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Book Review

Examining two Revolutionary War generals in words and deeds

George Washington's war letters reveal a hands-on commander. George Washington's war letters reveal a hands-on commander.
Email|Print| Text size + By Michael Kenney
February 18, 2008

This Glorious Struggle: George Washington’s Revolutionary War Letters
Edited by Edward G. Lengel
Smithsonian/Collins, 304 pp., illustrated $25.95

Henry Knox: Visionary General of the American Revolution
By Mark Puls
Palgrave Macmillan, 282 pp., $26.95

As George Washington headed for Cambridge in mid-June 1775 as the newly appointed commander of the Continental Army besieging Boston, he wrote to his wife, Martha - "my dear Patcy," as he called her - that he felt "it has been a kind of destiny that has thrown me upon this Service."

By early July, he was surveying conditions in the militia encampment on Cambridge Common and "earnestly requesting" an end to the "profane cursing, swearing & drunkenness" he observed among the troops. And, a few days later, "ordering the Necessarys [latrines] to be filled up once a Week, and new ones dug."

Man of destiny and hands-on commander, this is the Washington revealed in the extraordinary collection of letters written, and general orders issued, during the Revolutionary War, and assembled - with excellent context-setting notes, and the original spelling and style - in "This Glorious Struggle," by University of Virginia professor Edward G. Lengel, author of "General George Washington: A Military Life."

The documents stand as the raw material of history. But they also offer, in the flirtatious notes to female admirers and the ruffled-feathers communications to British commanders, a very personal portrait.

Many of the letters are to Washington's civilian commanders, John Hancock and his successors as presidents of the Continental Congress, reporting, with vivid detail, the outcome of just-concluded battles. Other letters of particular interest show Washington wrestling with strategic matters. Writing to Hancock from New York in September 1776 as his army faced encirclement by the British, Washington said he had decided to abandon the city as "it would be presumption to draw out our young Troops into open Ground" and that his officers "agreed the Town would not be tenable If the Enemy resolved to bombard & cannonade It."

And in November 1778, writing to Hancock's successor Henry Laurens, Washington said he feared that allowing their French allies to invade Canada - a place "attached to them by all the ties of blood, habits, manners, religion & former Connixion of Government" - "would be too great a temptation." With the French in power across the northern border, "resentment, reproaches, and submission seem to be all that would be left us."

Washington could also be frank in reporting tactical misjudgments, as in the case of his proposal in February 1776 to attack the British forces in Boston with an assault across the "pretty strong Ice" of Dorchester Bay. That assault was likely to result in a defeat that could have spelled the end of the Revolution.

Writing to Hancock, Washington said he had "called the General Officers together for their opinion," which was almost unanimous opposition. As it turned out, just a month later, Washington gained his first victory when the overnight fortification of Dorchester Heights brought British-occupied Boston within artillery range.

The engineer of that victory was Henry Knox, the Boston bookseller who had studied the artillery texts that arrived in shipments of books from London and devised the audacious plan to haul cannon captured at Fort Ticonderoga through the New England winter to Boston. In "Henry Knox," this visionary general has now received an admirable and long-needed biography by independent historian Mark Puls.

Knox's self-taught tactical skills proved valuable again at the crossing of the Delaware to engage the British at Trenton in December 1776 and again when he served as artillery commander at Yorktown.

While Knox had made his name as an artilleryman, he had grown up on Boston's waterfront and as Washington's secretary of war after 1789 saw the need to build a navy able to compete with those of England and France. Realizing that the new nation "could not afford [their] large, expensive battleships," writes Puls, he backed the controversial designs by Joshua Humphreys that produced the legendary six frigates led by the USS Constitution.

But, writes Puls, "without the victory at Boston, support for nationhood would have seemed a hollow cry based on unrealistic expectations."

So it is possible to consider that without Knox there would be no President Washington to celebrate this week.

Michael Kenney is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge.

This Glorious Struggle: George Washington's Revolutionary War Letters

Edited by Edward G. Lengel

Smithsonian/Collins, 304 pp., illustrated, $25.95

Henry Knox: Visionary General of the American Revolution

By Mark Puls

Palgrave Macmillan, 282 pp., $26.95

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