Washington’s Belated Admission

“This is a most unfortunate affair and has given me great Mortification as we have lost not only two thousand Men that were there, but a good deal of Artillery, & some of the best Arms we had.” So wrote General George Washington to his brother John Augustine Washington in November 1776.[1] The fall of Fort Washington, with its garrison of 2,900 officers and men, on 16 Nov. 1776 was Washington’s greatest defeat (excluding Charleston, S.C. in 1780, where he was too distant from the scene of action to affect the outcome). Not surprisingly, the general, whose army had just been chased out of New York and into New Jersey by British general William Howe, was reluctant to admit his own faults in the loss of the fort’s garrison. He had only commanded the army for a year and five months and the glory of his victory at Boston was beginning to fade. Some were beginning to question his ability to command the army. Washington told his brother that the fort “was held contrary to my Wishes & opinion.” In his official report to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, Washington said almost nothing about his own role in the loss of the garrison, to the point of making himself sound like a mere bystander. But these explanations were not his only accounts of his role in the fort’s fall. The documentary record shows that Washington gave two versions of his decision making regarding whether to defend Fort Washington or evacuate the post. In 1779 the general gave a far more candid account of his role in the loss of the garrison. The differences in the two accounts of his decision making regarding Fort Washington offer a striking example of his maturation as a general.

Detail of map (1777) depicting the 16 Nov. 1776 Battle of Fort Wagner by Claude J. Sauthier. Click to view full map. Source: Boston Public Library
Detail of map (1777) depicting the 16 Nov. 1776 Battle of Fort Wagner by Claude J. Sauthier. Click to view full map. Source: Boston Public Library

In his 1776 letter to his brother, Washington said that he did not arrive in New Jersey in time to take measures to save Fort Washington “tho I got here myself a day or two before it surrendered.” He went on to explain that he considered the post to be “a dangerous one: but being determind on by a full Council of General Officers, & receiving a resolution of Congress strongly expressive of their desires, that the Channel of the River (which we had been labouring to stop a long while at this place) might be obstructed, if possible; & knowing that this could not be done unless there were Batteries to protect the Obstruction I did not care to give an absolute Order for withdrawing the Garrison till I could get round & see the Situation of things & then it became too late as the Fort was Invested. I had given it, upon the passing of the last Ships, as my opinion to Genl Greene under whose care it was, that it would be best to evacuate the place – but – as the order was discretionary, & his opinion differed from mine, it unhappily was delayed too long, to my great grief.”[2]

Here, Washington seems to cast the blame on Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, who commanded the Continental Army troops in New Jersey. Washington did write to Greene on 8 November, after three enemy vessels had passed up the Hudson past the fort, that since the fort could not prevent vessels passing up the river and the British held the surrounding country that it would serve no valuable purpose to attempt to hold the post. But he did not issue a positive order for its evacuation; instead he wrote Greene that he was “inclined to think” that it would not be “prudent” to hazard the men and stores in Fort Washington. “But as you are on the Spot, [I] leave it to you to give such Orders as to evacuating Mount Washington as you judge best” [my italics].[3]

Washington misled his brother by saying that after his arrival at Greene’s headquarters in New Jersey it was “too late” to assess the situation and make a final decision on evacuation or defense. The commander in chief had in fact arrived at Fort Lee on 13 November; the enemy did not attack the fort until three days later. He had ample time to make a decision. Despite his own convictions, he failed to reverse Greene’s decision to continue defending the fort. Greene was more candid than Washington at the time. The day after the fall of the fort, he wrote to Brig. Gen. Henry Knox: “His Excellency General Washington has been with me for several days. The Evacuation or reinforcement of Fort Washington was under consideration, but finally nothing concluded on.”[4]

Col. Joseph Reed, the army’s adjutant general, also believed that Washington had ample time to make a decision for evacuation of the fort. Shortly after the fall of the fort he wrote to Maj. Gen. Charles Lee: “General Washington’s own judgment, seconded by representations from us, would have saved the men and their arms; but, unluckily, General Greene’s judgment was contrary. This kept the General’s mind in a state of suspense till the stroke was struck. Oh, General! an indecisive mind is one of the greatest misfortunes that can befall an army: how often have I lamented it this campaign” [my italics][5]

At the time, then, both Greene and Reed saw Washington’s indecision as the reason for the loss of the garrison. But Washington himself, even in a private letter, could not bring himself to mention his indecision and hesitation.

Nearly three years after the fall of Fort Washington, disgruntled Charles Lee, in a piece published in The Maryland Journal, and Baltimore Advertiser in July 1779, used Reed’s letter as evidence that the former adjutant general believed Washington was not a great general. Lee’s article posed a long series of questions to the public designed to attack both the Pennsylvania government and Washington’s generalship. In two of his questions Lee pointed out that Reed was one of the few who had actually been intimately associated with Washington during the war, but then, referring to Reed’s letter, asked: “Whether this Gentleman … does really think his Excellency a great man, or whether evidences could not be produced of his sentiments being quite the reverse?”[6] In a newspaper response to Lee’s questions, Reed accused him of taking the letter out of context and offered an explanation of his statement about Washington’s indecision on that day. “In the fall of 1776,” he wrote, “I was extremely anxious that Fort-Washington should be evacuated—there was a difference of opinion among those whom the General consulted, and he hesitated more than I ever knew him on any other occasion, and more than I thought the public service admitted. Knowing that Gen. Lee’s opinion would be a great support to mine, I wrote to him from Hackinsack” (the letter quoted above). Giving a paraphrase of the portion of the letter italicized above, Reed explained that he had written the offending sentence “in haste” and “in full confidence” while “in great anxiety for the event.” He explained to his readers that he had since been with Washington “at very critical moments” and he assured them that they could be confident in the commander in chief’s “prudence and judgment, which are equal to any circumstances.”

As Reed wrote to Washington, Lee’s piece was merely a screed against the commander in chief by a disgruntled general. (In a reply to a later letter from Reed, Washington called Lee “a malignant writer.”[7]) But historians should thank Lee, because his letter to the editor and Reed’s response gave an occasion for Washington to give a far more candid explanation of his decision making on Fort Washington. In an August 1779 letter to Reed thanking him for sending a copy of his response to Lee’s article, Washington, now a much more confident commander in chief, admitted his hesitation and indecision and explained the reasons for it. “The loss of Fort Washington simply – abstracted from the circumstances which attended it – was an event that gave me much pain,” he wrote, “because it deprived the army of the Services of many valuable Men at a critical period, and the public of many valuable lives, by the cruelties which were inflicted upon them in their captive state.”

Troops movement during Battle of Fort Washington. Source: Oneam
Troops movement during Battle of Fort Washington. Source: Oneam

Though he still believed that Greene had made an “error” in judgment by taking no measures to prepare for the evacuation of the fort and still maintained that Congress’s order had not left him enough latitude, Washington could now admit his own complicity in the poor decision making. The general went into a detailed account of what occurred in the three days at Fort Lee – the days he had left out in his 1776 letter to his brother: “When I came to Fort Lee & found no measures taken for an evacuation in consequence of the order aforementioned. When I found General Greene of whose judgment & candour I entertained a good opinion, decidedly opposed to it – When I found other opinions coinciding with his – When the wishes of Congress to obstruct the Navigation of the North [Hudson] river, and which were delivered in such forceable terms to me, recurred—When I knew that the easy communication between the different parts of the army then seperated by the River depended upon it—and lastly, when I considered that our policy led us to waste the campaign without coming to a general action on the one hand, or to suffer the enemy to overrun the Country on the other, I conceived that every impediment which stood in their way was a mean to answer these purposes, and when thrown into the scale of those opinions which were opposed to an evacuation caused that warfare in my mind and hesitation which ended in the loss of the garrison, and being repugnant to my own judgment of the advisability of attempting to hold the Post, filled me with the greatest regret.”

Charles Willson Peale paintings of Washington in 1776 and 1779. Sources: The White House Historical Association and Princeton University Art Museum
Charles Willson Peale paintings of Washington in 1776 and 1779. Sources: The White House Historical Association and Princeton University Art Museum

Washington then admitted that his indecision had prevented a timely evacuation of the fort: “The two great causes which led to this misfortune … as well perhaps as my reasoning upon it, which occasioned the delay, were concealed from public view.”[8]

So what do we learn about Washington the general from these two variant accounts? We see the evolution of the commander in chief. In 1776, Washington could not admit that his indecision lost the garrison of Fort Washington; in 1779 he could. By August 1779 Washington had won victories at Trenton and Princeton; he had been tested in the fire at Brandywine and preserved the army; he had struck back at Germantown and nearly won a victory; he had fought the best of the British Army to draw a Monmouth; he had orchestrated the first campaign of cooperation with his French allies; and he had fought Sir Henry Clinton to a draw in war of maneuver and raids along the Hudson. Through it all, he had kept the army intact and had even made it better. In short, in 1776 Washington did not know what kind of general he was; in the late summer of 1779 he knew he was equal to his opponents. He could now admit his mistakes and knew they did not define his generalship.

[Featured Image at Top:  A view of the attack against Fort Washington (1776) by Thomas Davies. Source: New York Public Library]


[1] Washington to John Augustine Washington, 6-19 Nov. 1776, in William Abbott, et al., ed., The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series (hereafter cited as PGWRW), 7:102-6.

[2] Congress’s order of 11 October 1776 read: Resolved, that General Washington be desired, if it be practicable, by every art, and whatever expence, to obstruct effectually the navigation of the North [Hudson] river, between Fort Washington and Mount Constitution, as well as to prevent the regress of the enemys frigates lately gone up, as to hinder them from receiving succours” (Journals of the Continental Congress, 6:866)

[3] Washington to Greene, 8 Nov. 1776, PGWRW, 7:115-17.

[4] Greene to Knox, 17 Nov. 1776, Greene Papers, 1:351-59.

[5] Reed to Lee, 21 Nov. 1776,  [Charles Lee]. The Lee Papers. 4 vols. (New York, 1872-75; in Collections of the New-York Historical Society, vols. 4–7), 4:376-77.

[6] “Some QUERIES, political and military, humbly offered to the consideration of the PUBLIC,” Maryland Journal, and Baltimore Advertiser, 6 July 1779.  Reed sent the “Queries” to Washington in his letter of 15 July 1779. The “Queries” were printed as from an anonymous author, but Lee was suspected. After a public outcry, the editor of the paper was forced to acknowledge Lee as the author (see the note following the “Queries” in The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 21:503-5;  the “Queries” are printed as an enclosure to Joseph Reed to Washington, 15 July 1779).

[7] Washington to Reed, 22 Aug. 1779, PGWRW, 22:224-27.

[8] Ibid.

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