Topic: George Washington

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.

The Washingtons at Winterthur

by Alicia K. Anderson, Assistant Editor
May 5, 2017

George Washington and “Columbia” amidst Azaleas. Postcard. 1960s. Courtesy, the Winterthur Library, Winterthur Archives.

As people flock to the historic Delaware estate to view woodland azaleas at the peak of their bloom and the subtler Virginia bluebells tucked away in carpets of white trillium, a recent visit to the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library gave this Washington editor a chance to ponder the collection’s flamboyant treasures and hidden gems in tribute to America’s original First Family.

Winterthur founder Henry Francis du Pont (1880–1969) had a passion not only for beautiful gardens but also for American decorative and fine arts that resulted in a world-class collection of 90,000 objects, many of which pay homage to George Washington and the Washington family. The collection offers a remarkable window into the 19th-century American culture of memory that made George Washington a national icon in households across the country.1 It also preserves rare items from the life and times of the man himself—and the woman who promoted his legacy.

Perhaps most notable in the collection are the John Trumbull portrait of Washington at Verplanck’s Point, New York, 1782, painted in 1790, and 60 pieces of the “Cincinnati” china service purchased by the Washingtons in 1786 that dwarf even the collection at Mount Vernon.

Courtesy, Winterthur Museum, Portrait, Washington at Verplanck’s Point by John Trumbull, 1790, New York, NY, Gift of Henry Francis du Pont, 1964.2201.

Washington sat at least 14 times for the Verplanck portrait, which Trumbull “intended to present to Mrs. Washington.”2 Martha would hang the painting—one of her favorite likenesses of her husband—in the New Room at Mount Vernon and bequeath it to her granddaughter, Elizabeth Parke Custis Law, from whom it passed through the generations. Eventually, it was purchased by du Pont, who gave it to the museum in 1964.3

The Chinese export porcelain featuring the arms of the Society of the Cincinnati is displayed in Winterthur’s “China Hall” and was originally used by George and Martha at the presidential seats in New York and Philadelphia as well as at Mount Vernon. Part of a 302-piece dinner, breakfast, and tea set, Winterthur’s collection came to the museum in 1928, when du Pont bought it from Martha’s descendant, Mary Custis Lee.4

From object to provenance, the presence of Martha Washington at Winterthur is not to be overshadowed by that of her husband. “I was also much interested to hear about your Martha Washington sewing table,” H. F. du Pont wrote to his dealer Joe Kindig, Jr.5 Behind the scenes, Winterthur’s state-of-the-art conservation department once had the particular challenge of restoring an important Custis estate document from the ravages of mold (following its burial during the Civil War).6

A mourning brooch containing hair from George and Martha Washington is probably one of the most intriguing pieces in the Winterthur collection. Housing braided locks of blonde and salt-and-pepper hair cut by Martha for Elisabeth Stoughton Wolcott in 1797, the piece of jewelry is a tiny casket displaying, quite literally, the couple’s interwovenness.7

A pair of statues in the garden, however—”stove figures” dating to the mid-19th century, to be exact—leaves this editor questioning. The figure of George Washington is clearly identifiable, but the female form to his right is more mysterious. It has been suggested that she is most likely the symbolic figure of Columbia, but—no doubt from the direct pairing—she also has been attributed to Martha Washington.

The confusion lends its subject a delightful charm. Although the image of Martha Washington is hardly as iconic as her husband’s, it is this project’s hope that, with the forthcoming publication of The Papers of Martha Washington, the nation’s first First Lady will assume her rightful place.

Stereocard. May 1938. Courtesy, the Winterthur Library, Winterthur Archives.

With special thanks to the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library in Winterthur, Delaware, and to their Assistant Curator of Education, Garden Programs, Erica K. Anderson, the author’s twin sister.

 

Notes

1. Du Pont and Winterthur are featured in Michael G. Kammen’s Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York, 1991).

2. GW’s diary entry for 8 July 1790.

3. Linda Eaton, “Washington, Warhol, and Winterthur: Unexpected Provenance in the Museum Collection,” Sept. 4, 2013.

4. Hilary Seitz, “Presidential Porcelain from Washington to Winterthur,” Jan. 7, 2015.

5. Jay E. Cantor, Winterthur (New York, 1985; new enl. ed., 1997), 150–51.

6. Lois Olcott Price, “Travels through Conservation,” Nov. 20, 2015.

7. Hilary Seitz, “Unveiling the Secrets and Treasures of the Museum,” May 19, 2014.

George Washington’s First Visit to Colonial Williamsburg

by Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
April 14, 2017

While Virginia was still a British colony, its capital, Williamsburg, presented a variety of amusements. Residents and visitors alike could enjoy a pint at the tavern after an evening of dancing, noise and excitement in the streets during a town fair, or the debut of a popular play at the local theatre. Modern Virginia residents and history buffs may find these pastimes familiar. While modern-day Colonial Williamsburg offers visitors a recreated past, George Washington experienced the original colonial city.

George Washington’s first recorded visit to Williamsburg came on the heels of his return from Barbados at the end of January, 1752 (according to the Julian or New Style calendar). Upon his ship’s landing at Yorktown, he traveled to Williamsburg to meet Virginia governor Robert Dinwiddie.

A print of the Bodleian Plate, which depicts features of colonial Williamsburg, particularly architectural style. Courtesy of Cornell University Library.

In 1752, the capital of Virginia boasted fewer than 1,000 residents. The new capitol building was under construction after a 1747 fire, and well-known landmarks still recognizable to the twenty-first century eye were already standing: Bruton Parish church, the College of William & Mary, and the main street.

After what was likely his first theater experience in Barbados, George may have chosen to attend a performance in Williamsburg. A new theatre had been built in the Virginia capital just a few months before George’s visit. In an advertisement in the Aug. 29, 1751, Virginia Gazette, subscribers were asked to support building a playhouse for the Company of Comedians. And so the second theatre ever in Williamsburg was erected, with shows offered to the public by the middle of October 1751.

George arrived at an unusually quiet time in Williamsburg, as neither the courts nor the colonial assembly was in session. Court sessions, known as Public Times, were held in April, June, October, and December.1 During these months, the capital swarmed with visitors, doubling and possibly tripling the number of inhabitants. Virginians from all corners of the colony came together to enjoy amusements such as fairs with “a Side-play of Puppet shows, Contests in Beauty, Fiddling, and Dancing, with Foot Races from the College to the Capitol, Cudgellings, and Chases for Pigs to be caught by the Tails (which were soaped).”2 Taverns and inns were filled, merchants debuted fashions from London, and personal business was transacted. Slave auctions were also held.3

General Assembly meetings also increased the population of the capital and encouraged additional social events to entertain the visitors. A March 5, 1752, advertisement in the Virginia Gazette, for example, invited ladies and gentlemen to purchase tickets to a ball held at Henry Wetherburn’s every Tuesday while the General Assembly was in session.

While George missed these times of visitors and thus many of the associated popular amusements of Williamsburg in 1752, his meeting with Governor Dinwiddie resulted in a career gain that more than made up for the loss of recreation. In July 1752, the death of George’s brother Lawrence left several militia vacancies in Virginia. Perhaps owing to an encouraging meeting in Williamsburg, George requested a commission from Dinwiddie. He received that commission as major and adjutant of the militia, horse and foot, for the Southern District of Virginia, in December of that year. And thus George Washington’s military career began.

 

Notes

  1. James H. Soltow, “The Role of Williamsburg in the Virginia Economy, 1750-1775,” The William and Mary Quarterly 15, no. 4 (1958), 469.
  2. Rutherfoord Goodwin, A Brief and True Report for the Traveller Concerning Williamsburg in Virginia (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg, Inc., 1936), 49.
  3. Ibid, 48-52.

Correcting the Record: George Washington and the Hartford Conference, September 22, 1780

by Jeffrey Zvengrowski, Assistant Editor
March 24, 2017

At a strategy conference in Hartford on September 22, 1780, with General Rochambeau and Admiral Ternay, George Washington replied to a question from the French commanders:

la Situation de l’amerique Rend absolument Necessaire que Ses allies lui pretent un Secours vigoureuse, et qu’a tant d’autres obligations, a tant d’autres preuves de Son genereux interest, Sa Majeste tres Chretienne ajoute celle s’aider les etats Unis en envoyant <encore> des vaisseaux, des hommes et de l’argennt.

Washington was requesting additional French reinforcements following Patriot defeats in the Southern states. He and the French commanders agreed to a strategy by which to win the war at Hartford.  Historians, however, have overlooked the Hartford conference because Benedict Arnold’s treason came to light a few days after it, and the few scholars who did study the conference misconstrued its principal document.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

More Than Meets the Eye

By Sarah Tran, Undergraduate Worker
January 24, 2017

The common adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is often adapted into tale, the most popular of which is “Beauty and the Beast.” The timeless story opens on an old beggar woman seeking shelter from the storm at a prince’s castle. The prince, though noble and handsome, is also cruel and unkind. He dismisses the ugly old beggar woman, unaware she is a powerful sorceress. The sorceress transforms into her beautiful self and warns the prince not to be deceived by outer appearance. To instill this lesson, she turns the prince into a horrific beast, placing a curse upon his castle that can only be broken when he finds someone who will reciprocate his love despite his beastly appearance. Following a period of prolonged self-reflection and caring for others, the prince finally breaks the curse. This tale has engaged audiences across the world, blossoming into a beloved romance and children’s bedtime story. But the theatricality of “Beauty and the Beast” might divert the audience from its moral.

While searching for newspaper articles about Martha Washington, I came across a similar story in the Alexandria Gazette.

Continue reading

A Documentary Dilemma: Editing the Farewell Address

January 17, 2017

Senior Editor David Hoth’s guiding principle in documentary editing is to display the evidence without influencing a reader’s conclusions. His current focus, George Washington’s Farewell Address, complicates that principle. This document is included in Presidential Series volume 20 and arguably is one of Washington’s most significant contributions to the institution of the U.S. presidency. Hoth’s research into its preparation led him to suggest that we “cannot assume what has always been assumed” of this document.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

“Strongly Attacked”: George Washington Encounters Smallpox

By Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
December 2, 2016

It may have started with a headache and a fever, or just a general feeling of malaise. It could have struck after a night’s rest, when his morning routine of rising from bed was painfully curtailed by a severe backache unlike any he’d experienced before. A chill running throughout his body—abnormal in the extreme heat of the tropical climate of Barbados—could have been the first signal that something wasn’t right. However the illness chose to first present itself, within a few days a rash appeared on his skin. Less than two days from their emergence, the eruptions grew and spread, covering his entire body.1 George Washington was only 19 years old. He was on an adventure in the West Indies, and he had smallpox.

Continue reading

As We Give Thanks for Pilgrims and Turkeys, Let Us Not Forget Our Two Most Iconic Presidents

by Thomas Dulan, Associate Editor
November 28, 2016

The origin of Thanksgiving Day in America is a bit of a moving target. Tradition has it that Thanksgiving has been handed down to us from the Pilgrims and friendly Wampanoag Indians, who joined together for a celebratory feast in November 1621 to give thanks for a bountiful harvest. In grade schools throughout the United States, construction-paper silhouettes of Pilgrim hats, Indian headdresses, turkeys, and cornucopias have withstood many changings of the generational guard as part of November’s classroom décor.

In recollections of the now-distant past, I can envision as well the similar cutout depictions—in black construction paper—of our two most celebrated and mythologized presidents: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  I can no longer state with any certainty whether George and Abe adorned my classroom in company with the Pilgrims and turkeys, or whether I am merely conflating memories of November’s classroom décor with February’s. And yet, if our iconic first and sixteenth presidents were not memorialized in classroom wall festoons in November, then more’s the pity in lessons lost, for each belongs front-and-center in the story of Thanksgiving Day in America.

Continue reading