Topic: Benjamin Huggins

Washington’s Worst Defeat

by Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
May 25, 2017

Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

“This is a most unfortunate affair and has given me great Mortification as we have lost not only two thousand Men that were there, but a good deal of Artillery, & some of the best Arms we had.” So wrote General George Washington to his brother John Augustine Washington in November 1776 about the loss of Fort Washington.1 The fall of the bastion, with its garrison of 2,900 officers and men, on Nov. 16, 1776, was Washington’s worst defeat (excluding Charleston, S.C., in 1780, where he was too distant from the scene of action to affect the outcome). Fort Washington was located along the Hudson River on a high bluff in the northern part of Manhattan Island. Along with Fort Lee directly across the river in New Jersey, it formed the chief defense against a British naval advance up the river. Most American officers considered Fort Washington virtually impregnable.

At the time of the fort’s fall, Washington and his main army were in retreat across New Jersey, after having been driven out of lower New York by General Sir William Howe and his British army. But the American general, believing he should throw every possible obstruction in the way of British conquest of New York and New Jersey, decided to retain a garrison in the fort.2

When Washington evacuated the rest of his army from Manhattan Island, he left a garrison of 1,200 men in Fort Washington and gave orders to the garrison’s colonel “to defend the post to the last Extremity.” However, given the fort’s isolation and its vulnerability to an attack by Howe’s whole force, he later modified those orders to give discretion to Major General Nathanael Greene, the area commander, “to retain or evacuate the post as he should think best.”3

The British attacked the post with four corps on Nov. 16. The American troops defending the fort’s outer works were spread too thin, and their lines were quickly penetrated, although they inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers. The British and Hessians pushed the Continentals and militia back into the fort. Surrounded with no hope of relief, they soon had to surrender. Washington nearly became a casualty when he decided to visit Fort Washington during the early part of the engagement. Greene, writing on the 17th, explained to a fellow officer that on

Yesterday morning General Washington, General Putnam, General Mercer, and myself went to the Island to determine what was best to be done, but Just at the instant we stept on board the Boat the Enemy made their appearance on the Hill where the monday action was, and began a severe Cannonade with several field pieces. Our Guards soon fled, the Enemy advanced up to the second lines. This was done while we were crossing the River and geting upon the Hill. The Enemy made several marches to the right and to the left, I suppose to reconnoiter the fortifications and lines. There we all stood in a very awkward situation; as the disposition was made and the Enemy advancing we durst not attempt to make any new disposition—indeed we saw nothing amiss. We all urged his Excellency to come off. I offerd to stay. General Putnam did the same and so did General Mercer, but his Excellency thought it best for us all to come off together, which we did about half an hour before the Enemy surrounded the fort.4

The fall of the fort embarrassed Washington, and many, including at least one of his staff officers, questioned his military judgment.5

In his letter to his brother, Washington cast the blame for the fort’s fall on Greene. Washington had arrived “a day or two before it surrendered,” but had not, he asserted, come in time to take measures to save Fort Washington. “And what adds to my Mortification,” he wrote,

is, that this Post . . . was held contrary to my Wishes & opinion; as I conceived it to be a dangerous one: but being determind on by a full Council of General Officers, & receiving a resolution of Congress strongly expressive of their desires, that the Channel of the River (which we had been labouring to stop a long while at this place) might be obstructed, if possible; & knowing that this could not be done unless there were Batteries to protect the Obstruction I did not care to give an absolute Order for withdrawing the Garrison till I could get round & see the Situation of things & then it became too late as the Fort was Invested. I had given it . . . as my opinion to Genl Greene under whose care it was, that it would be best to evacuate the place—but—as the order was discretionary, & his opinion differed from mine, it unhappily was delayed too long, to my great grief.

By implying that he had no time to decide whether to evacuate or defend the fort, Washington misled his brother. The commander in chief had in fact arrived at Fort Lee on Nov. 13; the enemy did not attack the fort until three days later. He had ample time to make a decision. Despite his own convictions, he failed to reverse Greene’s decision to continue defending the fort.

In his official letter to Congress explaining the defeat, Washington cast himself almost as a bystander to the events. He became involved only after the British had commenced their assault. The blame again appeared to fall on Greene.6 But his own irresolution was the main reason for the defeat. Even in a private letter to his brother, he could not bring himself to mention his indecision and hesitation.

Washington’s failure to take responsibility for the defeat at Fort Washington was not one of his finest moments. I believe it stemmed from his insecure position at that time. For more on this defeat and Washington’s later account of the fort’s fall, which I believe shows his maturation as a general, see my article “Washington’s Belated Admission,” published by the Journal of the American Revolution on April 23, 2014. In my next blog post, I will look at one of the most pivotal moments of the war: Washington’s victory at Trenton, N.J., on Dec. 26, 1776, and his letter to John Hancock of the next day reporting the triumph.
 

Notes

1. “From George Washington to John Augustine Washington, Nov. 6–19, 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0070. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 7:102–6.

2. “From George Washington to Joseph Reed, Aug. 22, 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-22-02-0175.  Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 22:224–27

3. “From George Washington to John Hancock, Nov. 16, 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0118. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 7:162–69.

4. “From Nathanael Greene to Henry Knox, Nov. 17, 1776,” in The Papers of Nathanael Greene, 1:351–52.

5. “From Joseph Reed to Charles Lee, Nov. 21, 1776,” in [Charles Lee] The Lee Papers. 4 vols. (New York, 1872–75; in Collections of the New-York Historical Society, vols. 4–7), 4:376–77.

6. “From George Washington to John Hancock, Nov. 16, 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0118. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 7:162–69.

Washington’s First Defeat

by Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
March 7, 2017

“Inclination as well as duty would have Induced me to give Congress the earliest Information of my removal and that of the Troops from Long Island & Its dependencies to this City the night before last, But the extreme fatigue whic<h> myself and Family have undergone as much from the Weather since the Engagement on the 27th rendered me & them entirely unfit to take pen in hand—Since Monday scarce any of us have been out of the Lines till our passage across the East River was effected Yesterday morning & for Forty Eight Hours preceding that I had hardly been of[f] my Horse and never closed my Eyes so that I was quite unfit to write or dictate till this Morning.

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George Washington’s First Victory

By Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
January 9, 2017

“It is with the greatest pleasure I inform you that on Sunday last, the 17th Instant, about 9 O’Clock in the forenoon, The Ministerial Army evacuated the Town of Boston, and that the Forces of the United Colonies are now in actual possession thereof. I beg leave to congratulate you Sir, & the honorable Congress—on this happy Event, and particularly as it was effected without endangering the lives & property of the remaining unhappy Inhabitants.”

General Washington sent this notice to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, from his headquarters at Cambridge, Massachusetts, on March 19, 1776. The long siege of British-occupied Boston was over. The letter was one the general had long hoped to send: his first victory dispatch to Congress. He had taken command of the Patriot army surrounding Boston in early July 1775, and he had dedicated all his effort since to achieving the result he reported to Hancock on March 19.

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George Washington by Charles Willson Peale

George Washington Takes Command

by Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
October 21, 2016

Having looked at George Washington’s Revolutionary War diaries in my previous blog posts, I now turn to his Revolutionary War correspondence. In this and future posts, I will be offering my perspective on pivotal letters in Washington’s war career. To start, I focus on his letter to his friend Burwell Bassett, written on the eve of Washington’s departure to take command of the Continental Army. The letter, dated June 19, 1775, reads in part:

Dear Sir, I am now Imbarkd on a tempestuous Ocean from whence, perhaps, no friendly harbour is to be found. I have been called upon by the unanimous Voice of the Colonies to the Command of the Continental Army—It is an honour I by no means aspired to—It is an honour I wished to avoid, as well from an unwillingness to quit the peaceful enjoyment of my Family as from a thorough conviction of my own Incapacity & want of experience in the conduct of so momentous a concern—but the partiallity of the Congress added to some political motives, left me without a choice—May God grant therefore that my acceptance of it may be attended with some good to the common cause & without Injury (from want of knowledge) to my own reputation—I can answer but for three things, a firm belief of the justice of our Cause—close attention in the prosecution of it—and the strictest Integrety—If these cannot supply the places of Ability & Experience, the cause will suffer, & more than probable my character along with it, as reputation derives it principal support from success—but it will be remembered I hope that no desire, or insinuation of mine, placed me in this situation. I shall not be deprivd therefore of a comfort in the worst event if I retain a consciousness of having acted to the best of my judgment. … P.S. I must Intreat you & Mrs Bassett, if possible, to visit at Mt Vernon as also my Wife’s other friends—I could wish you to take her down, as I have no expectations of returning till Winter & feel great uneasiness at her lonesome Situation—I have sent my Chariot & Horses back.1

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George Washington’s War Diary

By Benjamin Huggins, Associate Editor
June 23, 2016

Washington's first entry. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Washington’s first entry. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. Click on image to enlarge.

In my most recent blog post, I mentioned that General Washington kept two diaries during the Revolutionary War: his weather diary (which he maintained from January to June 1780) and his journal kept from May to early November 1781. In this post, I want to discuss the latter diary.

Written entirely in Washington’s own hand, the journal shows almost no corrections, suggesting that Washington may have copied the entries into the diary after writing a draft. The journal consists of two volumes: the first covering May to August 14, 1781, and the second spanning from August 14 to November 5, 1781 (the entry for August 14 is split between the two volumes). Washington opened his war diary with a statement of regret:

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General Washington Records the Weather

By Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
April 14, 2016

In the years before he became commander in chief of the Continental Army in the Revolution, Washington kept diaries of, in his words, “Where & how my time is Spent.” Many of these journals have survived, and they have been printed in volumes I, II, and III of the Diaries.1 But during the war, Washington kept a diary only during two periods.

From May to November of 1781, he maintained a daily journal of significant events and occurrences during the campaign that culminated in the decisive Battle of Yorktown. Scholars have made extensive use of this diary. But the general also kept another, lesser-known diary during the war: a diary of the weather at his headquarters at Morristown, New Jersey, from January to June 1780.

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George Washington Tells a Lie

George Washington at the Battle of Princeton by Charles Willson Peale (1781) | Wikimedia Commons | US Public Domain

By Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
January 22, 2016

In June 1780, General George Washington told a lie. In fact, he planned a major deception. But as it was intended to deceive the British high command during the Revolutionary War, most Americans would likely forgive him. Washington, with the aid of Major General Lafayette, wanted the British to believe that the French army under the command of Lieutenant General Rochambeau was soon expected to arrive in North America to help the Americans liberate Canada from the British yoke.

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