Review of The Papers
of George Washington:
Revolutionary War Series, Volume 1
The Journal of Southern History
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Reviewed by Charles Royster
The first volume of the Revolutionary War series of The Papers of
George Washington--edited by Philander D. Chase and Beverly H. Runge
under the general editorship of W.W. Abbot--begins the huge task of documenting
more than eight years of warfare from the perspective of the American
commander in chief. This volume covers the first three months, during
which Washington was appointed to command and tried to bring some order
to the force besieging the British in Boston.
As in the volumes of the Colonial Series, the editors have striven
for literalness in printed representation of the manuscripts. The annotation
eschews citation of secondary works. The notes show the editors' great
resourcefulness in amassing background information and in providing cross-references
to related documents. In a few instances the choice of emphasis may seem
idiosyncratic. If all of Washington's public letters were annotated with
the degree of detail lavished on his private letter to Lund Washington
of August 20, 1775 (pp.334-40), the series might swell almost indefinitely.
Chase and Runge's command of the sources leave little doubt that they
are capable of such thoroughness, but their preface enunciates a policy
of selectivity, focusing on documents that attracted Washington's personal
Future volumes, one hopes, will contain maps of professional quality,
which are essential for comprehending Washington's military objectives
and activities. The editors ought not to rest content with reproducing
the freehand drawings that they find among the manuscripts.
From the beginning Washington often adopted the cautious Fabian policy
that, although he preferred aggressive audacity, circumstances forced
upon him. Departures from it, such as the invasion of Canada in 1775,
usually came to grief. In a letter of July 27, 1775, he summarized his
approach, little realizing that he would have to persevere in it for so
long: "to secure in the first Instance, our own Troops from any attempts
of the Enemy, and in the next, to cut of [sic] all Communication
between their Troops and the Country; For to do this, & to harass
them if they do, is all that is expected of me; and if effected, must
totally overthrow the designs of Administration . . ." (p. 183).
Washington's initial attempt to submerge colonial and regional distinctions
in the army, his effort to instill a regular army style of discipline,
and his ambition to build an officer corps imbued with both revolutionary
ideals and professional competence met repeated frustrations. But his
strategy of keeping his army intact to harass the enemy eventually did
thwart the British administration's designs.
No small part of this success came from Washington's assiduous and patient
attention to the minutiae of military life, as well as to the indispensable
political support for the army's recruitment and operations. The volumes
of the Revolutionary War Series will show the centrality of Washington
in fuller detail than ever before. By publishing many documents for the
first time and by careful delineation of their relation to each other,
this project will also add to our knowledge of many other aspects of the
American Revolution. Philander D. Chase, Beverly Runge, and W.W. Abbot
deserve our thanks and congratulations.
Louisiana State University
Royster, Charles. Review of The Papers of George Washington:
Revolutionary War Series, Volume 1 in The Journal of Southern History,
volume 69, number 3 (August 1986). 449-50.