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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Thursday, March 14, 2013

“The General’s usual mode” of Correspondence

What was it like to work as one of Gen. George Washington’s aides de camp? Dr. James McHenry was a hospital surgeon during the siege of Boston, but later in the war he became an aide to the commander-in-chief.

On one manuscript McHenry wrote a description of how the headquarters worked then:

The General’s usual mode [was] of giving notes to his secretaries or aids for letters of business. Having made out a letter from such notes, it was submitted to the General for his approbation and correction—afterwards copied fair, when it was again copied and signed by him.
And another copy had to be made for the files. The general thus needed aides who could understand his priorities and express what he wanted to say. While he worked on major reports himself, there was simply too much correspondence for him to do all the first drafts.

Washington probably developed that system during the first year of the war, when he was mostly headquartered as what is now Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site in Cambridge. I’ll be speaking there tonight at 6:00 on how the new commander-in-chief set up his system of military administration, making some missteps along the way. Earlier in the day the National Park Service staff will offer tours of the mansion focused on Washington’s time there.

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