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Reviewed by:
  • The Papers of George Washington: The Revolutionary War Series, Volume 23: 22 October–December 1779 ed. by William M. Ferraro
  • David Head (bio)

George Washington, American Revolution, Military history

The Papers of George Washington: The Revolutionary War Series, Volume 23: 22 October–December 1779. Edited by William M. Ferraro. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015. Pp. 904. Cloth, $95.00.)

The Papers of George Washington Project, begun in 1968, marches on, with the end now in sight. Sixty-three out of a planned ninety volumes [End Page 787] have been published, with completion said to be coming within the next eight years. Once finished, more than 140,000 Washington documents will have been gathered, edited, annotated, and published in both printed form and as a digital edition as part of the Founders Online and Rotunda collections. The present volume covers a little more than two months at the end of 1779. It shows Washington principally as an administrator. He did no fighting but a lot of writing as he waited for news of operations in Georgia, saw his hopes for a Franco–American assault on British-occupied New York City dashed, weighed options for winter quarters, and dealt with the minutiae of manning, managing, and supplying an army.

One of the volume’s key themes is Washington’s search for information. It begins with the general looking in vain for reliable news from Savannah, where the southern army, under General Benjamin Lincoln, and the French navy, under Charles-Hector, Comte d’Estaing, were attempting to dislodge the British. Though repulsed in mid-October, Washington did not learn of the battle’s outcome under November 10. In the meantime, Washington, eager to move against New York, worried. “We have wasted so long in anxious expectation of the French fleet . . . without hearing any thing from it, or of it, since its first arrival at Georgia,” he wrote his stepson, Jacky Custis, “that we begin to fear that some great convulsion in the Earth has caused a chasm between this and that state that cannot be past [sic]—or why if nothing is done, or doing, are we not informd [sic] of it?” (225). Washington had an underappreciated talent for sarcasm. The general also looked in vain for reliable information on British operations in New York, and he worked his spy network without much success. It was not until late December that Washington finally learned that the British army was embarking on ships for an unknown destination. It would turn out to be intended for an assault on Charlestown, which the British would capture in the spring, but he had also heard that the Chesapeake could be a target. British operations in New Jersey were also a source of consternation for Washington. Were they simply looking for forage? Or were their movements part of some grander design? As so often was the case, Washington had few solid leads and had to make decisions, committing resources and men’s lives, based on the unknowable.

Supply problems were another recurring theme. There are more than a few letters about horses and hay and flour and coats and blankets. With winter approaching, locating sufficient clothes and blankets caught [End Page 788] Washington’s attention. He received notice from the clothier general, James Wilkinson, that the purchasing agent for Connecticut had obtained “a competency of Shirts, Shoes, Hats & under Cloths for the troops of that state” (215). Washington then passed the information along to Major General William Heath with instructions that the Connecticut line “ought to draw no more of the above [items] than they are absolutely in need of at present” (319). The men of the Nutmeg State had sufficient “under Cloths” to last them the winter, according to Washington. It is amusing now to think about the august General Washington immersed in such details but it also testifies to his enormous workload and the overwhelming stress of his command.

The volume’s editorial work is top notch. Extensive footnotes place each document in context, source the information discussed, and provide voluminous cross-references to other relevant documents. I wonder, though, about how useful for research the printed book is when compared...


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pp. 787-790
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