Sunday, October 21, 2018

Episode 067: Washington Takes Command

A few weeks ago, I discussed the Continental Congress’ decision to create a Continental Army and appoint George Washington as its commander in chief.  Before Washington could take charge, the Provincial Army fought the battle of Bunker Hill that I discussed for the last two weeks.  With the battle over, I’m going to pick up the story of Washington taking command of the new Continental Army.

New Generals for a New Army

The Continental Congress had voted to create the Continental Army on June 14, 1775.  It appointed George Washington as the new commander on June 15, two days before Bunker Hill.  Word of the new commander did not reach Gen. Artemas Ward until June 25, a week after the battle.  Washington took a couple of weeks to prepare, get his affairs in order, and make the trip to Boston, arriving on July 2, escorted by James Warren, the new President of the Provincial Congress, and Dr. Benjamin Church head of the Massachusetts Committee of Safety.

Washington Takes Command a Cambridge
(From New England Historical Society)
Washington first stopped to meet with General Ward, now the Continental Army’s second in command and the most senior major general in the new army.  I’m not sure if Ward was offended or relieved to have a new commander.  He did turn over command promptly and without public comment.  If there was a chance the two might develop a good working relationship, Washington put an end to that over the next few weeks.  Washington publicly criticized the lax command structure and leadership that he inherited, which Ward took personally.

With Washington were fellow Virginians the new Major General Charles Lee, third in command of the new army and newly appointed Brigadier General Horatio Gates.  As I mentioned last week, both men were in contention for the top job and both had been officers in the regular army before settling in Virginia.

Connecticut General Israel Putnam, who had played a prominent role at Bunker Hill and most other events at the siege of Boston, also received an appointment as major general in the new Continental Army.  The only major general not present was Philip Schuyler who was in Albany trying to resolve the military situation with Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold out around Fort Ticonderoga (see Episodes 59 and 60).

Two more Massachusetts generals in the Provincial Army were among the first eight brigadier generals appointed by Congress. Generals John Thomas and William Heath received their commissions.  Generals Joseph Spencer from Connecticut, and Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island also both served in the Provincial Army and received commissions as brigadiers.

Artemas Ward loses command
(From Wikimedia)
In case you were wondering, the others in the first class of brigadier generals were Joseph Sullivan, a New Hampshire delegate to the Continental Congress, who would arrive a few days later, Richard Montgomery who was Schuyler’s second in command in New York, and David Wooster from Connecticut, the same man who had refused Captain Benedict Arnold access to the powerhouse in New Haven after the Battle of Lexington (see, Episode 59).  These men rounded out the first class of brigadiers.

Also with Washington were his new aide, Maj. Thomas Mifflin and his secretary Lt. Col. Joseph Reed, both from Pennsylvania, and both of whom will play prominent future roles in our story.  At the risk of making too many introductions at once, I want to mention one more man accompanying General Washington.  Billy Lee was Washington’s slave.  He served as his personal assistant, valet, butler, and messenger.  Washington had purchased Lee in 1768.  The two men apparently grew very close.  Lee was one of the few men anywhere who could keep up with Washington on a horse.  Both men were excellent and daring riders.  Lee would serve Washington for all eight years of the war, remaining by his side through everything.  It is unclear if Washington ever confided in Lee, because if he did, Lee never betrayed that confidence.  It was clear that Washington was close with Lee and appreciated his service.  When Washington died, Lee was the only slave he freed outright.  He also granted Lee a pension for the remainder of his life.

George Washington

I’ve already given some background on some of these new generals, and will probably need to provide more background on more of them in future episodes, but today, I just want to focus on Washington himself.  Hopefully, everybody knows who George Washington is, and there are literally over a thousand published biographies about the man, almost all of which are better than this brief summary.. But in the interest of being thorough, here is a brief background.

George Washington by Peale
1776 (from Wikimedia)
Washington was one of the earliest people I introduced in this story, way back in Episode 5. There, as a young man he blundered into the Ohio Valley and kicked off the Seven Years War between Britain and France, known in America as French and Indian War.  In 1759, as the French and Indian War was nearing its end, Washington married Martha Custis, a wealthy widow with two children of her own.

George, then 26, left active military service and got elected to the House of Burgesses later that year.  For the next 15 years, he spent his time as a gentleman farmer and minor legislator, while remaining a Virginia militia officer.  Washington had begun wearing his militia uniform to the Second Continental Congress, where he was a delegate.  Some have argued he was angling to be made the new commander of the Continental Army.  As I mentioned in an earlier episode, from the public and private statements of Washington around this time, I think he hoped to be made a general, but did not anticipate being appointed Commander in Chief.   When offered the command though, he stepped up and accepted it.

Washington was also an extremely formal, quiet, and reserved man.  As a boy, he came from one of the lesser families in Virginia and was always focused on comporting himself more like the wealthier leaders in the colony.  He focused obsessively on his dress, speech, manners, and behavior, and expected others to do the same.  He rarely took anyone into his confidence or engaged in casual conversation.  If anyone ever betrayed his confidence, even in a minor way, he would cut them off rather coldly and would not allow them to become close ever again.

Reorganizing the Army

When Washington arrived in Cambridge, the southern officer experienced a bit of a culture shock with his new army made up of New Englanders.  Washington had expected to command an army of over 20,000.  The force that met him, however, had less than 14,000 ready for duty, which referred only to the state of their health, not whether they were really trained to fight in battle.

While he did not comment publicly about his first thoughts on his new army, he did write a letter to a distant cousin at Mount Vernon:
The People of this Government have obtained a Character which they by no means deserved—their Officers generally speaking are the most indifferent kind of People I ever saw. ….. [T]they are by no means such Troops, in any respect, as you are led to believe of them from the Accts which are published, but I need not make myself Enemies among them, by this declaration, although it is consistent with truth. I daresay the Men would fight very well (if properly Officered) although they are an exceeding dirty & nasty people.
Gen. Charles Lee
(From Wikimedia)
He was shocked at the level of disorganization, that soldiers and officers did not respect the chain of command, and that blacks and whites were fighting alongside one another.  He immediately began to try to change all these things.

One of the things though, that helped make Washington great, was his ability to accept advice and to change his views when convinced of a better idea.  Washington initially ordered the dismissal of black troops.  As a Virginian he was raised with the concern that armed blacks created a risk of slave insurrection.  New Englanders though, had no such fears.  Free whites outnumbered both slaves and free blacks combined by overwhelming numbers.  Convinced by his New England officers that dismissing the black troops was a bad idea, he soon reversed himself and permitted the racially integrated units to continue.  He soon grew to admire and appreciate the capabilities of these men.

His concerns about organization, deportment, and the chain of command though, required change.  After personally inspecting the lines, and getting numerous reports on the state of his new army, One of Washington’s first actions was to hold several courts martial, to remove officers who had exhibited cowardice during the battle of Bunker Hill.  He also took an inventory of his army, including men, arms, and supplies.  He did away with the right of soldiers to elect their officers.  All Continental officers would receive a commission from the Continental Congress.

Washington knew that an effective army needed discipline.  He issued rules against profanity, drunkenness, and gambling.  Officers and men had to attend daily religious services.  Violations could be punished with floggings.  He ordered officers to improve the neatness and appearance of their men and the camps, keep their men from wandering away from camp without orders, and crack down on the destruction of private property.

The new commander issued an order for sentries not to communicate with the enemy.  Soldiers on the front lines at Boston Neck or Charleston Neck often stood within shouting distance of their counterparts on the other side.  Such conversations were banned as was any correspondence with the enemy.

Billy Lee, Washington's servant
(from findagrave)
Supplies were also a primary concern.  Washington tried to get Congress to buy more shirts for his army.  He really wanted whole uniforms but realized this was impossible for now.  Many men had been wearing the same unwashed shirts for months, reducing them to rags.  Washing them was impossible as there were no women around to do the work.  Apparently, it was inconceivable that a soldier might wash his own clothes.  New shirts would go a long way toward improving morale.  Congress, however, could not come up with the money even for that.  Instead of uniforms, Washington ordered his generals and aides to wear ribbons over their shoulders much like a Miss America sash.  Washington wore light blue, his general wore pink sashes and his aides green ones.  Field officers would wear colored cockades, a smaller ribbon tied in a bow, in their hats.

Washington organized his army into three divisions, one for each of his major generals at Boston.  He put General Ward in charge of the the army’s right at Roxbury, defending Boston Neck.  General Lee took charge of the left, which included the defense of Charlestown Neck against the British on Bunker Hill.  Putnam commanded the center at Cambridge, under Washington’s direct supervision.

Washington may have expected that the men in his new army would need training and discipline.  What really shocked him was the lack of ammunition and supplies.  Originally his aides told him the army had just over 300 barrels of powder, about enough to give each soldier a one full cartridge box, and not much more, not even counting the needs of any artillery.  That count, however, was based on old paperwork.  It had not counted all the powder that had been used over the past month, including the Battle of Bunker Hill.  When his aides actually did a physical check on inventory, they found only 90 barrels for the entire army.  When Washington heard the news, he apparently was struck speechless for some time.  He realized he did not have enough to fight even one battle with the British.  If the British attacked, his army could not fight back.

Siege of Boston (from Journal of the American Revolution)
Washington did not write any letters to Congress about this desperate shortage.  He feared that if the enemy learned of this fact, they would march out of Boston and crush his army as they could not even return fire for very long.  In fact, the British commander, Gage, did hear about the powder shortage.  He still had his spy network including Benjamin Church, head of the Committee of Safety. Gage, however did not believe it, thinking it was an attempt to draw him out of Boston into battle.  Washington made getting more powder a priority, but it would take months to get any significant increase in stock.  He had to issue orders banning any firing practice or other unauthorized discharges in order to conserve what little powder they had.  Also, to counter the lack of bayonets for most of his men, the army ordered the production and deployment of spears to defend against an attack.  Even these were slow in coming.

Disease also became more of a problem over the summer.  Dysentery and smallpox swept through both the British and Provincial camps, killing or disabling many.  At one point nearly 20% of the Continental Army was unfit for service.  Hundreds of them would die that summer, without ever seeing battle.  In late July, Washington appointed Benjamin Church as the head of a newly formed “Hospital Department” a position that would be referenced as “Surgeon General”.

For the most part, the army seemed to accept its new commander and complied with his policies.  It could all fall apart quickly though.  Ward, his second in command soon took offense at Washington’s criticism of the condition of the army when he took control  Ward knew that reflected poorly on his leadership.  Lee, third in command, was still upset that Congress had not selected him as commander in chief.  He seemed to be waiting for Washington to screw up, so that he could move into the top slot.  Both men, however, bided their time and, for the moment, enforced Washington’s policies.


Washington was eager to do battle with the British, but the condition of his army and the lack of ammunition made this impossible. Both armies remained well entrenched in defensive position, neither side willing to attempt to dislodge the other.

On the British side, Bunker Hill seems to have taken the fight out of the British commanders.  In July, they received reinforcements that more than covered their losses from the battle.  But General Thomas Gage in particular seemed unwilling to initiate any new fighting. Gen. Henry Clinton had pushed to follow through on their original plan to take Dorchester Heights.  His plan would bypass Boston Neck and launch assault troops for a water landing.  Clinton got the plan as far as putting soldiers on landing craft.  Gage, however, got cold feet and sent a messenger ship to recall the invasion before they could land.

The Boston Lighthouse (from New England Historical Society)
There were occasional skirmishes.  In the days following Washington’s arrival, there were apparently several minor attacks and counter attacks near Boston Neck.  British troops attacked defenders at Roxbury, possibly in an attempt to capture some stray cattle between the lines.  After that, Gen. Ward issued an order calling for any cattle straying beyond American lines to be shot.  The Americans attacked and destroyed Brown’s Tavern, a small building on Boston Neck occupied by British regulars.  The British would launch another raid a few weeks later, attacking Americans who were trying to reinforce and extend their defensive lines.  The Americans would use the the distraction of this attack to launch a successful attack on the Lighthouse on Lighthouse Island, making night movements for the British Navy a little more difficult.  That night, the British sent a construction crew with 30 marines as guards to repair the lighthouse,  They were still working the following morning when the Patriots launched another attack on the island, capturing the construction crew and the marines, and once again burning down the repaired lighthouse.

The arrival of the new Continental rifle units from Virginia and Pennsylvania created new excitement.  Riflemen liked to show off their skills by firing on sentries across the river in Boston.  Somehow the regulars captured one of them.  It’s not clear whether they captured him alive and then hanged him, or simply hanged his dead body after they killed him.  Either way the hanging body appeared in Boston in view of the Continental lines on August 2.  Enraged riflemen received permission to fire on regulars in Boston, which they did for the rest of the day, killing or wounding an unspecified number.  British muskets could not return fire, but artillery could.  One rifleman died from a well placed cannon ball.

These are only a few examples of the ongoing small-time skirmishing that kept both armies on alert.

Plowed Hill

A slightly larger skirmish occurred when on August 26, Washington ordered the occupation of Plowed Hill (aka Ploughed Hill), a small hill across the river to the north of Bunker Hill.  Overnight, 1200 Continentals entrenched their position on the hill, giving them a good position across the river against the British on Bunker Hill.

Ploughed Hill, Cambridge 1775 (from bouseblog)
The next morning, the British opened fire on the Continental forces from Bunker Hill and several gunboats, but could do little against entrenched forces.  They killed or injured a few soldiers who ran out of the bunkers to collect British cannon balls.  Continental officers gave soldiers a reward for any balls they collected.  A few soldiers tried to use their feet to stop balls slowly rolling across the field, only to discover that a relatively slow moving 20 pound ball can still do serious damage to your foot. The Americans had one cannon with them, which they used successfully to sink one small British gunboat.

The British prepared to assault Plowed Hill by boat, but decided against it.  Continental riflemen were already picking off too many of them.  They did not want another costly win like Bunker HIll for land that they could not really hold if they took it.  In the end, they simply left the Americans in control of the hill.  So, the summer of 1775 ended with the stalemate over Boston showing no sign of ending.

- - -

Next Episode 68: Congress' Olive Branch Petition

Previous  Episode 66: British Take Bunker Hill

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Further Reading:


LOC: Washington’s Commission as Commander in Chief:

William “Billy” Lee:

From George Washington to Lund Washington, August 20, 1775:

Benjamin Church becomes “Surgeon General”:

Burgoyne, Lee, and Enoch Brown’s Tavern, July 7, 2007 Journal of the American Revolution:

VIDEO: J.L. Bell describes George Washington’s Headquarters in Cambridge C-SPAN, 2017:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

French, Allen The Siege of Boston, New York: Macmillan, 1911.

Frothingham, Richard History of the Siege of Boston, Boston: CC Little & J. Brown, 1851.

Heitman, Francis Historical register of officers of the Continental Army during the War of the Revolution, April, 1775, to December, 1783, Washington: Rare Book Publishing Co. 1893.

Leiter, Mary Biographical Sketches of the Generals of the Continental Army of the Revolution, Cambridge: University Press, 1889.

Linn, John, et. al (ed) Pennsylvania in the war of the revolution, battalions and line. 1775-1783, Harrisburg: Lane Hart,1880 (pp. 6-7 discuss Battle of Plowed Hill).

Lodge, Henry Cabot George Washington, Vol. 1, Boston: Houghton Mifflin & Co. 1898.

Martyn, Charles The life of Artemas Ward, the first commander-in-chief of the American Revolution, New York: Artemas Ward, 1921.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)

Beck, Derek The War Before Independence: 1775-1776, Naperville, Ill: Sourcebooks, 2016.

Beeman, Richard R. Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776, New York: Basic Books, 2013.

Borneman, Walter American Spring: Lexington, Concord, and the Road to Revolution, New York: Little, Brown & Co. 2014.

Chernow, Ron Washington: A Life, New York: Penguin Press, 2010 (book recommendation of the week).

Fleming, Thomas Now We are Enemies: The Story of Bunker Hill, St. Martin’s Press, 1960.

Forman, Samuel Dr. Joseph Warren: The Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, and the Birth of American Liberty, Pelican Publishing, 2011.

Lockhart, Paul The Whites of Their Eyes, New York: Harper Collins, 2011.

Nelson, James L. With Fire and Sword: The Battle of Bunker Hill and the Beginning of the American Revolution, New York: St. Martin's Press, 2011.

Philbrick, Nathaniel Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution, New York: Penguin Books, 2013.

Phillips, Kevin 1775: A Good Year for Revolution,  New York: Penguin Books, 2012.

1 comment:

  1. Great episode. I cringed so much at the attempts to stop those slow cannonballs