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Washington and the Governors (Part II)

By Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
February 2, 2018

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.1

William Livingston, as etched by Albert Rosenthal (1888). Courtesy of New York Public Library.

The general’s diplomacy smoothed the redeployment of the New Jersey brigade in 1779. When he decided that the brigade should join the army assembling for an expedition against the British-allied Iroquois Indians in western New York, he wrote an official letter to the state of New Jersey that merely stated the fact. Displaying his tact in dealing with the state governors, Washington covered his first letter with a “private and confidential” missive to New Jersey governor William Livingston explaining why he needed the brigade and that he would be unable to replace it on the defensive lines. Militia would have to take over that task. “It is very disagreeable to me to throw any burthen upon the Militia … but you will readily perceive my dear Sir, that it is not in my power to avoid it.”2 Livingston raised no objections; the state called out the needed militia. The expedition would benefit the New Jersey frontier.

Washington, though, lost some of these battles. One such case involved Brig. Gen. John Glover’s Massachusetts brigade. Washington wanted the brigade for the expedition against the Iroquois, and he directed the brigade to begin its march from Rhode Island to join the other units assembling in northeast Pennsylvania.3 Militia would take over the brigade’s defensive positions. The Rhode Island council of war protested the shift:

This Council being informed that Major General Gates hath orders from Your Excellency to hold General Glovers Brigade in readiness to march from this post on the Shortest notice—and sensibly Affected with the distresses which our Inhabitants already feel, and which must be greatly increased by the Removal of so great a part of the force now here—take the Liberty of Stating our peculiarly unhappy Situation to your Excellency.

The council cited the presence of 6,000 British troops at Newport, the lack of any aid from the other New England states, and the criticality of Glover’s brigade to the state’s defense as its reasons for resisting the transfer of the brigade. The council members were unwilling to call out additional militia.4 They expressed their displeasure to Congress in a lengthy letter. Though Congress did not force Washington’s hand, it did transmit the council’s letter to him along with a copy of the council’s resolution recommending that he “take such order thereon as the necessities of the State of Rhode Island may require and the good of the service admit.”5 The general was perceptive enough to take the hint. After receiving the letter from Congress, Washington wrote a diplomatic letter to Rhode Island governor William Greene explaining his decision to suspend the movement of the brigade:

When my order for holding the Brigade in readiness was given, the situation of affairs in this quarter, and some important operations of the campaign . . . made it indispensible; and had things remained in the same state, it would have been totally out of my power, to have avoided carrying the order into immediate execution. But having lately received intelligence, from New York that the Enemy have made a considerable detachment from that post, this makes some difference in the arrangements which would have been otherwise necessary, and enables me for the present to suspend the measure—How long it may be in my power to continue the Brigade where it is, is intirely uncertain. The peculiar situation of your State and the distresses to which it is exposed make me sincerely desirous to afford all the aid I can; but I am persuaded your Excellency would not wish me to do it at the risk of the general safety or at the expence of plans in which the united interests of these States may be essentially concerned. Nor am I less confident, that the justice of the State will not expect more from me than the means put into my hands will permit. It is a melancholy truth that our collective force is very incompetent to the numerous and extensive demands upon it.6

Washington assigned another brigade to the expedition.

In my next blog post, I will continue this survey of Washington’s relations with the state governors, focusing on his relations with the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. You can read the first part of this series here.

 


  1. “George Washington to Gouverneur Morris, May 8, 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified November 26, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-20-02-0342. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 20:384-86.
  2. “George Washington to William Livingston, 22 April 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified November 26, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-20-02-0148; “George Washington to William Livingston, 23 April 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified November 26, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-20-02-0161. Both letters also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 20: 166-167, 180.
  3. “George Washington to Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates, April 17, 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified November 26, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-20-02-0094. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 20:106.
  4. “Rhode Island Council to George Washington, April 26, 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified November 26, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-20-02-0205. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 20:228-29.
  5. “John Jay to George Washington, May 10, 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified November 26, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-20-02-0365. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 20:422-25.
  6. “George Washington to William Greene, May 11, 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified November 26, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-20-02-0377. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 20:438-39.