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.
The decisive and final major battle of the Revolutionary War was fought at Yorktown, Va., in September 1781. Just a year earlier, however, the prospect of a conclusive American victory in a southern state might have been deemed unthinkable. For one thing, most of the war’s major engagements had been contested in the mid-Atlantic states and New England; for another, the major military actions previously undertaken in the South—at Savannah, Charleston, and Camden—had ranked among the greatest American losses of the war. Also, George Washington and much of America’s political leadership remained focused on reclaiming New York City, which had served as British headquarters during most of the war. So, when and why did Washington begin to contemplate shifting his major operations to the southern theater?
Washington first met Lieutenant General Rochambeau, whose French soldiers were stationed near Rear Admiral Ternay’s French fleet at Rhode Island, to plan strategy during a nadir of the American Revolution. Aspiring to take New York City from the British in 1780 before the onset of winter, Washington expected during the first two weeks of September that French reinforcements from Europe or the West Indies would soon arrive. He learned instead on September 16 that a British fleet from the West Indies had recently reached the vicinity of New York City.
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.
In the fall of 1789, George Washington was inundated with information regarding the storming of the Bastille. He received five letters about a revolution occurring in France; most of these letters enclosed articles from international papers. He also received official intelligence through the U.S. minister to France, Thomas Jefferson. And American newspapers began publishing information about the event as early as Sept. 25.1 By early October, Washington likely knew a good deal about the outbreak of the French Revolution.
Thousands of miles away sat George Washington, only a month and a half into his presidency. He would not learn of the storming of the Bastille until September, and he would not acknowledge them until October 13/14. When he finally did, Washington only briefly discussed the revolutionary activity. His first responses are limited to five letters, three of which recycle the same uninterested reaction.
At a strategy conference in Hartford on September 22, 1780, with General Rochambeau and Admiral Ternay, George Washington replied to a question from the French commanders. He requested additional French reinforcements following Patriot defeats in the Southern states. He and the French commanders agreed to a strategy by which to win the war at Hartford. Historians, however, have overlooked the Hartford conference because Benedict Arnold’s treason came to light a few days after it, and the few scholars who did study the conference misconstrued its principal document.
The Washington Papers project stands poised to record the origins of the Franco-American alliance with the editing and publication of the final 16 volumes of the Revolutionary War Series, covering the years from 1780 to 1783. We are proud to announce a major new partnership with the Florence Gould Foundation, ensuring that these documents chronicling the most important period in the history of Franco-American relations are edited and published in time for the project’s completion in 2024.