WASHINGTON'S APPOINTMENT AS
BY WASHINGTON IRVING1
The difficult question was, who should be commander-in-chief? Adams, in his diary, gives us glimpses of the conflict of opinions and interests within doors. There was a Southern party, he said, which could not brook the idea of a New England army commanded by a New England general. "Whether this jealousy was sincere," writes he, "or whether it was mere pride, and a haughty ambition of furnishing a Southern general to command the Northern army, I can not say; but the intention was very visible to me, that Colonel Washington was their object; and so many of our stanchest men were in the plan that we could carry nothing without conceding to it. There was another embarrassment, which was never publicly known, and which was carefully concealed by those who knew it: the Massachusetts and other New England delegates were divided. Mr. Hancock and Mr. Cushing hung back; Mr. Paine did not come forward, and even Mr. Samuel Adams was irresolute. Mr. Hancock himself had an ambition to be appointed commander-in-chief. Whether he thought an election a compliment due to him, and intended to have the honor of declining it, or whether he would have accepted it, I know not. To the compliment he had some pretensions; for, at that time, his exertions, sacrifices, and general merits in the cause of his country had been incomparably greater than those of Colonel Washington. But the delicacy of his health, and his entire want of experience in actual service, tho an excellent militia officer, were decisive objections to him in my mind." . . .
The opinion evidently inclined in favor of Washington; yet it was promoted by no clique of partizans or admirers. More than one of the Virginia delegates, says Adams, were cool on the subject of this appointment; and particularly Mr. Pendleton was clear and full against it. It is scarcely necessary to add that Washington, in this as in every other situation in life, made no step in advance to clutch the impending honor.
Adams, in his diary, claims the credit of bringing the members of Congress to a decision. Rising in his place one day and stating briefly but earnestly the exigencies of the case, he moved that Congress should adopt the army at Cambridge, and appoint a general. Tho this was not the time to nominate the person, "yet," adds he, "as I had reason to believe this was a point of some difficulty, I had no hesitation to declare, that I had but one gentleman in my mind for that important command, and that was a gentleman from Virginia, who was among us and very well known to all of us; a gentleman whose skill and experience as an officer, whose independent fortune, great talents, and excellent universal character would command the approbation of all America, and unite the cordial exertion of all the colonies better than any other person in the Union. Mr. Washington, who happened to sit near the door, as soon as he heard me allude to him, from his usual modesty, darted into the library-room. Mr. Hancock, who was our president, which gave me an opportunity to observe his countenance, while I was speaking on the state of the colonies, the army at Cambridge and the enemy, heard me with visible pleasure; but when I came to describe Washington for the commander, I never remarked a more sudden and striking change of countenance. Mortification and resentment were exprest as forcibly as his face could exhibit them. When the subject came under debate several delegates opposed the appointment of Washington; not from personal affection, but because the army were all from New England, and had a general of their own, General Artemas Ward, with whom they appeared well satisfied; and under whose command they had proved themselves able to imprison the British army in Boston; which was all that was expected or desired."
The subject was postponed to a future day. In the interim pains were taken out of doors to obtain a unanimity, and the voices were in general so clearly in favor of Washington that the dissentient members were persuaded to withdraw their opposition.
On the 15th of June the army was regularly adopted by Congress, and the pay of the commander-in-chief fixt at five hundred dollars a month. Many still clung to the idea, that in all these proceedings they were merely opposing the measures of the ministry, and not the authority of the crown, and thus the army before Boston was designated as the Continental Army, in contradistinction to that under General Gage, which was called the Ministerial Army.
In this stage of the business Mr. Johnson, of
Maryland, rose and nominated Washington for the
station of commander-in-chief. The election was
by ballot, and was unanimous. It was formally
announced to him by the president, on the following day, when he had taken his seat in Congress.
Rising in his place, he briefly exprest his high and
grateful sense of the honor conferred on him, and
his sincere devotion to the cause. "But," added
he, "lest some unlucky event should happen unfavorable to my reputation, I beg, it may be remembered by every gentleman in the room, that I
this day declare, with the utmost sincerity, I do
not think myself equal to the command I am honored with. As to pay, I beg leave to assure the
Congress that, as no pecuniary consideration could
have tempted me to accept this arduous employment, at the expense of my domestic ease and
happiness, I do not wish to make any profit of it.
I will keep an exact account of my expenses.
Those, I doubt not, they will discharge, and that
is all I desire."
"There is something charming to me in the conduct of Washington," writes Adams to a friend; "a gentleman of one of the first fortunes upon the continent, leaving his delicious retirement, his family and friends, sacrificing his ease, and hazarding all, in the cause of his country. His views are noble and disinterested. He declared, when he accepted the mighty trust, that he would lay before us an exact account of his expenses, and not accept a shilling of pay." . . .
In this momentous change in his condition, which suddenly altered all his course of life, and called him immediately to the camp, Washington's thoughts recurred to Mount Vernon, and its rural delights, so dear to his heart, whence he was to be again exiled. His chief concern, however, was on account of the distress it might cause his wife. His letter to her on the subject is written in a tone of manly tenderness. "You may believe me," writes he, "when I assure you, in the most solemn manner, that, so far from seeking this appointment, I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it, not only from my unwillingness to part with you and the family, but from a consciousness of its being a trust too great for my capacity; and I should enjoy more real happiness in one month with you at home than I have the most distant prospect of finding abroad, if my stay were to be seven times seven years. But as it has been a kind of destiny that has thrown me upon this service, I shall hope that my undertaking it is designed to answer some good purpose. I shall rely confidently on that Providence which has hitherfore preserved, and has been bountiful to me, not doubting but that I shall return safe to you in the fall. I shall feel no pain from the toil or danger of the campaign; my unhappiness will flow from the uneasiness I know you will feel from being left alone. I therefore beg that you will summon your whole fortitude, and pass your time as agreeably as possible. Nothing will give me so much satisfaction as to hear this, and to hear it from your own pen."
And to his favorite brother, John Augustine, he writes: "I am now to bid adieu to you, and to every kind of domestic ease, for a while. I am embarked on a wide ocean, boundless in its prospect, and in which, perhaps, no safe harbor is to be found. I have been called upon by the unanimous voice of the colonies to take the command of the continental army; an honor I neither sought after nor desired, as I am thoroughly convinced that it requires great abilities, and much more experience than I am master of." And, subsequently, referring to his wife: "I shall hope that my friends will visit, and endeavor to keep up the spirits of my wife as much as they can, for my departure will, I know, be a cutting stroke upon her; and on this account alone I have many disagreeable sensations."
On the 20th of June he received his commission from the President of Congress. The following day was fixt upon for his departure for the army. He reviewed previously, at the request of their officers, several militia companies of horse and foot. Every one was anxious to see the new commander, and rarely has the public beau ideal of a commander been so fully answered. He was now in the vigor of his days, forty-three years of age, stately in person, noble in his demeanor, calm and dignified in his deportment; as he sat his horse, with manly grace, his military presence delighted every eye, and wherever he went the air rang with acclamations. . . .
He set out on horseback on the 21st of June, having for military companions of his journey Major-generals Lee and Schuyler, and being accompanied for a distance by several private friends. As an escort he had a "gentleman troop" of Philadelphia, commanded by Captain Markoe; the whole formed a brilliant cavalcade. . . .
Many things concurred to produce perfect harmony of operation between these distinguished men. They were nearly of the same age, Schuyler being one year the youngest. Both were men of agricultural as well as military tastes. Both were men of property, living at their ease in little rural paradisesWashington on the grove-clad heights of Mount Vernon, Schuyler on the pastoral banks of the upper Hudson, where he had a noble estate at Saratoga, inherited from an uncle, and the old family mansion, near the city of Albany, half hid among ancestral trees. Yet both were exiling themselves from these happy abodes, and putting life and fortune at hazard in the service of their country. . . .
They had scarcely proceeded twenty miles from Philadelphia when they were met by a courier, spurring with all speed, bearing dispatches from the army to Congress, communicating tidings of the battle of Bunker's Hill. Washington eagerly inquired particulars; above all, how acted the militia? When told that they stood their ground bravely; sustained the enemy's fire; reserved their own until at close quarters, and then delivered it with deadly effect, it seemed as if a weight of doubt and solicitude were lifted from his heart. "The liberties of the country are safe!" exclaimed he. The news of the battle of Bunker's Hill had startled the whole country; and this clattering cavalcade escorting the commander-in-chief to the army, was the gaze and wonder of every town and village. .
Escorted by a troop of light horse and a cavalcade of citizens, he proceeded to the headquarters provided for him at Cambridge, three miles distant. As he entered the confines of the camp the shouts of the multitude and the thundering of artillery gave note to the enemy beleagured in Boston of his arrival. His military reputation had preceded him and excited great expectations. They were not disappointed. His personal appearance, notwithstanding the dust of travel, was calculated to captivate, the public eye. As he rode through the camp, amidst a throng of officers, he was the admiration of the soldiery and of a curious throng collected from the surrounding country. Happy was the countryman who could get a full view of him to carry home an account of it to his neighbors. The fair sex were still more enthusiastic in their admiration, if we may judge from the following passage of a letter written by the intelligent and accomplished wife of John Adams to her husband: "Dignity, ease, and complacency, the gentleman and the soldier, look agreeably blended in him. Modesty marks every line and feature of his face."
With Washington, modest at all times, there was no false excitement on the present occasion; nothing to call forth emotions of self-glorification. The honors and congratulations with which he was received, the acclamations of the public, the cheerings of the army, only told him how much was expected from him; and when he looked round upon the raw and rustic levies he was to command, "a mixt multitude of people, under very little discipline, order, or government" scattered in rough encampments about hill and dale, beleaguring a city garrisoned by veteran troops, with ships of war anchored about its harbor, and strong outposts guarding it, he felt the awful responsibility of his situation, and the complicated and stupendous task before him. He spoke of it, however, not despondingly nor boastfully and with defiance; but with that solemn and sedate resolution, and that hopeful reliance on Supreme Goodness, which belonged to his magnanimous nature. The cause of his country, he observed, had called him to an active and dangerous duty, but he trusted that Divine Providence, which wisely orders the affairs of men, would enable him to discharge it with fidelity and success.
On the 3d of July, the morning after his arrival at Cambridge, Washington took formal command of the army. It was drawn up on the common about half a mile from headquarters. A multitude had assembled there, for as yet military spectacles were novelties, and the camp was full of visitors, men, women, and children, from all parts of the country, who had relatives among the yeoman soldiery. An ancient elm is still pointed out,2 under which Washington, as he arrived from headquarters accompanied by General Lee and a numerous suite, wheeled his horse, and drew his sword as commander-in-chief of the armies. . . .
1From Irving's "Life of Washington." By permission of the publishers, G. P. Putnam's Sons.
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2Irving wrote in 1855. This well-preserved elm still stands in Cambridge enclosed by an iron fence, in the middle of the highway, just beyond the grounds of Harvard University.
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WASHINGTON'S CAPTURE OF BOSTON
WILLIAM EMERSON'S ACCOUNT OF
THE CONCORD FIGHT
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© 2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman