J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Anthony Walton White Does Not Impress

On Thursday, I’m going to Gen. George Washington’s headquarters in Cambridge to speak about how he managed his generals and his staff. Back on 25 July 1775, a young man showed up at the same building hoping for a place on that staff.

Anthony Walton White (1750-1803) was a grandson of Lewis Morris, governor of New Jersey. He arrived with a recommendation letter from George Clinton of New York. His grandfather wrote another letter on his behalf, and his father wrote to Washington twice.

White wanted to join the Continental Army—but not, of course, at the enlisted level. All the New England regiments were fully stocked with officers or didn’t want anything to do with a stranger from New Jersey. So the only opportunity was in some sort of staff job.

The Continental Congress had authorized Gen. Washington to hire a military secretary and three aides de camp. As of late July, he had filled two of those aide positions with Thomas Mifflin and John Trumbull. So White stuck around.

In August, Mifflin took the more important post of quartermaster general. Two young men from Virginia, Edmund Randolph and George Baylor, arrived and became aides de camp. But Trumbull went back to the Connecticut troops, leaving an opening. And White still stuck around.

Washington wrote to White’s father about his “modest deportment,” but what worried him were White’s modest talents. In fact, he was more interested in the young man’s horse. On 3 October, the general paid White £48 “for a Riding Mare.” White may have needed that money to get home. He returned to New Jersey and sought a commission there instead.

Months later, Washington was still using White as an example of someone he did not want as an aide. In January 1776 he told former secretary Joseph Reed that it “pains me when I think of Mr. White’s expectation of coming into my family if an opening happens.” (In fact, there was still an opening at that time—Washington was keeping the secretary post vacant, hoping Reed would return.)

White never grew in Washington’s esteem. In September 1798 the former President told federal officials that the man hadn’t accomplished anything but “frivolity—dress—empty shew & something worse—in short for being a notorious L—r.” Authors have interpreted the last word as “liar,” but it could also have been “lecher.” And I doubt White developed any personal fondness for Gen. Washington.

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