Information on George Washington and slavery rose to a new level with the publication of Mary V. Thompson’s “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret”: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon (University of Virginia Press: Charlottesville, Va., 2019). Unsurprisingly, Thompson frequently refers to William “Billy” Lee, arguably the most famous slave whom Washington owned because of Lee’s service as the general’s valet during the full course of the Revolutionary War. Lee also was the only slave whom Washington freed outright in his will at the time of his death. Research on the discovery and aftermath of Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold’s treachery for volume 28 in The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, revealed an overlooked observation about Billy Lee.
When annotating, editors at the Papers of George Washington often consult and cite personal documents, such as diaries, for additional details about the events and people described in Washington’s correspondence. These personal documents are especially useful as they commonly provide uninhibited evaluations of those events and people.
Last month, my family and I took a day trip to Virginia Beach. On the way home, we stopped by the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. This visit to the museum (our first) was particularly special: we had the privilege of receiving a tour from Dr. Thomas E. Davidson, a senior curator, who retired from the museum at the end of July.
In April 1781, about six months before the American victory at Yorktown, an opportunity for a different kind of liberty arose for Deborah, an enslaved 16-year-old at Mount Vernon. A fleet of British “plundering vessels” had appeared in the Potomac, burning homes and destroying property as they advanced. The Savage, a sloop of war commanded by Captain Thomas Graves, approached within a quarter mile of the home of the Continental Army’s commander in chief. Deborah saw an opportunity to join the British and gain her freedom.
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.
Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution recently won the George Washington Prize. The author of numerous and highly readable books about American history, Philbrick contends that Benedict Arnold and George Washington were actually quite similar. Both were up-and-comers who craved fame and fortune.
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.
Letters reveal a great deal about the sender and recipient—their relationship, their opinions on particular matters—as well as overall historical context. Condolence letters do that and more. George Washington’s death resulted in a deluge of condolences to Martha, from family members, friends, organizations, acquaintances, and even strangers. Sending their regrets, these letters vary from brief notes to lengthy passages. As a research editor, it’s eye-opening to see the spectrum of emotions conveyed.
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.