Revolutionary War Series: Volume 23

DATE 22 October – 31 December 1779

Introduction

George Washington experienced mixed emotions over the final two months and nine days of 1779. Throughout the late summer and early fall, GW had planned a crushing attack on the British in New York City in conjunction with Vice Admiral d’Estaing’s French fleet then operating near Savannah, Georgia. Reports of grand successes in defending that city filtered northward and raised American hopes. When confirmation of these accounts did not follow and the season stretched into November, GW glumly ended his offensive preparations against New York. Official word of American and French forces having been driven from Savannah in disarray that October came to GW in a letter from Samuel Huntington, president of Congress, dated 10 November. A letter from Huntington written the next day ordered GW to send “the North Carolina troops and such others as may be conveniently spared from the main army” southwards as reinforcements. The commanding general acknowledged both letters on 20 Nov. and confirmed the imminent departure of the two North Carolina regiments. With many enlistments expiring at the close of the year amid pressing needs to defend West Point and its environs, GW reluctantly concluded that “farther succour” could not be extended.

Discussions with his former aide-de-camp John Laurens and intelligence reports indicating a major British embarkation from New York persuaded GW to detach the entire Virginia line to South Carolina—“illy as they can be spared”—upon receiving consent from Congress in early December. Erroneous reports about the presence of French ships to convoy these regiments delayed their departure until late in the month, when they began a difficult march that lasted until March 1780. GW privately considered these Virginia soldiers his best men. “Nothing will make me happier,” he wrote their commander, Brig. Gen. William Woodford, on 13 Dec., “than to hear at all times that the Virginia line distinguishes itself in every qualification that does honor to the military profession.” GW charged the officers of this command “to cultivate that perfection in discipline on which the usefulness & reputation of a Corps absolutely depends.” Their goal should be “regularity” among the troops, with each part performing its duty “with propriety & exactness.” A longstanding rank dispute between Woodford and Brig. Gen. Peter Muhlenberg diverted the latter to Philadelphia to argue his case before Congress and added an unpleasant awkwardness to the Virginia line’s departure.

Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, who commanded the American forces in the southern states, faced grave challenges as he regrouped his men in Charleston, South Carolina. Promised reinforcements from Virginia had not come because of slow recruiting as well as clothing and equipment shortages. D’Estaing’s fleet had sailed away to refit at distant ports. “We remain unsupported by troops” and lack “many essential articles” and suitable fortifications, Lincoln apprised GW in a letter dated 7 November. In the same communication, Lincoln, a New Englander, decried the refusal of the South Carolina legislature to act on a proposal to enlist black troops. Although disappointed with military developments under Lincoln, GW handled this important subordinate gently and encouraged his efforts. “While I regret the misfortune,” he informed Lincoln in a letter dated 12 Dec., “I feel a very sensible pleasure in contemplating the gallant behaviour of the Officers and Men of the French and American Army.” Lincoln’s conduct, which GW praised for its “delicacy and propriety,” had avoided “the mutual reproaches which too often follow the failure of enterprizes depending upon the cooperation of troops of different nations.” Happily, instead, there appeared to be an increase in confidence and esteem. Looking ahead, GW remarked, the detachments coming from the northern army gave Lincoln reason for optimism.

The British evacuation of Rhode Island on 21 Oct. had lifted spirits and augmented GW’s force after units stationed in New England arrived in the lower Hudson River Valley. Delay in receiving official news of the British withdrawal from Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates perturbed GW, who sought an explanation from his subordinate and pressed him to hurry troops to New York to assist with pending maneuvers. Preparations for a combined Franco-American offensive against New York City ended while Gates was in Connecticut, prompting GW to offer him command of the forces at and near West Point. This strategic location—still being fortified along with the nearby King’s Ferry termini of Stony Point and Verplanck Point—did not suit Gates, who declined the assignment in favor of leave to address “his private affairs” in Virginia. Reporting this decision to Huntington, GW, who often had worked uneasily with Gates, charitably but perhaps disingenuously stated that the officer’s “request, from his long absence and services—appeared so reasonable and so just—that I could not object to it.”

The command at West Point had opened because Maj. Gen. Alexander McDougall suffered from a kidney stone and seemed overwhelmed with the problems facing that post. In a letter written on 27 Nov., GW assigned this important duty to Maj. Gen. William Heath, a conscientious officer whose principal fault may have been an unwillingness to act upon delegated authority without constant reassurances. “I am persuaded you will neglect nothing conducive” to the security of West Point “and will have the Works erecting for its defence prosecuted with all the Vigor and expedition in your power,” observed GW upon appointing Heath. “You are fully sensible of their importance,” he continued, “and [of] how much their completion will ease and disembarrass our future general operations.”

Determining British intentions became GW’s priority as the year wound to a close. With intelligence lagging from the usually reliable Culper ring in New York City, which operated under Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge’s immediate management, GW depended increasingly on spy and informant networks being run by Maj. Gen. Robert Howe in Dutchess County, N.Y.; Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne in northeastern New Jersey; Brig. Gen. Samuel Holden Parsons in the vicinity of Springfield, Elizabeth, and Westfield, N.J.; and Maj. Henry Lee, Jr., in Monmouth County, New Jersey. After hearing several rumors and erroneous reports of a major British embarkation from New York City for about a month, GW received definitive word of more than 100 ships sailing out to sea in reports from Wayne and Parsons sent on 26 December. When he transmitted this news the next day to Huntington, GW still hoped to get from the Culpers “a more particular account of the number of troops which have gone, by whom commanded and where destined.” Nothing came from that source until later January 1780. In the interim, reports from Heath—through a deserter—and Howe claimed Georgia to be the British destination. GW definitely believed this was the general direction of the enemy movement but fretted until he obtained precise information. The reduction in British troop strength in New York, however, convinced GW to disband Wayne’s light infantry. The enemy lacked sufficient numbers to pose a threat that required a response from this mobile force, and it would be easier to supply the men from state sources in their home regiments.

Some real fighting occurred during this fall. Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe’s raid into central New Jersey ended with his command retreating in disorder before rapidly assembling militia and with Simcoe’s capture after being injured. Patriots celebrated the confinement of this notorious British officer and also applauded Colonel Armand’s bold snatching of the marauding Loyalist major Mansfield Bearmore from a private home in Westchester County, N.Y., in early November. As high-profile figures, both prisoners required special handling and drew specific inquiries for their exchange and treatment. Such requests perplexed GW, both because of jurisdictional uncertainties with state governors the charge of prisoners, and because of the persistent unwillingness of the British high command to agree upon a general plan to guide prisoner exchanges. Simcoe’s exchange upon the initiative of New Jersey governor William Livingston occurred in late 1779. Congress, which had embarrassed GW when it peremptorily delayed the return to New York City of major generals William Phillips and Riedesel, the highest-ranking Convention Army prisoners, realized the need for some reform. Measures adopted on 13 Jan. 1780 usefully centralized the handling of prisoners under GW. Despite this improvement, the many aspects of prisoner administration—as in the past—provided recurrent headaches for the commanding general.

The early onset of bitter cold and heavy snows complicated GW’s choice of the best place to establish his army’s winter encampment. The wintering army needed to be within supporting distance of West Point and beyond the reach of a surprise attack from the British concentrated in New York City. Additionally, the soldiers required access to supplies coming through Trenton, N.J., and a campground with sufficient water, wood, and space to sustain thousands in an organized arrangement. No perfect or obvious option covered the several demands. GW tasked Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, the army’s quartermaster general, with scouting prospective sites and evaluating their suitability. Long daily rides during the latter weeks of November through inclement weather severely tested Greene’s stamina, and he chafed at GW’s delay and seeming vacillation in making a decision. The commanding general’s selection of Jockey Hollow near Morristown, N.J., on 30 Nov. did not particularly please Greene, but he dutifully took immediate steps to settle the troops at that location. Ten brigades eventually constructed huts and spent the winter at this encampment. GW lodged with his staff and his wife in Morristown at the Ford Mansion, whose owner, the young widow Theodosia Johnes Ford, expressed initial reservations about turning her family’s home into army headquarters. Soldiers and civilians alike endured a winter memorable for freezing temperatures and widespread suffering.

The Morristown encampment map drawn for this volume is the first depiction to accurately and comprehensively capture all the pertinent historical and geographic features of the site. Several earlier attempts had misplaced the New Jersey brigade. Other efforts omitted roads and watercourses or the quarters of general officers. Maps detailing Morristown often gave minimal attention to Jockey Hollow, or vice versa. Contemporary and modern maps, a close reading of the documentary record, a careful canvassing of the secondary literature, and notes from volume editors walking the ground all contributed to the final presentation. Another original map that shows the rather widespread locales considered for the army’s winter encampment complements the Morristown–Jockey Hollow rendering. A third new map, depicting northerly New Jersey and the New York Highlands, covers the area of GW’s principal direct concern during the period of this volume.

The worsening weather in late 1779 exacerbated the Continental army’s ever-present supply troubles. Dryness during the fall had prevented water mills from grinding flour, and that article, as well as forage, barely could be found. Commissaries in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey scrambled to fulfill allotments. Currency depreciation and the lack of funds to pay farmers on the spot escalated the army’s woes. To ease the difficulties, GW, in the general orders for 13 Nov., adjusted the standard ration to include less flour and more meat and vegetables. This fix provided only temporary relief. Food scarcity constantly shadowed the army and threatened morale. To remedy the perilous situation, GW circulated a letter dated 16 Dec. to the executives of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. “We have never experienced a like extremity at any period of the War,” he asserted. “Unless some extraordinary exertions be made by the States from which we draw our supplies,” GW entreated, “there is every appearance that the Army will infallibly disband in a fortnight.” The urgent tone of this appeal and respect for GW provoked prompt responses from the legislatures in each state except Delaware. Unfortunately, good intentions and legislative directives could not overcome absent resources. At best, weeks would pass before more edibles would reach the hungry animals and men.

Inadequate clothing likewise demoralized the soldiers. GW disapproved the extended absences in Philadelphia of recently appointed clothier general James Wilkinson and badgered him until he finally returned to the army in the late fall. Wilkinson proved an indifferent administrator, and GW found himself yet again saddled with clothing procurement and distribution responsibilities. “I am again reduced to the necessity of acting the part of Clothier General,” he complained to Heath on 18 Nov., “and have been forming estimates to make a delivery duly proportioned to the wants of the Army and the scanty stock on hand.” GW infrequently benefited from subordinates who performed their duties independently and lightened his administrative burden. Jeremiah Wadsworth, commissary general of purchases, had been such an individual, and GW lamented his resignation.

Disgruntlement throughout his army worried GW. During the fall, Wayne and Heath had suppressed small-scale mutinies within their commands. To discourage further insubordination and improve morale, GW carefully weighed all courts-martial sentences. A judicious balance between exemplary punishments and generous pardons, he believed, best promoted respect, discipline, and obedience. To renew or generate enthusiasm among the officers, GW strove to resolve lingering and vexatious rank disputes. The long-unsettled arrangement of the Massachusetts line required particular attention, and he devoted seemingly inordinate time to that body because any derangement in these fifteen regiments dramatically decreased the effectiveness of his entire army.

As quickly as possible after establishing winter quarters, GW resumed Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold’s court-martial on charges from Philadelphia officials that he had abused his authority while military commander of that city. Arnold’s rousing statement in his own defense likely played a significant role in his acquittal on all serious charges, but even the mild sentence of a reprimand, which the commanding general and Congress both approved, galled this embittered officer. While GW undoubtedly was glad to end this trial, equally irksome legal proceedings loomed from the persistent allegations of John Morgan and Benjamin Rush against William Shippen, Jr., of maladministration and fraud in his capacity as director general of the medical department. Shippen’s peculations, his accusers claimed, had enriched him while causing unnecessary suffering and deaths in army hospitals. Dereliction in high offices could not be tolerated, but GW disliked that the investigations and trials diverted officers from other critical duties and gave rise to jealousies and resentments.

Army demands left GW little time for family concerns. He welcomed the prospect of being with his wife, Martha, for the winter, and he asked John Mitchell, a deputy quartermaster in Philadelphia, to find accommodations for her in that city until she could travel to the army’s winter quarters. Mitchell promptly complied and received GW’s earnest thanks. John Parke Custis, bedeviled as usual with cash-flow predicaments, sought advice and assistance from his stepfather in a letter dated 12 Dec. that also outlined bills passed in the Virginia legislature, where the young man served as a delegate from Fairfax County. Valuing domestic relations, GW tried assiduously to extend leaves to all his officers. Suppressing his own desire to see Mount Vernon, he remained at his post.

Several dozen incoming communications and a much smaller number of outgoing letters from the period of this volume have not been found. GW’s excursions from West Point with his aides to check fortifications, reconnoiter ground, or verify reports of British movements likely disrupted filing routines and partially explain these losses. Moving headquarters from West Point to Morristown in late November and early December provided opportunities for more letters to be misplaced. Interestingly, two letters in this volume supply rare insights into GW’s manner of composing his missives. “Letters of a private nature & for the mere purposes of friendly intercourse are, with me, the production of too much haste to allow time (generally speaking) to take, or make fair copies of them,” GW’s friend Benjamin Harrison learned in a communication dated 25 October. For his military correspondence, GW sketched notes to frame his ideas for his aides or secretaries. Apparently discarded after use, these notes survive for a letter to the Board of War that James McHenry drafted for GW on 19 November.

Although historians have disputed the accomplishments of Maj. Gen. John Sullivan’s expedition against the Six Nations conducted in Pennsylvania and New York during late summer 1779, GW believed that the campaign had overawed the Indians and quieted the northern frontier. He anticipated Sullivan’s return to bolster the force being gathered for combined operations against New York City. Sullivan’s resignation, submitted in a letter dated 6 Nov., surprised GW. Controversy had accompanied Sullivan throughout his military career, but he always had retained his commander-in-chief’s confidence. This rapport led him to warn GW on 1 Dec. “that the Faction Raised against you in 1777” remained active. “The Members are waiting to Collect Strength & Sieze Some favorable moment, to appear in force” and displace GW from his army command. Sullivan’s admonishment elicited a reply from GW on 15 December. “Against intrigues of this kind, incident to every man in a public station,” GW wrote, “his best support will be a faithful discharge of his duty, and he must rely on the justice of his country for the event.” GW despised turpitude and delighted in rectitude. Despite setbacks and backsliding, he persevered in the firm belief that the latter characteristic would prevail among his compatriots and achieve American independence.


William M. Ferraro, ed., The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series volume 23, 22 October – 31 December 1779. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2015.

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