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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Friday, May 03, 2013

What Was Washington Doing During the Battle of Bunker Hill?

On Tuesday I posed the question of what George Washington was doing during the Battle of Bunker Hill, which occurred on the afternoon of 17 June 1775.

As several people noted, around that date the Continental Congress was making Washington the commander-in-chief of its new Continental Army. But that process took some time. The Congress voted to appoint a commander and offered Washington the post on 15 June, heard his acceptance on 16 June, and started drafting its formal commission and instructions on 17 June, as shown in its record here. It seems likely that once Washington accepted the post of commander, he stayed away from the Congress’s formal sessions. So where was he?

The most consistent source for Washington’s daily activities before the war are his diaries, which are otherwise bland and unenlightening. (He stopped keeping those diaries as soon as he took up his commission as general, making him perhaps the most frustrating diarist ever.) As shown here, Washington’s entry for 17 June 1775 was:
Dined at Burns’s in the Fields—spent the Evening at my Lodgings.
Washington also recorded dining at “Burns’s” or “Burn’s” on 1, 13, and 15 June. I think that dinner locale was most likely Patrick Byrne’s tavern on Front Street between Walnut and Spruce, known as “the Sign of the Cock.” Byrne (1734-1808) was an immigrant from Ireland, and his tavern shows up in other news of the era. But I’m not certain his address counted as “in the Fields” in 1775—any Philadelphians know?

Since Americans of this period ate dinner in the first half of the afternoon, and Philadelphia time was somewhat behind Boston time, Washington was probably eating at Byrne’s as the major fighting of the Battle of Bunker Hill began.

Two days before, Washington had “spent the Eveng. on a Committee”—that was the last day before he accepted the post of general, and I suspect he used the time to make clear what he wanted in other generals (Charles Lee, Horatio Gates), aides, and other support. But on 17 June, as the British consolidated their new territory on Bunker’s Hill and the provincials threw up hasty fortifications on the west side of Charlestown neck, Washington spent the evening privately.

As of midnight, three Boston 1775 readers answered the question correctly, citing Washington’s diary. Two people are our old friends and occasional guest bloggers Charles Bahne and Don Hagist, and the third is frequent commenter Joe Bauman. Congratulations to all three gentlemen!

I flipped a coin with Washington on it a couple of times, and it came up for Don. So I’ll be sending him a free copy of Nathaniel Philbrick’s new book Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution. Thanks, everyone!

TOMORROW: A question of timing.


John L Smith Jr said...

Congratulations to Charles, Don and Joe!!

Citoyen david said...

14, June 1775 (Wednesday)
Congress resolves to have a proper form for enlistment into the new army. An Oath will be decided upon by committee. A committee of five shall be appointed to prepare rules and regulations for the government of the army. The following persons were chosen to compose that committee: Mr. Washington, Mr. Schuyler, Mr. Deane, Mr. Cushing and Mr. Hewes. Also, please note that on the 3rd of June, Mr. Washington was appointed to serve on the committee to bring an estimate of the money necessary to be raised for a standing army.
“Journals of the Continental Congress 1774 – 1788” Vol 1, (page 79 & 80)

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, Washington's committee work at the Continental Congress is very interesting. At the first congress in 1774, he wasn't appointed to any committees. At the second, he was not only appointed to nearly all the committees on military matters, one after another, but he was usually the first man named, which meant he was the head of that committee.

The second man named to the 14 June committee, Philip Schuyler of New York, was also named a general of the Continental Army a few days later. He was in charge of the defense of northern New York/invasion of Canada.

J. L. Bell said...

Tom Winslow writes from Morristown National Historical Park that Joseph Jackson's 1932 paper "Washington In Philadelphia" guessed that "Burns's in the Fields" meant James Byrne's tavern "on Market Street, above Eleventh, the site of the Reading Terminal." 

Jackson also argued that Washington's lodgings during the Second Continental Congress were with cabinetmaker Benjamin Randolph, on Chestnut Street between Third and Fourth Street, and not at Edmund Fitz Randolph's, as some had guessed.

Byron DeLear said...

You mention Washington being a “frustrating diarist” due to the incompleteness of his personal writings, especially during the war years. However, Boston 1775 readers might be interested to know, a significant quantity of Washington’s papers were most likely suppressed. So the statement that he ceased “keeping those diaries as soon as he took up his commission” may not be entirely accurate.

Col. Tobias Lear, Washington’s secretary from around 1784 until his death in 1799, was in possession of the Washington papers for a full year after he died. He was also present when Washington passed and recorded his last words, “’tis well.”

In Richard Zachs’s “The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805 (2005),” we find the story of the mishandling of Washington's papers in the year following his death.

Now came Lear’s least finest hour: the missing Washington papers. The case plays out like a whodunit. Instead of nephew Bushrod, Supreme Court Justice John Marshall wound up volunteering to write a biography of George Washington. He received the papers from Lear, who had kept them for a year. Marshall, who didn’t examine the whole trunk of papers right away, was quite upset when he discovered swaths of Washington’s diary were missing, especially sections during the war and presidency, and that a handful of key letters had also vanished.

Lear, in a long rambling letter to Marshall, denied destroying any of Washington’s papers, but Lear’s own correspondence would later surface to refute his own denial.

A letter has survived that Lear had written Alexander Hamilton to offer to suppress Washington documents.

“There are, as you well know,” Lear had written, “among the several letters and papers, many which every public and private consideration should withhold from further inspection.” He specifically asked in the letter if Hamilton wanted any military papers removed. (Interestingly, while almost all the presidential diary is gone, Washington’s entries for his New England trip to Lear’s family home have survived.)

Beyond the missing diary, six key letters—that might have added a chapter to American history—were gone. Many sources claimed that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington had suffered a huge falling-out over a letter that Jefferson sent to a friend in Italy. In it, Jefferson had characterized Washington’s administration as being “Anglican monarchial & aristocratical,” and stated that Washington had appointed officers, “all timid men who prefer the calm of despotism to the boisterous sea of liberty.”

The Jefferson letter, sent to one Philip Mazzei, was eventually published abroad and then translated by Noah Webster back into English and republished in America. Its appearance in print allegedly sparked a nasty private fight, a three-round exchange of letters between Washington and Jefferson. Lear, in a conversation with friends over bottles of wine, had once admitted the existence of the letters but then later denied that he had ever said that. A fellow named Albin Rawlins, an overseer at Mount Vernon, informed one of Washington’s nephews that he personally had seen the letters and that the second exchange of replies was so harsh that it made the “hair rise on his head” and “that he felt that it must produce a duel.”

Those letters, which would have been extraordinary weapons in the hands of Jefferson’s enemies, disappeared sometime during the year that Tobias Lear safeguarded Washington’s papers and have never been seen since. (Lear’s only biographer, Ray Brighton, is convinced—despite no smoking-gun evidence—that Lear destroyed the letters at Jefferson’s request and that Jefferson rewarded him for the rest of his life.)

So it’s not necessarily partial or bad record keeping the absence of diaries during key periods. Even beyond the silencing of romantic and personal correspondence, there might have been some very interesting details about our nation’s founding that our Founders wished to never to see the light of day.

J. L. Bell said...

As for diaries, Washington quite clearly stopped writing daily notes in the interleaved almanac he had used as a journal from the start of 1775. The pages show that. And the date corresponds with when he took up his military commission.

It's conceivable that the new general on that date started a diary recording his activity for the Continental Congress. But Washington and his staff were careful to preserve his official military papers, except those related to espionage, and no such daily record exists.

We know there were many more letters between George and Martha Washington than survive (less than a handful), and some of Joseph Reed's letters to Washington in late 1775 and early 1776 are missing. So there's no question his correspondence was culled. But Washington's journals seem like a separate matter.

Byron DeLear said...

Any ideas about the missing Reed letters?

J. L. Bell said...

I'm not sure about the provenance of the surviving documents, but I suspect that after the rift between Washington and Reed at the end of 1776, the general mentally moved his former secretary's correspondence from "between close friends" to "official letters." The 1775-76 letters were probably more personal, full of gossip and frank criticism, and George or Martha culled most of those letters while preserving the more public documents.

Gerald said...

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.