Review of The Papers of George Washington:
Revolutionary War Series, Volumes 8 & 9
The Pennsylvania Magazine of
History and Biography
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Reviewed by Benjamin H. Newcomb
These two substantial volumes, covering five months of the Revolution
during which no major battle occurred, testify to the resolve of the editors
and publishers of the Papers of George Washington to provide a
complete resource for scholars. Nearly all the papers printed here are
military documents, and the four letters to relatives and friends also
included provide military news. No letters to Martha Washington have been
located, although some are noted in other correspondence. Nor is Washington's
serious illness in March 1777 mentioned. Those interested primarily in
military affairs will profit most from these volumes.
Scholars familiar with Washington's generalship will find no major surprises.
They have previously noted his views of officers and soldiers, his concept
of duty, his preoccupation with detail, and even his insider effort to
buy for himself used army horses while instructing Quartermaster General
Thomas Mifflin to "keep my name out of the question" (8:598). These volumes
amplify what is known, providing considerable detail on important matters.
Volume 8 begins with January 6, 1777, when Washington established his
headquarters at Morristown, New Jersey. He remained there until May 28,
when, to confront a possible advance of General Sir William Howe's army
across New Jersey to Philadelphia, he moved about twenty miles south to
Middlebrook, adjoining Bound Brook. By June 10, the date Volume 9 closes,
Washington was still uncertain about the British army's next move. Throughout
the period, Howe's delay in initiating any offensive both amazed and encouraged
him. Washington termed the last week in February 1777 "one of the most
critical periods which America ever saw" because Howe could, if he had
any inkling of the depleted ranks of the Continental Army, push through
Washington's troops toward Philadelphia (8:433). He believed Howe had
10,000 men in New Jersey; the American force was 4,000, mostly militia
and raw recruits. About three weeks later, a report to Washington from
a spy indicated that the British intended to attack Morristown but delayed
because they overestimated the number of Washington's troops. Because
Howe was overcautious and Washington had too few troops, no major fighting
occurred in New Jersey during this period.
Small detachments of the two armies fought seventeen minor engagements
in New Jersey, mostly between British foragers and American forces trying
to check them. Washington calculated in January 1777 that the British
would run low on provisions, particularly horse fodder, so stopping foragers
would delay Howe's inevitable movement against him. According to Washington
the British got the worst of these skirmishes, "owing to our Superior
skill in Fire Arms" (8:439). Sizeable British raids on Peekskill, New
York, and Danbury, Connecticut, captured or destroyed American supplies,
but the scarcest supply was men, and Washington was careful not to lose
Washington was occupied with every imaginable sort of business while
at camp--foreign officers' commissions, clothing, pay, smallpox inoculation,
uniform colors, and incompetent buglers, but primary in his mind was raising
and retaining troops. He lamented that recruits for the Continental forces
"do not come in at all (tho' I hear that Town and Country are full of
them)" (8:452). Pennsylvania was as lax as any other state in raising
troops. General Horatio Gates, commanding in Philadelphia, noted that
officers disputing rank and men deserting left Continental regiments undermanned.
By April Pennsylvania recruiting was characterized as "very backward"
(9:128). Washington became convinced that Pennsylvania Continental Army
colonels were engaged in massive fraud, recruiting so few men for their
regiments because they pocketed the bounty money and listed men as deserted
who were never enlisted. He blamed the officers of the Eighth Pennsylvania
Regiment for its high desertion rates-126 of 684 had deserted by June
1777, because, according to the soldiers, the officers were guilty of
fraud and mistreatment. Washington had little expectation of raising volunteers
by paying bounties; he wanted a draft in which the rich, the timid, and
the Tory would have to hire substitutes.
Washington, with few Continentals, began to turn in desperation to state
militia. Although, as Mark V. Kwasny points out in Washington's Partisan
War, 1775-1783 (1996), they made positive contributions, Washington
dealt them much more criticism than praise in this five-month period.
They were undependable, "there today, & gone tomorrow" (8:439). Militiamen
went home with the arms and equipment that the government issued them.
Because militia officers were interested only in concocting schemes to
increase their pay, they gave little attention to discipline. Some militia
troops plundered citizens under the pretense of their being Tories. Washington
warned that the militia should be kept away from regular troops because
it would "spread the seeds of licentiousness among the regulars" (9:127).
The militia failed in several cases to provide adequate defense against
British and Tory foragers. The Pennsylvania militia did not turn out in
a force as large as Washington expected, and many returned home after
a dispute with General William Alexander, "Lord Stirling," over the distribution
of supplies. Some states planned to raise what were called "colonial"
troops because they could not rely on their militias to turn out to defend
the state. Washington opposed this because these forces would compete
with the Continental Army for recruits.
Washington encountered significant problems with the capabilities and
behavior of officers. Only a few generals earned his reprimands. He noted
Generals William Heath and Joseph Spencer particularly lacked spirit.
Washington reprimanded Heath for letting officers loiter, gamble, and
drink with enlisted men, and for falling back rather than checking British
foragers. He criticized General Adam Stephen's account of a skirmish in
which Stephen claimed the advantage but actually was routed. Washington
also had to upbraid Lord Stirling. Field officers gave him more difficulty.
A lieutenant colonel paid bounties in counterfeit money, retaining the
genuine continental dollars issued to him. Other recruiters gambled bounty
money away. He accused the field officers of lounging in "ease and dissipation"
(9:446). To avoid going on march, officers falsely claimed that clothing
or arms had not been supplied. Washington believed that officers drew
large sums which were misappropriated to finance their high living rather
than paid to the men. He warned colonels against discharging or furloughing
men at critical times. To remedy this behavior, Washington insisted that
none but gentlemen be commissioned as officers.
The editing equals the high standards that the multivolume sets of papers
of the great white fathers maintain. Random checking of letters to Washington
found no transcription errors. Annotation is lengthy but very helpful,
particularly in quoting other primary source material. Although some reviewers
have questioned the value of such expensive labor-intensive editing, it
clears the path for scholars and students, and is in my judgment worthwhile.
It is not clear from any note or preface why some letters are appended
to others out of chronological order and set in footnote-sized type. Although
they are listed in the table of contents and index these letters might
be missed because they are different in appearance and heading. The index
is complete and accurate, with adequate cross listings. The one map,
the same in both volumes, is excellent for New Jersey, but a map of southern
New York and western Connecticut, where military action took place, should
also have been included.
Benjamin H. Newcomb
Texas Tech University
Newcomb, Benjamin H. Review of The Papers of George
Washington: Revolutionary War Series, Volumes 8 and 9 in The Pennsylvania
Magazine of History and Biography, volume 124, numbers 1/2 (January/April