Revolutionary War Series: Volume 17

DATE 15 September – 31 October 1778

Introduction

Of the headquarters that GW occupied for any length of time during the Revolutionary War, perhaps none was more remote or obscure than the one where he lived and worked for much of the fall of 1778. In his numerous letters and orders of this period, this headquarters was variously designated as being either at or near Fredericksburg (now Patterson), N.Y., a village just west of the Connecticut state line and some seventy miles north of New York City. “Near” was the more accurate term, for GW actually resided at Pawling, N.Y., another village about four miles farther north. Located among scenic but swampy lowlands between two high ridges, these villages were virtually invulnerable to a surprise attack by the British and German forces stationed in and around New York City. Nor apparently was the security of GW’s headquarters compromised by the fact that one of his hosts in Pawling was a passive Loyalist. John Kane had refused to countenance rebellion in 1775, but he had taken an oath not to communicate with the British. There is no evidence that Kane broke that vow until August 1779—several months after GW had left his house—when Kane crossed the lines into New York City, remaining there under British protection for the last years of the war.

The remoteness and obscurity of GW’s headquarters during the fall of 1778 and the dearth of dramatic military and political events during this period do not mean, however, that it was a time of inactivity or insignificance for the American commander in chief. It was rather a time of delicate transition for the wobbly new Franco-American alliance and for British strategists yet unwilling to concede defeat. Both circumstances required GW to exercise the sort of mental nimbleness that he had demonstrated during the first three years of the war. Equally pressing were the immediate problems of British raids—threatened and real—on the extensive American frontiers and coasts. Within the Continental army, troubling breakdowns in discipline and morale demanded GW’s close attention, as did the logistical and political difficulties of planning proper troop dispositions for the coming winter—the fourth straight winter that he would not see home.

Volume 17 opens on 15 Sept. 1778 with GW marching most of his army about forty miles north from White Plains to new positions running in a rough northerly arc from West Point on the Hudson River through Fishkill and Fredericksburg to Danbury, Connecticut. His reasons for this redeployment were threefold: to provide better protection for his army, on which more than anything else rested the fate of the American cause; to strengthen the defenses of the strategically important Hudson highlands; and to be in a better position in case of need to march rapidly to the aid of the French fleet refitting in Boston Harbor.

A week later GW’s new arrangement was put to a test of sorts when the British commander in chief, Gen. Henry Clinton, sent a force of about seven thousand men under Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis into northern New Jersey and a force of about five thousand men under Lt. Gen. Wilhelm von Knyphausen into southern Westchester County, New York. Their purposes were to probe the American outposts, obtain intelligence, and gather much-needed provisions and forage from the countryside. Clinton also harbored hopes that GW might be enticed to come down from the mountains and risk his army in open battle. GW was not so tempted. After satisfying himself that the British did not intend to invade the highlands, he pursued a containment policy, relying on militia and selected Continental units to keep the enemy foraging parties within reasonable bounds while assisting the local inhabitants to move or destroy their grain, hay, and livestock. The survival of the Continental army could not be jeopardized for any amount of food and fodder.

The British succeeded, however, in springing a trap on one of GW’s former aides-de-camp. Shortly before dawn on 28 Sept., a large detachment of British infantry surprised Col. George Baylor’s regiment of Continental light dragoons near Old Tappan, N.J., rushing into the sleeping American camp and bayoneting many of the dragoons, including Baylor, before they could effectively resist. The ferocity of the attack and the exaggerated initial casualty reports prompted some Americans to call it a “massacre.” The official casualty toll, reported about three weeks later, proved to be less severe than originally feared, but it was bad enough. Out of about a hundred and twenty officers and men present, sixteen had died, twenty-four had been wounded, and thirty-eight, including eight of the wounded, had been captured—a total of seventy casualties. Although GW’s public reaction to news of Baylor’s disaster was relatively restrained, he must have wondered how his young friend could have been caught literally napping after repeated admonitions to officers to take every possible precaution when operating near enemy lines. Inspector General Steuben attributed Baylor’s failure to bad discipline.

The reforms that Steuben had begun introducing the previous spring at Valley Forge were improving the army’s training and discipline. Still, disciplinary breakdowns occurred more often than GW liked. He was chagrined to learn of another disgrace on 7 Oct. when a small patrol from Col. Elisha Sheldon’s Continental light dragoon regiment was surprised and captured in Westchester County due to a junior officer’s inattention. Marauding soldiers also incurred GW’s displeasure. In the general orders for 23 Oct., he approved stiff punishments for a number of such offenders, including a Massachusetts private named Hate-evil Colson, who clearly did not hate evil enough. Colson had brazenly robbed a Fredericksburg inhabitant, a crime for which he was sentenced to receive a hundred lashes. Whether or not GW found Colson’s first name as amusing as many have, the general certainly was not amused that three members of his own personal guard had been convicted of a similar crime. “Shocked at the frequent horrible Villainies of this nature committed by the troops of late,” GW confirmed their death sentences in order “to make Examples which will deter the boldest and most harden’d offenders.”

As it happened, two of the condemned guards did not become such examples, because they escaped before their executions could be carried out, and several months later GW pardoned one of them at the earnest request of the soldier’s father. GW also spared the life of a condemned deserter in the general orders for 28 Oct., “on account of the recent instances of many criminals having been executed for breaches of military duty”—a very different sort of reasoning than he had used just five days earlier to approve executions. GW’s policy, nevertheless, was a consistent, if rather delicate, one of maintaining the support of both civilians and soldiers by protecting their rights and interests as equally as he could. The lives and property of citizens, GW made abundantly clear, were to be respected and protected at all costs, but he would never allow military discipline to become systematically draconian. It was for the latter reason that GW took care in his general orders for 11 Oct. to express his hope that the army’s new police force—a European-style unit with a European name, the Maréchaussée Corps, and a European commander, Bartholomew von Heer—would do more to prevent than punish crime, “by putting men on their Guard.”

GW also walked a fine line after Congress burdened him with two pieces of morality legislation. An act of 12 Oct. enjoined the officers of the army to enforce obedience to “the good and wholesome Laws provided for the preservation of Morals among the Soldiers.” An act passed four days later prohibited military or civilian officeholders from encouraging or attending theatrical entertainments. A lifelong lover of the theater, GW simply ignored the latter act, and he adroitly adapted the requirements of the first one to accord more closely to his own principles and, more practically, to bolster military discipline. In the general orders for 21 Oct., GW urged his officers to encourage “Purity of Morals” by example as well as by “penalties of Authority,” observing that morality was “the only sure foundation of publick happiness . . . and highly conducive to order, subordination and success in an Army.” He particularly deplored robberies, riot, licentiousness, and the “wanton Practice of swearing.”

In mid-October GW began the time-consuming task of planning for the coming winter. As was his practice in such matters, he elicited both oral and written opinions from his generals and then made up his own mind. A majority of the general officers favored establishing the army’s winter quarters in the Hudson highlands, and several further recommended that large detachments should be stationed in western Connecticut or northern New Jersey or both. Brig. Gen. John Nixon proposed splitting the army equally between the highlands and Danbury. Brig. Gen. Henry Knox suggested concentrating most of it at Ridgefield, Conn., or somewhere along the road running west from that town. Four generals, however, advised GW against wintering substantial numbers of troops east of the Hudson River, for two essential reasons: flour and forage. Nathanael Greene, Alexander McDougall, Lord Stirling, and William Maxwell were concerned, among other things, that the Continental army’s already hard-pressed supply line running from the middle states could not be adequately sustained during the winter months. The best alternative, they thought, was to send a major part of the army to those states, in particular to New Jersey and more particularly, Greene and McDougall suggested, to the old camp at Middlebrook, N.J., which, as Greene reminded GW on 18 Oct., was located “in a plentyful Country.” GW agreed with them. On 29 Oct. GW told Greene that he had decided to divide the army for the winter among Danbury, West Point, and Middlebrook, but the exact numbers sent to the latter two places would depend on the enemy’s wintertime strength at New York, which remained unclear even at that late date.

The Americans sensed impending changes in British strategy, but the complex movements of enemy ships, troops, and supplies during September and October obscured their designs. The burning questions in GW’s mind concerned the likelihood of the British invading the Hudson highlands, attacking the French fleet at Boston, or evacuating New York City altogether. By mid-October he had correctly reasoned that they would do none of those things. Yet certainty eluded him. Although satisfied in his own mind that a British expedition preparing in New York was destined for the West Indies rather than Boston, as some intelligence reports suggested, GW deemed the French fleet, as he told Vice Admiral d’Estaing on 16 Oct., “an object too precious to the common cause” to leave anything to chance. Over the next few days he ordered two Continental divisions to march as far as the Connecticut River to be in closer supporting distance if occasion required. GW also was reluctant to believe that the pending departures of the five-thousand-man West Indies expedition and other detachments from the New York garrison presaged a general British evacuation of the city, but in the absence of definite evidence, he again hedged his bets. Resorting to reverse logic, he wrote his stepson John Parke Custis on 26 Oct. that he could “give no better reason for their staying [at New York] than that they ought to go. their uniform practice is to run counter to all expectation.”

GW understood both the uses and limits of logic in analyzing intelligence reports. In three-and-a-half years of war, he had learned that the British would not always choose any course of action just because he and other American leaders thought it was the most reasonable one for them to take. GW also appreciated the importance of casting a wide net in gathering intelligence, and of keeping intermediaries between him and the sources of that information most of the time. During the fall of 1778, his principal intelligence managers were Brig. Gen. Charles Scott and Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge in Westchester County, N.Y., and in northern New Jersey, Brig. Gen. William Maxwell and Major General Stirling. GW sent them instructions, and they forwarded to him news of all sorts. Their sources included scouts and patrols, local inhabitants, deserters and prisoners of war, newspapers and intercepted letters, captured orderly books, and spies. Prominent among the scouts were Maj. Henry Lee, Jr., in Westchester County, and Maj. Richard Howell in Monmouth County, New Jersey. The few identifiable spies include the senior and junior Samuel Culpers (the pseudonyms of Abraham Woodhull and Robert Townsend), who operated on Long Island and in New York City, and John Vanderhovan, who gathered intelligence in the camps and coffeehouses of Staten Island. Always eager for information about the enemy’s intentions, GW directed the Rev. Alexander McWhorter on 12 Oct. to try to obtain useful intelligence from two men who had been condemned to death for spying and counterfeiting, when he undertook to “prepare them for the other world.” What, if anything, they confessed to the clergyman before they went to that other world on 3 Nov. is not known.

Hard experience had taught GW to be critical of intelligence reports because they often were too vague to be of much use or turned out to be based on misapprehensions, idle talk, or deliberate enemy fabrications. “False intelligence,” GW wrote Brigadier General Scott on 25 Sept., “may prove worse than none.” A spy “should . . . examine well into, & compare matters before he transmits accts; always distinguishing facts of his own knowledge from reports.” No detail was too small for GW’s purposes, for, as he told Major General Stirling on 6 Oct., “things of a seemingly triffling nature when conjoined with others of a more serious cast may lead to very valuable conclusions.” The two questions that GW most wanted answered in regard to the rumored British evacuation of New York were whether or not they were laying in fresh supplies of forage and firewood in the city, and whether or not the civilian merchants who supplied the British army many of its needs were packing up their goods. The British, he knew, could not spend the winter in New York without adequate forage and fuel, and they could not leave without taking the merchants with them.

GW took great pains to communicate every piece of naval intelligence fully and promptly to his French counterpart, Vice Admiral d’Estaing, not only to help protect the French fleet, but also to bolster the French alliance. Only a few months old, the American alliance with France was already strained after breakdowns in allied military cooperation during the summer at New York and Newport, R.I., and the death in early September of one of d’Estaing’s junior officers during a bakery riot at Boston. Although GW and d’Estaing never met in person, their extensive correspondence between 17 Sept. and 31 Oct. 1778 soothed and sustained relations between their two countries at a crucial time when the new alliance might have been irreparably damaged. During that six-week period GW wrote to d’Estaing seventeen times, and d’Estaing wrote to GW twelve times. In addition to exchanging intelligence reports and discussing plans for the defense of Boston, the two men fulsomely praised one another and the alliance, carefully disguising any resentments and disappointments. GW diplomatically accepted d’Estaing’s excuse that storm damage to his vessels had obliged him to abandon immediate operations against the British and to sail to Boston for repairs, but GW did not conceal his joy when the vice admiral finally decided to return to sea. GW wrote him encouragingly on 27 Oct.: “I cannot but ardently desire, that an opportunity may speedily be offered you of again exerting that spirit of well-directed activity and enterprise, of which you have already given proofs so formidable to our ennemies, and so beneficial to the common cause.”

For matters too complex or too delicate to be committed to paper, GW and d’Estaing relied on trusted intermediaries such as GW’s aides-de-camp John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton, d’Estaing’s aide-de-camp the marquis de Choin, and French consul Jean Holker. Their most important intermediary was Lafayette, whose personal charm and political influence gained him the intimate confidence of both the general and the vice admiral. Lafayette, however, alarmed the two men greatly in early October by challenging the head of the nearly defunct British peace commission, Lord Carlisle, to a public duel because of an aspersion on France that the commission had made in its August manifesto. Unable to talk Lafayette out of such a rash action, GW took some consolation from his belief that his friend would be saved from his own impulsiveness by Carlisle’s greater discretion. That proved to be the case. Carlisle promptly declined the younger man’s challenge on the grounds that the alleged injury was not of a private nature and that national disputes would best be left to the two countries’ naval commanders.

The failure of the Carlisle peace commission to negotiate a political settlement and of the British military forces to crush the revolution in New England and the middle states, combined with France’s entry into the war on the American side, induced many Americans in the summer and fall of 1778 to believe that victory and peace were at hand. GW was not one of them. In response to the question, “Can the Enemy prosecute the War?,” which his friend Gouverneur Morris, a New York delegate to Congress, had posed in an unfound letter of 8 Sept., GW replied to Morris on 4 Oct. by turning the question around: “Can we carry on the War much longer?” GW’s concern was not so much the lack of American military strength as the lack of fiscal strength—specifically the weakness of the Continental currency and the destructive effects of runaway inflation on morale and the necessities of life. “What Officer,” GW rhetorically asked Morris, “can bear the weight of prices, that every necessary article is now got to? A Rat, in the shape of a Horse, is not to be bought at this time for less than £200.”

Although GW could not foresee in October 1778 that the British would soon try their hand at conquering the southern states and that the war would last another five years, he sensed that the British ministry still had both the financial means and the political will to continue the struggle. Ever a realist, GW recognized that American victory would not come cheaply in what had become a war of attrition as well as an international conflict involving North American, European, and Caribbean theaters. As he had done since 1775, GW was once more adjusting his thoughts to meet new realities on the long road to American independence.

Jacket Essay

Volume 17 of the Revolutionary War Series opens with Washington moving his army north from White Plains, New York, into new positions that ran from West Point to Danbury, Connecticut. His purpose in doing so was threefold: to protect his army, to protect the strategically important Hudson highlands, and to shore up the equally vital French fleet anchored at Boston. His new headquarters, located near Fredericksburg, New York, about seventy miles north of New York City, was one of the most obscure of the Revolutionary War. Nevertheless, Washington remained as busy with important tasks during the fall of 1778 as during any other period of the war. It was a time of delicate transition for the new Franco-American alliance and for British strategists yet unwilling to concede defeat. Both circumstances required Washington to exercise the sort of mental agility he had demonstrated during the first three years of the war. Equally pressing were the immediate problems of British raids—threatened and real—in New Jersey and New York and along the extensive American frontier and coastline. Within the Continental army, troubling breakdowns in discipline and morale demanded Washington’s close attention, as did the logistical and political difficulties of planning proper troop dispositions for the coming winter—the fourth straight winter that Washington would not see home.

Although Washington could not foresee in October 1778 that the British would soon try their hand at conquering the southern states and that the war would last another five years, he sensed that the British Ministry still had both the financial means and the political will to continue the struggle. Ever a realist, Washington recognized that American victory would not come cheaply in what had become a war of attrition as well as an international conflict involving North American, European, and Caribbean theaters. As he had done since 1775, Washington was once more adjusting his thoughts to meet new realities on the long road to American independence.


Philander D. Chase, ed., The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series volume 17, 15 September – 31 October 1778. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2008.

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