Sunday, June 20, 2021

ARP206 George Washington in Philadelphia


Last week I covered the issues facing the Continental Congress over the winter of 1778-79.  The government was facing problems and divisions, not only from the Silas Deane investigations, but also chronic shortages for the army and disputes over new strategies.

General Washington traveled to Philadelphia to consult with Congress on some of these matters. This week, I want to focus on Washington’s visit to Philadelphia during this important time.  

Washington Enters Philadelphia

On December 21, 1778, Washington left the army under the command of Major General William Alexander, Lord Stirling.  He noted to Stirling that Congress had requested his attendance, and that he would be gone for a few days.  After a hard 60 mile ride, Washington arrived in Philadelphia late on the evening of December 22.  A local newspaper noted his arrival:

Too great for pomp, and as if fond of the plain and respectable rank of a free and independent citizen, his excellency came in so late in the day as to prevent the Philadelphia, troop of militia lighthorse, gentlemen, officers of the militia, and others of this city, from shewing those marks of unfeigned regard for this good and great man, which they fully intended, and especially of receiving him at his entrance into the State, and escorting him hither.

As we’ve seen up until this time, Washington rarely left the army for any reason.  As a leader, he wanted to be present as often as possible.  However, since Congress was trying to develop military strategy for the coming year, he felt that he had to provide some input in person.  Some of these confidential discussions could not be relegated to correspondence.

Second St. Philadelphia
The party that accompanied Washington Philadelphia included his wife Martha.  Also, with him was his secretary Robert Hanson Harrison as well as his aides-de-camp Alexander Hamilton, John Laurens, Richard Kidder Meade, and Tench Tilghman.

Philadelphia’s biggest political dispute at this time was the open feud between Silas Deane and Congress.  There was also a major fight brewing between the new President of Pennsylvania (and Washington’s former aide) Joseph Reed, and the Military Governor of Philadelphia, Benedict Arnold, something I will discuss in more detail in a future episode, but it was a big source of tension at the time.  Congress was still trying to dispose of the charges against General Thompson, who has allegedly shown disrespect to Congress, something I also talked about in more detail last week.

John Laurens
Also, the same day Washington entered Philadelphia, the Continental Army issued its final orders suspending General Charles Lee from command for one year.  This was after Congress had approved the court martial decision against Lee.  Washington’s aide, John Laurens, fought a duel with General Lee the following day.  Lee had continued to criticize Washington.  Many of Washington’s supporters felt the need to fight for the commander’s honor.  Laurens’ second, and Washington’s other aide, Alexander Hamilton, called for an end to the duel after the first shot left General Lee with a minor wound.

A year earlier, Washington had been fighting for leadership of the army as the Conway Cabal threatened to remove him from command.  By this time, pretty much everyone either supported Washington, or at least had the political savvy to keep quiet about any reservations they might have had.  General Lee was still oblivious to that and had to fight the duel with John Laurens  the reality in Philadelphia was that Washington had become universally respected and was seen as a source of stability in an increasingly chaotic world.

Meetings with Congress

On December 24th, Congress passed a resolution to invite the Commander in Chief to give testimony.  Washington held meetings with a committee.  However, the committee discussions were secret and no record of the discussions was made.  That same day, Washington met with the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, again, with no record of the discussions.

We do know that one of Washington’s primary reasons for his visit was to quash any plans to engage in another invasion of Quebec.  France seemed very interested in the idea.  Washington did not want to offend America’s only European ally.  At the same time, he saw the establishment of a French-controlled Quebec as a long term problem for the United States.  Washington was all too familiar with France’s prior efforts to keep the British colonies limited to the coast while France claimed all of the inland areas west of the Appalachian mountains for the King of France.

On Tuesday, Congress resolved not to plan any invasion of Quebec for the following year.  Having resolved that question, and having planned to be in Philadelphia for only a few days, One would expect Washington would have returned to the army in New Jersey.  Instead, Washington remained in Philadelphia for over a month.  During those weeks that he remained, he noted in several letters that he planned to return to the army within a few days.  It’s not entirely clear what caused him to change his mind and remain.

Washington did, however, continue to meet with the committee through January.  A note written by Washington on January 8 suggests that continued discussion was needed over “recruiting; a plan for the next campaign; prospects of further aid from Europe; clothing and supplies; changes in the ordnance, clothing, hospital, and engineering departments; establishment of an inspectorship; paper currency.

Proposed Strategies

A week later, Washington provided a more detailed report to Congress (in Hamilton’s handwriting) which outlined various options for offensives in 1779.  This report was likely the result of Washington’s conversations with the Congressional Committee.  In the report, Washington evaluated three options.  

Continental Congress
The first option was an all-out assault on the British garrisons at New York and Newport.  To expel the British which, Washington noted, was the most desired goal, the army would have to be increased in size to at least 26,000 effectives, which was a far larger army than the Continentals had ever managed to put in the field.

Washington observed because there were other economic opportunities in the states and life in the army was so poor that they could not hope to recruit such a large army.  Even if they could, Congress was unable to feed and clothe the existing army, let alone one that was two or three times the size of the current army.  Given these limitations, Washington concluded that an all-out assault was simply off the table.

The second operation under consideration was an assault on Niagara, which would serve as a defense against any future raids from Canada.  For such an operation, Washington argued the army would still need to leave about 13,000 men near New York to prevent any British actions from its main forces in New York and Newport.  The Continentals would need another 7000 or 8000 soldiers for the action against Niagara.  Those numbers were nearly as large as those estimated for an all-out assault on British forces and with not nearly as important a goal.  Washington believed that a Niagara offensive would be even more expensive than an all-out assault on New York since it would involve moving massive amounts of supplies through the remote and hostile territory in upstate New York where loyalists and native tribes still conducted raids.  Again, the US simply did not have the resources for such an offensive.

That left the third option: stay almost entirely on the defensive: The Continentals would remain in northern New Jersey and New York, preventing the British in New York City or Newport from having any room for offensive operations.  Given the army’s resources, Washington considered this the best option.  The Continental Congress could not afford a significantly larger army.  Instead, they could focus on increasing the national output of food by leaving more men on the farms.  Washington urged that diplomatic efforts should continue to obtain more loans in order to take more actions further into the future.  In short, Washington was telling Congress there was no way to end the war anytime soon.  Congress would need to find a way to come up with more resources before anything would change.

Washington did refer generally to taking some actions against hostile tribes in upstate New York and further to the west.  He noted that the army needed to secure the frontier, but he left vague his actual intentions in handling that problem.

There were some sections in a draft version of the report which speculated that Britain might pull out on its own due to internal political pressures and the need to focus on the war with France.  The draft also speculated that Britain had an incentive to hold onto garrison in North America because it gave the king a place to hold large numbers of troops near to its island colonies in the West Indies, but still in a climate where soldiers did not die in great numbers from tropical diseases.

Joseph Reed 

The draft went on to discuss the role of France and possibly Spain in future efforts.  It expressed a belief that Spain’s entry into the war might tip the naval balance sufficiently that Britain would pull out of the United States entirely. 

It appears that Hamilton removed several pages of the report about all this speculation.  He may have done so because Washington did not agree with his assessment.  It may also be that Washington did not want to speculate on the actions of our enemies and allies, but wanted to keep the focus on the resources and capabilities of the Continental army at this time.

The other big issue left out of the report entirely was the defense of the southern colonies.  It is likely that word of the British capture of Savannah had not reached Philadelphia by the time Washington submitted his report.  He did not seem to envision any major operations in the southern colonies for the coming year.

Congress had sent General Benjamin Lincoln to take over the southern command.  But there were no plans to increase the troop levels in those regions.  Any soldiers would need to be recruited locally.  Lincoln did not write to Washington about the capture of Savannah until January 5 or 6.  If he did not send an express rider, news might not have arrived for several weeks.  Washington's report appears to have been delivered on January 8th, and the first mention in the Congressional Record of the capture of Savannah appears on January 20.  Washington’s report gave no consideration to any expanded warfare in the southern states and anticipated no focus on a southern campaign for 1779.

Enlistment Efforts

Washington’s biggest concern about maintaining the Continental Army was that he would have an army to maintain.  In the written report, Washington only talked about the general difficulties of supplying the current army, and the fact that many enlistments would end in the coming months.  

In the field, soldiers were grumbling about being unpaid, underfed, ill-clad, and left in such a state of deprivation that the army might disband on its own.  Washington urged Congress to offer large signing bonuses to keep the soldiers enlisted for the duration of the war.  Congress agreed that men would receive a signing bonus of $200 to continue in service for the course of the war.  It also offered generous bonuses to recruiters who enlisted soldiers.  

With the optimistic tone, at least publicly, that 1779 would probably be the final year of the war, as the Continentals pushed the British out with French assistance, Congress hoped the soldiers would turn out in sufficient numbers to finish the job.  In truth though, no one expected the war to end in 1779.

Officer compensation was also a problem.  Many officers were tired of the miserable conditions, and unlike many enlisted men, often had more attractive options back home.  The lack of any major military operations meant that they would be sitting in camp, fighting boredom and thinking about all the deprivations they were suffering while away from home, and while civilians were prospering.  Officers, as much as the enlisted men, were eager to return home.

Washington urged Congress to agree to pay officers a pension of half-pay for life if they remained until the end of the war.  That was what British officers could count on.  Congress thought that was too expensive.  Instead, it agreed to half-pay for officers for seven years following the end of the war.  That was enough time for them to get back on their own feet and return to work.  

Washington did not believe that was sufficient inducement for many, as it put their old age into great risk.  But that was what Congress was willing to offer, so that is what he got.

Events in Philadelphia

There is no record of Washington having met with General Arnold during his visit.  This is not to say that the two men did not meet. There are a great many days when there is no record for what Washington was doing.  However, the lack of any public meetings with the military governor, while holding several meetings both official and social with his chief rival, Joseph Reed, may indicate that Washington was concerned about the charges of greed and corruption being levied against Arnold.

Juan de Miralles
On Christmas Day, General Washington and his wife  Martha accepted an invitation to dine at the home of Joseph Reed, president of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council.  Also in attendance were Washington’ aide John Laurens, New York delegate and President of Congress John Jay, Massachusetts delegate Samuel Holten, and Juan de Miralles, a Spanish arms dealer who the Governor of Cuba had sent as an observer to the Continental Congress.

The following Monday, December 28, Washington attended a celebration at the festival of St. John the Evangelist, hosted by the local Society of Free and Accepted Masons.  He was given the place of honor in their procession.

On December 30, Washington wrote to Benjamin Harrison about his concerns for the country and the war effort.  While these comments don’t seem to be directed specifically at Arnold, Washington likely had heard a great deal from Joseph Reed on the topic.  Washington may also have had in mind the Deane Affair, which had led to the resignation of Henry Laurens as President of Congress and which was still a divisive issue.  His thoughts probably applied to a great many leaders.  It does express Washington’s concerns about men looking more to their private interests rather than those of the country.

If I was to be called upon to draw a picture of the times and of Men, from what I have seen, and heard, and in part know, I should in one word say that idleness, dissipation & extravagance seems to have laid fast hold of most of them.-That speculation-peculation-and an insatiable thirst for riches seems to have got the better of every other consideration and almost of every order of Men.-That party disputes and personal quarrels are the great business of the day whilst the momentous concerns of an empire-a great and accumulated debt-ruined finances -depreciated money-and want of credit (which in their consequences is the want of everything) are but secondary considerations and postponed from day to day-from week to week as if our affairs wear the most promising aspect-after drawing this picture, which from my Soul I believe to be a true one, I need not repeat to you that I am alarmed and wish to see my Countrymen roused.

On January 4, 1779, General and Mrs. Washington dined at the home of Robert Morris, another delegate who was under investigation for self-dealing at the time.  Two days later, Washington attended a party at the home of Elizabeth Willing Powell, a prominent socialite.  Washington noted that it was his and Martha’s 20th wedding anniversary that night.  

Several weeks later, on January 18, Washington attended a banquet hosted by Congress in honor of the French minister Gerard.  It was a celebration of the alliance with France and an effort to repair relations after the US decided not to work with France on the conquest of Quebec.

Washington once again delayed his return to the army after the Supreme Executive Council requested that he sit for a portrait by Charles Willson Peale.  The painting was commissioned to hang in the Council Chamber.

Washington Returns to the Army

On January 29, wrote to President John Jay to inform Congress that he would finally be leaving Philadelphia: 

My long and unexpected stay in this City being attended with many inconveniences to the common business of the army, and in other respects, I feel myself under the necessity of requesting the permission of Congress to return ; and, if consistent with their views, I should be glad to set out for the camp at Middlebrook on Monday next.  

G. Washington, 1779 by Peale
Despite his announced departure, the following Monday found Washington still in Philadelphia, sitting for another portrait.  Jay had requested he sit for a medal that Jay wished to create.  Finally on Tuesday, February 2, Washington departed the city.  

A local article noted the departure. 

Tuesday morning, His Excellency General Washington set off from Philadelphia to join the army in New Jersey. During the course of his short stay (the only relief he has enjoyed from service since he first entered into it), he has been honored with every mark of esteem which his exalted qualities as a gentleman and a citizen entitle him to. His Excellency's stay was rendered the more agreeable by the company of his lady, and the domestic retirement which he enjoyed at the house of the Honorable Henry Laurens, Esquire, with whom he resided.

With that announced departure, Washington finally returned to his army.  Although no one may have fully appreciated it yet, Washington was transitioning from a field commander into more of a political leader.   He remained with the army in the field.  But he largely remained near New York City for most of the remainder of the war.  Major combat operations in that area had come to an end.  Washington’s main focus changed from attacking the British, to keeping his army properly supplied and his ranks properly filled. He left most of the combat to his major generals, who pursued the war in the south.

Next week, we will take a look at British and French plans for 1779.

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Next Episode 207 British Opposition, French Distraction 

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Further Reading


“From George Washington to Major General Stirling, 21 December 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“Account of a Duel between Major General Charles Lee and Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens, [24 December 1778],” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Joseph Reed, 24 December 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“General Orders, 25 December 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to the Magistrates of Philadelphia, 25 December 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“George Washington to the Committee of Conference, 8 January 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to the Continental Congress Committee of Conference, 8 January 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives,

 “From George Washington to the Continental Congress Committee of Conference, 13 January 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Journals of Congress, Vol. 5 [1779], Philadelphia: David Claypoole, 1787. 

Baker, William Spohn Itinerary of General Washington from June 15, 1775, to December 23, 1783, Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincott Co. 1892. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Burnett, Edmund Cody, The Continental Congress, Macmillan Co. 1941 

Chernow, Ron Washington: A Life, Penguin Press, 2010. 

Flexner, James Thomas Washington: The Indispensable Man, Little, Brown & Co. 1974. 

Montross, Lynn The Reluctant Rebels, Harper & Brothers, 1950.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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