started work on volume 32. These volumes of The Papers of George Washington cover the period from March 7 to July 4, 1781. Some of the most valuable primary sources for our annotation of Washington’s correspondence written during this period are three diaries.