Information on George Washington and slavery rose to a new level with the publication of Mary V. Thompson’s “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret”: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon (University of Virginia Press: Charlottesville, Va., 2019). Unsurprisingly, Thompson frequently refers to William “Billy” Lee, arguably the most famous slave whom Washington owned because of Lee’s service as the general’s valet during the full course of the Revolutionary War. Lee also was the only slave whom Washington freed outright in his will at the time of his death. Research on the discovery and aftermath of Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold’s treachery for volume 28 in The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, revealed an overlooked observation about Billy Lee.
Due to the British invasions of Virginia in 1781, only one of the five letters that Gen. George Washington wrote Virginia governor Thomas Jefferson during the period comprising volume 28 of the Papers of George Washington’s Revolutionary War Series (late August to late October 1780) has been found. Nevertheless, that letter and some of the drafts of the four missing letters reveal tension between pragmatists and purists among Patriot supporters of republican ideology, tension which became increasingly bitter and partisan after the American Revolution.
At the end of March 1778, the general offered Virginia cavalry officer Henry Lee, Jr., a new assignment. The young captain had recently distinguished himself leading his troop of dragoons in a skirmish at Scott’s Farm near Valley Forge, Pa., as well as conducting foraging operations to supply the starving army at its Valley Forge winter encampment. Writing through his aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton, George Washington made Lee the offer of joining his military family as an aide-de-camp. The proposition entailed a promotion to lieutenant colonel. Few officers, whatever their personal feelings, would have dared to turn down such an offer from the commander in chief, but that is exactly what Lee did.
The decisive and final major battle of the Revolutionary War was fought at Yorktown, Va., in September 1781. Just a year earlier, however, the prospect of a conclusive American victory in a southern state might have been deemed unthinkable. For one thing, most of the war’s major engagements had been contested in the mid-Atlantic states and New England; for another, the major military actions previously undertaken in the South—at Savannah, Charleston, and Camden—had ranked among the greatest American losses of the war. Also, George Washington and much of America’s political leadership remained focused on reclaiming New York City, which had served as British headquarters during most of the war. So, when and why did Washington begin to contemplate shifting his major operations to the southern theater?
The Association for Documentary Editing (ADE) held its annual meeting this year in Princeton, N.J., from June 20 to 22, with The Papers of Thomas Jefferson at Princeton University hosting the event. I was glad to attend because I had grown up only a short distance to the north but had not been to Princeton for more than 20 years. It was also an opportunity to see Jim McClure, managing editor of the Jefferson project, who 30 years ago trained me when we both worked at The Salmon P. Chase Papers at Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, California.
If it were not for Martha’s handwritten statement of medical costs for the summer of 1757, we would know little about the state of her household leading up to and immediately following her first husband’s death. Financial papers—that general term for documents such as bills and pay orders, receipts and receipted bills, invoices and inventories, statements of account, bills of lading and exchange, accounts of sales, memoranda, and estate settlement papers—are rich with detailed information. Almost one-third of the 600 Martha Washington documents that The Washington Family Papers project has assembled since its inception in 2015 are financial in nature, whether authored by, addressed to, or written about her.
When annotating, editors at the Papers of George Washington often consult and cite personal documents, such as diaries, for additional details about the events and people described in Washington’s correspondence. These personal documents are especially useful as they commonly provide uninhibited evaluations of those events and people.
When you work at The Washington Papers, you read plenty of fawning 18th-century letters and news articles about George Washington—which is why Rev. Jonathan Boucher’s dismissive description, written in his memoirs in 1786, struck me as something interesting. The description made some waves in the late 1800s when Boucher’s memoirs were finally published, an era in which many U.S. history classes upheld Washington as the definition of greatness. So, who was this man who found Washington so unimpressive?
These special materials, which we refer to as addendum and omitted materials, total in the hundreds. A large fraction concerns items intentionally omitted by editors, but others—nearly 100—are documents previously believed to be lost. We plan to publish all the addendum and omitted items in a separate volume on our digital edition in order to make the Papers of George Washington as comprehensive as possible.
In my opinion, one of the most interesting stories that began in an earlier volume of the Papers of George Washington is the career of Samuel Birch, a British officer who first appears in volume 20 of the Revolutionary War Series. Birch’s effort to capture Washington was certainly one of the more colorful episodes of the Revolutionary War, but I am also interested in Birch because his career vividly illustrates the many ironies of that complicated conflict.