In early February 1780, Gen. George Washington’s main army was encamped at Jockey Hollow, New Jersey. But the general maintained his headquarters about three miles away in Morristown, N.J., at the house of the widow Theodosia Ford. That separation from the main army enticed the British high command into undertaking an operation that, if successful, would cripple the Continental army and demoralize the Patriot cause: the capture of Washington.
I continue my survey of Washington’s relations with the state governors, but in this post, I will focus on his relations with local civil authorities. One of the best examples of Washington’s diplomacy and the positive response of civil authorities is the army’s gathering of provisions in New Jersey during the winter of 1780. In a circular letter to the states, the general set out the nature of the crisis: “The situation of the Army with respect to supplies is beyond description alarming.” He asked for “extraordinary exertions” and requested “vigorous interposition of the State.”
In this post, I continue my survey of George Washington’s relations with the state governors. A more complicated example of the contending interests involved in Washington’s relations with the governors than those I examined in my most recent post occurred when Washington sought increased militia support from Pennsylvania for the expedition against the Iroquois. The ensuing quarrel shows an important contrast in the different concerns of the general and the governors.
Neither associate editor Benjamin L. Huggins nor assistant editor Adrina Garbooshian-Huggins could have anticipated the complexities involved in editing The Papers of George Washington’s Revolutionary War Series, volume 26. One such difficulty concerned the content of the documents, which included the communication of misleading or even false intelligence. And so, in anticipation of the volume’s publication later this year, I sat down with both editors—who collaborated on the volume—to examine the work behind the next installment of the series.
We are excited to announce that later this year, Revolutionary War Series, volume 26 of The Papers of George Washington will appear in print. This volume covers the period between May 13 and July 4, 1780.
Washington faced some of his thorniest fights with state leaders over the deployment of Continental troops. He summed up his problem in a letter to his friend Gouverneur Morris: “When I endeavour to draw together the Continental troops for the most essential purposes I am embarrassed with complaints of the exhausted defenceless situation of particular states and find myself obliged either to resist solicitations made in such a manner and with such a degree of emphasis as scarcely to leave me a choice, or to sacrifice the most obvious principles of military propriety and risk the general safety.”
These two statements crystallize Washington’s philosophy in dealing with the governors. Such an attitude, which I view as diplomacy, was a vital but often overlooked aspect of his generalship. He needed the states to man and supply his army.
Washington announced to Congress his victory over three Hessian regiments posted at Trenton, N.J., on the morning of Dec. 26, 1776. For most of the previous two months the general and his army had gone from defeat to defeat, with the worst of these being the fall of Fort Washington. Now, in one swift blow, Washington had restored his faltering reputation and lifted the army’s morale.
“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.
With this letter of August 31, 1776, Washington reported his first defeat to Congress. Four days previously, British forces under General William Howe had defeated the advanced elements of Washington’s Continental Army deployed along the Heights of Guana on Long Island. Now, the weakness of the fortifications on Brooklyn Heights, where Washington had approximately 9,500 troops, and the fear that British warships might enter the East River and cut his communications with the city of New York had compelled him to evacuate the island.2 (Washington’s reference to his “Family” meant his military aides-de-camp and secretaries.) But the defeat was also one of Washington’s greatest moments of the war.