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, November 09, 2012

The Generals in Cambridge: “Uneasiness among us”

When Nathaniel Folsom, newly appointed general of the New Hampshire troops, arrived at the siege of Boston in late June 1775, he found this chain of command:
Mr. [Artemas] Ward [shown here] is Capt. General, Mr. [John] Thomas Lieut. General, and the other Generals are Major Generals.
Those others included William Heath, Joseph Frye, and John Whitcomb of Massachusetts; Joseph Spencer and Israel Putnam of Connecticut; and Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island, as well as Folsom himself.

I wrote about Folsom’s difficulty asserting his authority over Col. John Stark back here. One week after the New Hampshire officers had worked out their differences, Gen. George Washington arrived in Cambridge and upset the whole arrangement.

There doesn’t seem to have been any resistance to the Virginian becoming the Continental Congress’s new commander-in-chief. Rather, he also brought along the Congress’s commissions for subordinate generals, and they didn’t match the situation on the ground. Ward had already written to John Hancock that the new appointments might “create Uneasiness among us; which we ought, at this critical Time, to be extremely careful to avoid.”

The Congress has decided to rank the generals under Washington this way:
Schuyler, Montgomery, and Wooster were assigned to the defense of northern New York/invasion of southern Canada.

The New England delegates in the Congress had tried to replicate the seniority of their colonies’ militia officers, and were also swayed by reports of the Battle of Lexington and Concord (which Heath had participated in) and the skirmish over Noddle’s Island (which Putnam had led). The Congress therefore elevated Putnam over Spencer even though Connecticut had ranked Putnam third among its generals. The Congress also made Heath outrank Thomas even though Heath was taking orders from Thomas.

In addition, the Congress hadn’t learned several things. Pomeroy had never accepted his general’s rank in the Massachusetts army (though he had fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill). Frye, Whitcomb, and Folsom were all exercising commands in the army outside Boston. And on 23 June the Massachusetts Provincial Congress had voted to make Col. Richard Gridley of the artillery regiment into another major general.

By the time Washington realized what a mess this was, he had already given Putnam his commission as Continental major general and couldn’t take it back. On 10 July he wrote to Philadelphia:
The great Dissatisfaction expressed on this Subject & the apparent Danger of throwing the whole Army into the utmost Disorder, together with the strong Representations made by the Provincial Congress, have induced me to retain the Commissions in my Hands untill the pleasure of the Congress should be farther known…
In fact, on 5 July, only three days after the new commander reached Cambridge, Spencer had convinced a large number of Connecticut officers to sign a letter to their legislature protesting the Congress’s decision and then set off for Hartford to deliver it himself. Or, as Washington wrote, “General Spencer was so much disgusted at the Preference given to General Puttnam, that he left the Army without visiting me, or making known his Intentions in any Respect.”

And Gen. Thomas was talking about leaving, too.

TOMORROW: Gen. Washington handles his first managerial crisis.

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