George Washington, Philander D. Chase, Dorothy Twohig, Frank E. Grizzard, David R. Hoth, William M. Ferraro, Edward G. Lengel, Benjamin L. Huggins. The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series 23: 22 October-31 December 1779. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015. Revolutionary War Series 23. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8139-3695-6.
Reviewed by Laura-Eve Moss (The Papers of Andrew Jackson, University of Tennessee)
Published on H-FedHist (January, 2018)
Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann
Volume 23 of The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series opens with Washington at Continental Army headquarters at West Point, awaiting news of American engagement with British troops in the South and planning for an attack, in conjunction with the French navy, against British forces in New York City. Covering the final ten weeks of 1779, the volume highlights the challenges of administering an army of more than 20,000 troops through nearly 350 letters by Washington (many scribed by his secretaries and aides), more than 200 letters to him, and almost daily General Orders.
The want of good intelligence is a recurring theme in the volume, and Washington’s letters show his frustration with the lack of information about the campaign against the British in Savannah, GA, that had started in mid-September. Stray accounts had begun reaching Washington by late September, but several of these, the editors note, proved false. The Continental and French siege of Savannah effectively ended on October 9 after the British crushed an attack by the allied armies. It was not until November 15, though, that Washington received formal notice of the loss in a November 10 letter from Continental Congress president Samuel Huntington. Besides highlighting the difficulties of communication, the volume also sheds light on efforts to glean information from a variety of sources including American scouts and British prisoners, missionaries and clergy, and Indians. The work of American spies is also discussed, and a handful of letters are printed from members of the Culper spy ring based in New York.
Washington was able to maintain frequent contact with representatives of the national and nearby state governments. In these ten weeks he exchanged nearly forty letters with Samuel Huntington and some twenty more with the Board of War, which had been organized by the Continental Congress to help oversee military affairs. These letters covered a variety of topics involving the management of troops and matériel, and especially the need for shoes, uniforms, food, and forage. On December 15 Washington warned Huntington that the army was in “deplorable distress” with their prospects “infinitely worse than they have been at any period of the War” (p. 622). Washington proposed borrowing several thousand barrels of flour that had been provided for their French allies. The situation of supplies was so dire that on December 16 Washington sent a circular to the heads of five states warning that without “some extraordinary exertions ... there is every appearance that the Army will infallibly disband in a fortnight” (p. 628).
By that time, Washington’s northern forces had moved to winter quarters at Jockey Hollow near Morristown, NJ. Washington had held out hope for the attack on New York City, but with the failure of the French fleet to arrive he suggested to Huntington on November 14 that it had gotten “too late” in the season to pursue “any extensive operation” (p. 276). Washington had already been planning for winter, and the volume includes more than twenty letters he exchanged with Quartermaster General Nathanael Greene about choosing and provisioning the encampment. Particularly illuminating on this subject are Washington’s letters to Greene on November 14 detailing his requirements for a winter base, and to Greene and to General Horatio Gates on November 17 specifying where each brigade should be situated within the encampment.
The volume touches on a number of other subjects related to the military including disputes over rank, administration of prisoners, troop movements, and matters of discipline and courts-martial. Especially notable is correspondence relating to the court-martial of General Benedict Arnold for improprieties while serving as military commander at Philadelphia. The proceedings had been suspended in June and resumed in December, with the court issuing its verdict in January 1780 and sentencing Arnold to a reprimand from Washington.
Readers interested in the more personal George Washington will find only brief glimpses in this volume. He corresponded with John Mitchell about arranging lodging in Philadelphia for Martha Washington, who would eventually join her husband in New Jersey. A letter to his stepson, John Parke Custis, on November 10, discussed the valuation of cattle, and Custis wrote Washington on December 12 about business and family matters. A dash of humor appears in a December 15 letter to Alexander Spotswood, who had sent Washington a horse recently recovered from lameness. Washington replied that he would take the horse “as Men take their wives—better for worse—and if he should prove a jade & go limping on—I must do as they are obliged to do—make the best of a bad bargain” (p. 624).
On the whole, though, this is a volume about military men and matters. Covering activity from Canada to Georgia and west to Detroit, it closes at the end of 1779 with reports that the British have evacuated New York City. The editors’ meticulous explanatory notes provide needed context to understand the documents and often include the full text or copious extracts of enclosures mentioned therein. Nine maps and a 63-page index round out the volume, a strong addition to the series.
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Laura-Eve Moss. Review of Washington, George; Chase, Philander D.; Twohig, Dorothy; Grizzard, Frank E.; Hoth, David R.; Ferraro, William M.; Lengel, Edward G.; Huggins, Benjamin L., The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series 23: 22 October-31 December 1779.
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