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.
The editors at the Papers of George Washington have determined that the recipient’s copy and draft of Gen. George Washington’s letter to Samuel Huntington, president of Congress, dated April 10, 1781, must have been written weeks later, in May. Scholars have taken the date of Washington’s letter at face value ever since the prominent popular historian Benson J. Lossing first transcribed it in his Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution, which was published in the early 1850s.1 But activities described in documents from May 1781 illuminate what should be the date of this letter to Huntington.
From early in the Revolutionary War, George Washington argued that soldiers enlisted for the duration of the conflict were better for the army than those who joined for annual or shorter terms. Reforming and retraining regiments and companies each year consumed scarce resources of all sorts and prevented the army from reaching a high degree of effectiveness, and even from being ready to fight when necessary. Amid the challenges and frustrations of a war that had gone on for more than five years, it came as an encouraging sign that Congress reorganized the Continental army in fall 1780 in a manner that emphasized the recruitment of soldiers for the war.
Due to the British invasions of Virginia in 1781, only one of the five letters that Gen. George Washington wrote Virginia governor Thomas Jefferson during the period comprising volume 28 of the Papers of George Washington’s Revolutionary War Series (late August to late October 1780) has been found. Nevertheless, that letter and some of the drafts of the four missing letters reveal tension between pragmatists and purists among Patriot supporters of republican ideology, tension which became increasingly bitter and partisan after the American Revolution.
At the end of March 1778, the general offered Virginia cavalry officer Henry Lee, Jr., a new assignment. The young captain had recently distinguished himself leading his troop of dragoons in a skirmish at Scott’s Farm near Valley Forge, Pa., as well as conducting foraging operations to supply the starving army at its Valley Forge winter encampment. Writing through his aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton, George Washington made Lee the offer of joining his military family as an aide-de-camp. The proposition entailed a promotion to lieutenant colonel. Few officers, whatever their personal feelings, would have dared to turn down such an offer from the commander in chief, but that is exactly what Lee did.