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?
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.
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.
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.
Abraham Woodhull (alias Samuel Culper), a farmer and Patriot spy on British-controlled Long Island, wrote Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge (alias John Bolton) a letter from Setauket, N.Y., on August 16, 1780 that is in the Papers of George Washington at the Library of Congress. Although the editors at The Papers of George Washington do not know precisely when George Washington received that letter, we can make a reasoned guess.
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.”
Washington first met Lieutenant General Rochambeau, whose French soldiers were stationed near Rear Admiral Ternay’s French fleet at Rhode Island, to plan strategy during a nadir of the American Revolution. Aspiring to take New York City from the British in 1780 before the onset of winter, Washington expected during the first two weeks of September that French reinforcements from Europe or the West Indies would soon arrive. He learned instead on September 16 that a British fleet from the West Indies had recently reached the vicinity of New York City.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of documentary editing at The Washington Papers is making annotated transcriptions of relatively inscrutable manuscripts readily available, manuscripts like spy letters with incomplete decryptions. On Sept. 9, 1780, Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge (alias John Bolton) wrote Gen. George Washington from North Castle, N.Y., and forwarded two letters addressed to him that he had received from Abraham Woodhull (alias Samuel Culper), a farmer and spy on British-controlled Long Island, New York. A preliminary transcription of Tallmadge’s letter to Washington, dated September 9, can be found on Founders Online. No transcription, however, is currently available of the enclosed Woodhull letters, which are among Washington’s papers at the Library of Congress.