Washington’s Quill Blog

The Most Difficult Days of the Patriot Cause: Examining the Events of Revolutionary War Series Volume 29

By Dana Stefanelli, Assistant Editor
March 16, 2018

Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, engraving. Image courtesy of New York Public Library.

The winter of 1780-81 was one of the most difficult periods of the American Revolution for the Patriots, though the weather was only indirectly related to the challenges they faced. Coming in the aftermath of American defeats at Savannah, Ga., and Charleston and Camden, S.C., this was undoubtedly a military low point for the Americans. News of Benedict Arnold’s betrayal and suspicions about Ethan Allen’s loyalties raised concerns about popular support for the Patriot cause and the morale of the fighting men. The seeming unlikelihood of the situation improving further dampened spirits. Nothing describes this situation more vividly than the correspondence between Nathanael Greene and George Washington during the late autumn of 1780.

Greene was appointed to replace Gen. Horatio Gates as commander of the southern department after Gates’s defeat at Camden. A skillful general, Greene had earned Washington’s trust and is remembered as one of Washington’s most valued officers. But as he made his way south to assume his new command, the burden of leading a large force of men under such desperate conditions began to weigh heavily on Greene.

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Revolutionary War Series, Volume 26: An Interview with the Editors

By Katie Blizzard, Communications Specialist
March 9, 2018

Neither associate editor Benjamin L. Huggins nor assistant editor Adrina Garbooshian-Huggins could have anticipated the complexities involved in editing The Papers of George Washington’s Revolutionary War Series, volume 26. One such difficulty concerned the content of the documents, which included the communication of misleading or even false intelligence. And so, in anticipation of the volume’s publication later this year, I sat down with both editors—who collaborated on the volume—to examine the work behind the next installment of the series.

When Adrina began work on Revolutionary War Series, volume 26, which covers mid-May through early July 1780, she had hoped to call upon past experiences for insight into the material. Armed with a doctorate in French literature—specifically on the evolution of the enlightenments occurring in France, Britain, and the American colonies—Adrina had a strong understanding of the sociopolitical environment out of which the revolutionary ideals grew. Moreover, her experiences as an editor at The Papers of Benjamin Franklin—particularly on his papers during the year 1783—and as a project indexer for The Papers of George Washington had familiarized her with the events, people, and themes of the war. Despite such an informed contextual understanding, Adrina still found the volume 26 material challenging.

Co-editor Benjamin, who has long studied military history, encountered the same issue: the vocabulary from Washington’s Revolutionary War-era papers was obscure and particular. When editing past volumes in the series, for example, he had to learn how to discern between usage of the term “corps” in describing units of varying size.

Supplementary reading thus proved crucial to understanding the material. According to Adrina, she strove to learn more about those people, events, and terms with which she was less familiar and “looked into as many sources as possible until the job was done.” Obviously passionate about her work, Adrina poured over several primary and secondary sources in her free time in order to transcribe and annotate one of the most significant events for her portion of the volume: the surrender of Charleston, South Carolina.

Regardless of these efforts, certain documents took a considerable amount of time to annotate. For example, letters from Major General Robert Howe, which often included multiple items of intelligence, required research on each piece of news in order to contextualize and verify the information. Some of these rumors, Adrina found, could be corroborated by diaries from officers. Others could not be verified as the information was second- or third-hand, making it difficult to trace back to the original source. Occasionally, research confirmed that the intelligence was erroneous. In those instances, Adrina provided additional information as to why the intelligence had been shared with General Washington. And if all this does not sound difficult enough, Howe misspelled many of the names of individuals mentioned within these intelligences, adding an additional step to the verification process!

Faced with these cumbersome tasks, Benjamin and Adrina divided up the work by each assuming responsibility for the letters from one of the two months to be included in the volume. This required coordination of all research and annotation to ensure volume cohesion and to reduce repetition. Such logistics became particularly useful when Benjamin began writing editorial notes on the two battles that occurred in June 1780: Connecticut Farms and Springfield. In addition to working with Adrina to gather information from her half of the volume, Benjamin widened his scope of research beyond the documents and events included in the volume in order to get a broad perspective of the topics in question. According to Benjamin, he enjoyed writing these notes because they allowed him to use sources or extended quotes that typically would not be included in regular annotations. As a result, he could add commentary, such as “following this battle, the British never attempted an invasion of New Jersey again.”

Benjamin pointed out that preparing these documents for publication was rigorous and unforgiving. “It’s a complex endeavor,” he said. “The pace you have to maintain is probably even more so than a presidential volume. There’s more letters per day, and they’re sometimes very long.” Indeed, despite having only 19 days’ worth of letters, Adrina’s half of the volume alone included more than 200 documents. This is because some of those days had up to 10 letters, all of which she had to transcribe and annotate. Unfortunately, this intense production schedule was further complicated by unforeseen obstacles outside of the control of the editors, such as reduction in time allotted for editing as well as a delay in review of their volume.

Nevertheless, Benjamin and Adrina remained graceful under pressure. As Revolutionary War Series, volume 26 is slated for publication later this year, assistant editor Adrina Garbooshian-Huggins reflected on her experience: “Documentary editing is a lot like other things—the more you do it, you improve. I want to continue to improve and grow as an editor, [and] working on that volume did help me to grow, learn, and improve.…I’m grateful I had the opportunity to work on it.”


The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series, volume 26 will be published by the University of Virginia Press in late 2018. To learn more about the volume in the meantime, read a summary of the volume and see the editors’ volume dedication.

The Forthcoming Publication of Revolutionary War Series, Volume 26

By Benjamin L. Huggins and Adrina Garbooshian-Huggins

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. We were honored to work daily on General George Washington’s papers and to learn more about the struggles he and his army faced in the late spring of 1780, including a mutiny in the Connecticut line and a severe shortage of provisions. As the introduction shows, despite these problems, hope was on the horizon, for Washington received word that Lieutenant General Rochambeau’s army was sailing for the American coast. We present here an introduction to our volume that covers the principal themes appearing in the letters we edited.

We are proud of our work and recognize that it would not have been possible without our support for each other and the support and love of our families. They truly have known us, loved us, and believed in us. We were unable to add a dedication to the print volume, so we include it here:

This volume is dedicated to William Huggins, Sr., and to Sharon and Pete Parnagian, whose sincere love and support have always guided us and given us strength, and to Henry (1918-1972) and Alice (1922-2011) Parnagian, beloved grandparents. You will forever be in our hearts.


The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series, volume 26 will be published by the University of Virginia Press in late 2018. To learn more about the volume in the meantime, read an interview with the editors or a summary of the volume’s events.

Janet Livingston Montgomery, Part 1: “You May Conceive My Anguish”

by Kim Curtis, Research Editor
March 2, 2018

Portrait of Janet Livingston Montgomery, artist and date unknown.*

Earlier this year, as I was annotating documents for The Washington Papers’ upcoming Martha Washington volume, I came across a name that was unfamiliar to me: Janet Livingston Montgomery. I had heard of the wealthy and politically elite Livingston family of New York’s Hudson River Valley but not this particular Livingston. That’s what’s so great about annotating and research: you can learn about historical figures who are “new to you.” By working on the Martha Washington volume, I’ve stumbled upon the underrepresented voices of some fascinating 18th-century women. So, I’d like to now introduce (or re-introduce) you to Janet Livingston Montgomery.

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Another Look at Forgotten Biographies of George Washington: Henry Cabot Lodge’s George Washington

by William M. Ferraro, Senior Associate Editor
February 9, 2018

The seemingly endless flow of books on George Washington easily submerges notable past treatments. Bringing these forgotten gems to the surface is a worthwhile endeavor. This contribution to “Washington’s Quill” highlights Henry Cabot Lodge’s George Washington, a two-volume biography published in 1890.

Lodge is best known among historians as the isolationist senator from Massachusetts who frustrated President Woodrow Wilson’s plans for the League of Nations. Decades prior, however, he had gained a reputation as a historical writer and political journalist. He undertook his study of Washington in the mid-1880s for Houghton, Mifflin, and Company’s American Statesmen series after completing volumes on Alexander Hamilton and Daniel Webster.

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Washington and the Governors (Part II)

By Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
February 2, 2018

Washington faced some of his thorniest fights with state leaders over the deployment of Continental troops. He summed up his problem in a letter to his friend Gouverneur Morris:

When I endeavour to draw together the Continental troops for the most essential purposes I am embarrassed with complaints of the exhausted defenceless situation of particular states and find myself obliged either to resist solicitations made in such a manner and with such a degree of emphasis as scarcely to leave me a choice, or to sacrifice the most obvious principles of military propriety and risk the general safety.1

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Loose Ends: George Washington and “Philip Langfit”

By Jeffrey L. Zvengrowski, Assistant Editor
January 26, 2018

When undertaking research, editors of The Papers of George Washington have occasionally discovered intriguing historical connections that are not included in the annotation. In some cases, the information is omitted because connections cannot be definitively tied together and therefore lack sufficient certitude to warrant inclusion.

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“With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you”: George Washington’s Farewell Toast

by Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
January 19, 2018

On December 4, 1783, an emotional George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental army, stood before his officers in the Long Room of Fraunces Tavern in New York. The Revolutionary War had ended three months earlier, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, and the United States was an independent nation. On November 25, the remaining British troops had evacuated the last occupied city—New York. At the tavern, fighting back emotions, Washington broke the heavy silence with the raise of his wine glass. “With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you,” Washington toasted, as his eyes scanned the room. “I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable. I cannot come to each of you but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.”1 And with that, the General stepped back and waited for his men to approach him.

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Three Degrees to Washington: When George Met Cary…

By Kim Curtis, Research Editor
January 12, 2018

 “To play yourself—your true self—is the hardest thing in the world to do.”
                                                                                      -Cary Grant1

“What do you do with a film degree? Sit around and watch movies all day?” As a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where I earned an M.A. in cinema studies, I’ve heard my share of these questions from people I meet. They may have a point; although my cinema studies degree has helped me develop my research and writing skills, it’s hard to justify how this degree directly applies to my job at The Washington Papers. When I say I’m a documentary editor, I don’t mean that I edit documentary films! So, I’m going to approach this blog post from a different angle (with a little help from my psychology degree), and show how George Washington shares attributes with classic film star Cary Grant.

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From Mummers to Santa: Christmas in America

by E. Richard Knox
December 22, 2017

Christmas celebrations have changed radically since George Washington’s presidency. The new republic that Washington had guided into being was only beginning to create itself as a nation and had little unifying cultural identity. The 13 states differed significantly among themselves, including in how their new citizens observed—or ignored—Christmas.

Inevitably and understandably, colonial traditions persisted after independence. In colonial Massachusetts, the descendants of 17th-century Puritans looked with disdain on Christmas and often banned any celebrations associated with the day or season. They acknowledged the birth of Jesus of Nazareth but believed that setting aside a special day to mark it, and specifically December 25, was non-Biblical, even pagan. In colonial Virginia, on the other hand, the primary religious traditions were those of the Church of England, which celebrated Christmas as a feast day on December 25, and Washington himself often attended church on that day.

An image of mummers from “The popular history of England; an illustrated history of society and government from the earliest period to our own times,” by Charles Knight (1854). Courtesy of Internet Archives and the University of California Libraries.

Throughout the colonies, Christmas and New Year celebrations tended to hark back to older, more secular traditions, whose roots can be traced to Saturnalia of Roman times. These traditions included general revelry or, more specifically, “mummering.” In the season after the harvest, which included the slaughter of livestock, the brewing of beer, and the vinting of wine, bands of mummers would roam the streets in celebration, demanding the brewed punch called “wassail.” (Since those early days of the nation, wassailing has nearly become a lost tradition. Even the most enthusiastic carolers of today frequently are unaware of the meaning behind “Here We Come A-Wassailing.” We see the remnants of wassailing and mummering today on Halloween, when costumed children demand treats, and on New Year’s Day in Philadelphia, where extravagantly dressed mummers parade up and down the streets.) Mummery, which included both men and women, was a socially acceptable way to step outside convention: mummers of colonial times and the early days of the new nation often donned the clothing of the opposite gender, and the poor of the community, dressed as mummers, could demand food and brew from the wealthy in return for a song.

Responding to this tradition, on his first New Year’s Day as president of the fledgling nation, George Washington and his beloved Martha opened their presidential home in New York to all visitors. When they moved to Philadelphia the following year, they continued to open the president’s house, and Thomas Jefferson and others followed this practice in the new capital city bearing Washington’s name.

During his presidency, Washington also declared days of thanksgiving, partly to bring together the people and cultures of the new nation. Even after his death, Washington inspired unifying traditions: just a few short years after his passing, the nation honored him by celebrating his birthday on February 22. This was only the second holiday to be observed by the entire nation at that time, the first being the birthday of the nation itself on July 4.

Well aware of the unifying nature of Washington’s legacy and the popularity of the nation’s two patriotic holidays, many came to feel that the new United States should establish additional common holidays to define its emerging identity. The mummers’ celebrations of the abundance of the harvest and the enforced days of leisure during the dark days of winter focused holiday planning on December. Sarah Hale, the influential longtime editor of Godey’s Lady Book and Magazine, championed a Thanksgiving holiday to round out the year.1 John Pintard, leader of the newly formed New-York Historical Society, advocated instead for Christmas, urging that it be celebrated as a domestic, family-oriented holiday, rather than with the rowdy street expressions of wassailing, revelry, and mummering. Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore, two of the many prominent board members of the historical society, agreed with Pintard. Their support is notable given their influence on Christmas traditions still practiced today. Moore is widely accepted as the author of what we know now as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,2 which borrows heavily from the legend of St. Nicholas dreamed up by Irving in his A History of New York, From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty…by Dietrich Knickerbocker (1809). Ten years later, Irving added to American Christmas lore with his Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819–20), a collection of stories including some of traditional British Christmases,3 in which people sang carols, came home to gather at a bountiful table, and kissed under mistletoe. The only problem with Irving’s descriptions of those Christmases is that he created many of the “traditions” himself! But his stories were so widely read that many of his inventions were believed and quickly accepted as the family-focused ways to celebrate Christmas in the new nation.

The shift from rowdy street celebrations, in the form of mummery and wassailing, to domestic traditions had an unintended and unforeseen consequence. In the former, the expected gifts were food and drink for strangers, neighbors, or servants. Once Christmas became a family tradition celebrated in the home, where food and drink were already part of daily life, gifts needed to be purchased or made. Very quickly, Christmas became a retail bonanza.

From the first half of the 19th century, Christmas celebrations have grown ever more popular in the United States. In July 1870, Ulysses S. Grant signed a law proclaiming Christmas an official federal holiday. Other national holidays have been established over the decades, including, of course, Sarah Hale’s notion of Thanksgiving. But in general, Christmas has become the focus of the nation’s attention, both religious and secular, in the depths of winter. Even for nonbelievers, the holiday is often a shared part of our culture and identity. However, just as Washington would have difficulty recognizing the political practices of the United States today, he likely would struggle to comprehend the holidays his country has created in the two centuries since his formative efforts. High on this list would be Christmas as we celebrate it today, with its long commercial lead-up, Santas in our malls and on our lawns, and the notions and origins of wassailing and mummery all but forgotten.


Richard Knox recently taught “Christmas in America” as part of UVA’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). He is a retired professor of social ethics and United Methodist minister, and the stepfather of Jane Haxby, copy editor here at The Washington Papers.

  1. Sarah Hale’s vision of a national Thanksgiving Day was finally realized by President Abraham Lincoln on Oct. 3, 1863. The timing of his proclamation, right in the midst of the Civil War, emphasizes the unifying intentions behind the federal holiday. For more on Sarah Hale’s efforts to establish Thanksgiving Day, see Barbara Maranzani, “Abraham Lincoln and the ‘Mother of Thanksgiving,’” Oct. 3, 2013, http://www.history.com/news/abraham-lincoln-and-the-mother-of-thanksgiving.
  2. In recent years, Moore’s authorship of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” now known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” (the opening words of the poem) has come into question. Two scholars hold that Major Henry Livingston was more likely the author. See Don Foster, “Yes, Virginia, There Was a Santa Claus,” in Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous (New York, 2000), 222–75; and MacDonald P. Jackson, Who Wrote “the Night Before Christmas”?: Analyzing the Clement Clarke Moore Vs. Henry Livingston Question (Jefferson, N.C., 2016).
  3. Interestingly, while these five tales of Christmas have been largely forgotten, two other stories from that collection remain popular today: “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” For more on Irving’s influence on American Christmas traditions, see Andrew Burstein, “How Christmas Became Merry,” New York Times for Dec. 25, 2005, at http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/25/opinion/nyregionopinions/how-christmas-became-merry.html?_r=0.


Penne L. Restad, Christmas in America: A History, New York, 1995.

Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas, New York, 1997.