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, March 15, 2013

Washington Asks Lee for an Aide

In February 1776, Gen. George Washington was desperate enough for an aide de camp with the right skills that he asked Gen. Charles Lee to send him one. Specifically, he wanted William Palfrey (1741-1780, shown here), one of Lee’s aides in New York. Palfrey had worked for John Hancock before the war and was well respected by the Boston Whigs.

At that time, Washington was keeping the job of his military secretary open for Joseph Reed to return to it—which Reed never did. Aide de camp Robert Hanson Harrison was doing the secretary’s job, mustermaster general Stephen Moylan was helping out, but aide de camp George Baylor wasn’t much help at all when it came to office work.

On 10 February, Washington explained the situation to Lee in a letter:
It is unnecessary for me to observe to you, the multiplicity of business I am Involved In—the number of Letters, Orders, & Instruction’s I have to write—with many other matters which call loudly for Aids that are ready Pen-men—I have long waited in exasperation of Colo. Reeds return, but now despair of it. [Edmund] Randolph who was also ready at his Pen, leaves me little room to expect him [back from Virginia]; my business in short, will not allow me to wait, as I have none but Mr. Harrison (for Mr. Moylan must be call’d of to attend his duty as Commissary of Musters) who can afford me much assistance in that way, and he, in case Colo. Reed should not return, has the promise of succeeding him.

Now the Intention of this preamble is to know, whether, if Mr Palfrey (who from what I have seen and heard, is ready at his Pen) should Incline to come into my Family, for I have never directly or indirectly intimated the matter to him, although he has been very warmly recommended to me by some of his Friends for any thing that might cast up, you would consent to it—He would be of Singular use to me on another Acct also, and that is, the universal acquaintance he has with the People & characters of this Government [i.e., Massachusetts], with whom I have so much business to Transact.

Mr Baylor is as good, and as obliging a young Man as any in the World, and so far as he can be Serviceable in Riding, & delivering verbal Orders as useful; but the duties of an Aid de Camp at Head Quarters cannot be properly discharged by any but Pen-men—Mr [Anthony Walton] White in case of vacancy expected to be provided for in my Family, but as I believe he would be just such another as Baylor I must however disappointed he is be excused. Business multiplies so fast upon my hands that I am confined almost intirely to the House, and should be more so, if I am depriv[e]d of that assistanc[e] which is necessary to divide, & take of part of the trouble from my own Shoulders.
Lee would have had to invoke a military emergency to resist such a clear request by his superior and stand in the way of a promotion for Palfrey. At the time there was much more action in Boston than in New York. So Lee cheerfully sent Palfrey north, thus saving Washington’s headquarters from the return of Anthony Walton White.

In 2005 Sotheby’s sold this letter for $36,000.

TOMORROW: How Washington managed to divest himself of George Baylor.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice to see the "Old Secretary" Robert Hanson Harrison get a mention!