Aaron Burr’s Other Famous Adversary

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September 24, 2015
by Michael Schellhammer Also by this Author

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The name Aaron Burr immediately brings to mind his rival, Alexander Hamilton. But Hamilton wasn’t the only prominent person with a dislike for Burr. In 1798, George Washington made it clear that he did not like the cut of Aaron Burr’s jib. Preparing for what would become the Quasi-War with France, President John Adams was strengthening America’s armed forces. Washington came out of retirement to serve as commander-in-chief of the army again. Adams recommended former Continental Army officer Burr as a brigadier-general. Washington responded, “By all that I have known and heard, Colonel Burr is a brave and able officer; but the question is, whether he has not equal talents at intrigue.”[1]

Historians continue to speculate about what motivated Washington’s opinion of Burr.[2] A detailed analysis of Burr’s military record shows that Washington may have had fair reason to hold him in low regard.

There was no animosity between the two men when they first met in August 1775 at the camp of the newly-formed Continental Army at Cambridge, Massachusetts. Coming from a prominent New Jersey family, Burr and his friend Matthias Ogden arrived at camp with a letter of introduction from Continental Congress president John Hancock.[3] Washington had no officer appointments available but accepted Burr and Ogden as volunteers; a status without official rank that promising young gentlemen held while awaiting commissions.[4]

In September, Burr and Ogden joined Colonel Benedict Arnold’s expedition to seize Quebec. In Canada three months later, the energetic and intelligent Burr gained an appointment as aide-de-camp to Brig. Gen. Richard Montgomery, senior officer of the American forces at Quebec. Montgomery’s and Arnold’s forces assaulted Quebec on the night of December 31, 1775, and Burr performed bravely at his general’s side when a cannon blast of grapeshot killed Montgomery. A friend in Philadelphia wrote to Burr, “Tis said you behaved well . . . The gentlemen of Congress speak highly of you.”[5]

Burr served as Arnold’s aide until May 1776, when he became “disgusted” with Arnold’s “meanness and other bad qualities.”[6] He left Arnold’s camp for Albany, determined to find another appointment. Upon arrival Burr learned that Washington offered him a position in his staff, thanks to lobbying from Ogden, who earlier returned from Canada and obtained a commission. Congress authorized three aides and one secretary to assist the commander-in-chief, and Washington carefully chose the men for his military “family.”  Burr accepted, and joined Washington’s headquarters in Manhattan in the early summer of 1776.

In the early nineteenth century, Burr dictated his memoirs to his friend and political associate Matthew Davis. Davis recorded that Washington treated Burr with “respect and attention” but Burr considered the headquarters amateurish and quickly became “restless and dissatisfied.”  Burr feared becoming “a practical clerk” and informed John Hancock of his intent to resign. Hancock urged Burr to instead transfer to the staff for Maj. Gen. Israel Putnam, who commanded a division on Manhattan.[7] Washington apparently approved, because on June 22, Burr replaced Maj. Samuel Webb as Putnam’s aide-de-camp while Webb took over as Washington’s aide.[8]

What transpired between Burr and Washington remains an enigma. There is no evidence that Washington disliked Burr at the time. Washington scrutinized new aides to determine their capabilities for executing their demanding duties and one historian called Burr “probably the most famous tryout for Washington’s staff.”[9]  Those who made the grade served for an average of fifteen to sixteen months.[10] It is possible that the twenty-year-old Burr was eager for action and simply wanted a more exciting job.[11] Or, he may not have lived up to Washington’s expectations. It could have been a convenient swap for Maj. Webb. Either way, biographer Davis observed, “there is no doubt” that Burr’s brief assignment with Washington “laid the foundation for those prejudices which, at a future day, ripened into hostile feelings on both sides.”[12]

As Putnam’s aide with a status of major, Burr was on the southern end of Manhattan when British forces landed on September 15. Washington ordered American units to withdraw northward to avoid capture. Putnam sent Burr to pull out Colonel Gold Silliman’s brigade from Bayard’s Hill before it became surrounded. There are conflicting accounts of the event, but it appears that Burr helped guide the unit to safety. Two soldiers remembered that Burr’s “coolness, deliberation, and valour” gained him “respect from the troops, and the particular notice of the officers.”[13] However, according to Burr’s friend Davis, Burr perceived an “injustice” in the aftermath of the battle because he received no commendation from Washington, which strengthened his negative opinion of the general.[14]

If Davis’s record is accurate, Burr’s irritation was a petty fit of pique. Washington’s daily focus was on commanding an army in combat, not lauding division-level aides. If Burr considered himself heroic, he was overly self-impressed. Regimental officers faced greater dangers without expectation of personal recognition from the commander-in-chief.

In the spring of 1777, Burr was still Putnam’s aide and nearing his second year as a gentleman volunteer, referred to as “major” but without a Continental commission. Burr told Ogden that although he was “fond of a berth in a regiment,” he did not pursue promotion. “We are not to judge of our own merit,” he said, adding that he was “content to contribute” in any role.[15] At the same time, New Jersey Governor William Livingston prodded Washington to commission Burr.[16]  Possibly because of Livingston’s requests, on June 27 Washington appointed Burr lieutenant-colonel of Col. William Malcolm’s Continental regiment.[17] Burr responded to Washington that he was honored by the promotion but also complained about the commission’s “late date,” which made him junior to “many who were younger in the service.”[18]

In the age when gentlemen vigorously guarded their honor, it was not uncommon for officers to fixate on their seniority of rank. Nevertheless, Burr’s response was impertinent. He certainly desired a Continental commission, and with it he gained official rank, authority, and stature. Washington had no obligation to commission him, and Burr’s service as an aide did not warrant seniority over serving officers. Burr’s bickering also made his comments to Ogden that he would serve “in any station” a bit disingenuous. Washington did not respond.

In August, Burr joined Malcolm’s Regiment in Southeastern New York. Colonel Malcolm was a prosperous New York merchant and often not present with his troops, which left Burr in charge. In this role Burr led the regiment through the winter at Valley Forge over 1777-78 and gained a reputation as a stern but fair commander.[19]

On June 28, 1778, Burr was at the head of Malcolm’s Regiment when Gen. Charles Lee opened the battle of Monmouth. Burr was pushing his soldiers towards British lines when orders from Washington checked the advance. While his men held their line under intense British fire and in heat that soared to ninety-six degrees, Burr’s horse was shot from under him and he suffered what was probably a severe case of heat exhaustion.[20] Burr returned to duty after the battle but suffered severe nausea and headaches, probably the effects of his untreated heat exhaustion.

In the aftermath of the battle, General Lee famously faced a court-martial for disobeying orders and insubordination to Washington. Burr wrote to the court and defended Lee.[21]  For Burr, the battle of Monmouth proved his bravery as a commander, damaged his health, and confirmed his opposition to Washington.[22]

Malcolm’s Regiment moved to the Hudson Highlands in the fall of 1778. Still suffering the effects of his heat exhaustion, Burr wrote Washington that poor health rendered him “incapable of immediate service.”[23] Washington granted him an open-ended furlough to recover. Burr returned to Malcolm’s Regiment in December but considered resigning his commission. That same month, Maj. Gen. Alexander McDougall, commander of the Highlands Department, requested Burr take command of a brigade with lax discipline that manned the lines in Westchester County.[24] Much of Westchester County was in between American and British forces, and it was a no-man’s land of roving bandits, smugglers and spies. Commanding the lines was a demanding assignment that did not please Burr while he pondered resignation, but he accepted the command.[25]

Through January and February, 1779, Burr improved the brigade’s operations and tightened discipline.[26] He personally reconnoitered the area and employed locals as intelligence assets. The result, according McDougall’s aide-de-camp, was “a country, which for three years before had been a scene of robbery, cruelty, and murder, became at once the abode of security and peace.”[27] Early in his command Burr called his duty, “the most fatiguing, the most difficult and most troublesome that could have been contrived.”[28] By the end of February he informed Washington that his health was “unequal” to further command duties and that he intended to leave the army.[29]  Washington responded that he regretted “the loss of a good officer” but approved Burr’s resignation.[30] Burr departed the lines in mid-March. He periodically conducted brief missions for McDougall and Washington, but after July 1779, he performed no further military duty.[31]

After a lengthy recuperation, Burr returned to studying law in Connecticut, a path that eventually took him to politics. He remained immensely proud of his Continental Army time, with good reason; his service showed him to be devoted to the Revolutionary cause, physically brave, extremely intelligent and a dynamic leader.

In April 1789 Burr was practicing law in New York City, and he celebrated Washington’s inauguration as President. After Burr became a senator from New York in 1791, he sometimes opposed Washington politically. In the spring of 1794, Washington chose James Monroe over Burr as minister to France. The same year, Burr led Congressional resistance to a neutrality treaty with Britain that Washington strongly backed. Four years later came John Adams’s nomination for Burr as a general officer and Washington’s less than positive response.

When Washington questioned Burr’s talents at “intrigue,” he could have recalled Burr’s rapid departure from his staff, the quibbling over rank seniority, support to General Lee, or his resignation for health reasons. Each instance by itself was relatively minor and nothing that could not be found in the records of many officers. Together they indicate that Burr often chose to follow his own needs for adventure, recognition, or advancement before those of the Continental Army. Washington exemplified selfless service and expected similar dedication from subordinate officers. If he remembered Burr as a young man who maneuvered through assignments to satisfy his own needs and held a selfish outlook as an officer, it is not surprising that Washington questioned Burr’s suitability for high rank.

In the summer of 1804, the rivalry between Burr and Alexander Hamilton was running irrevocably towards a duel. Both men attended the Society of the Cincinnati Independence Day banquet on July 4 at Fraunces Tavern in New York City. Burr sat with quiet intensity while Hamilton joined the group in “General Wolfe’s Song,” and air about military glory and resignation when facing death.[32]  Singing it, the banquet attendees surely reflected on their Continental Army service. What Burr thought about is unknown but he was supremely self-confident. If Burr pondered his relationship with other officers, especially Washington, it is unlikely that he saw any “intrigue” in his ways.

 


[1] John Adams to James Lloyd, February 17, 1815, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Volume X (Boston; Little, Brown & Co.,1856), 124.

[2] See Nancy Isenberg, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr (New York: Penguin, 2007), 86. Isenberg believes that Alexander Hamilton influenced Washington’s opinion. However Milton Lomask in Aaron Burr, The Years from Princeton to Vice President, 1756-1805 (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979), 216, posits that Washington’s distrust of Burr dated to the Revolution.

[3] “From John Hancock,” July 19 1775, W.W. Abbot, ed., The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 1, (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia), 132.

[4] Burr Pension File, Burr’s Statement, April 5 1834; Washington to Lewis Morris, August 4 1775, John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, , Volume 3, 399. “Gentlemen volunteers” often acted as aides-de-camp for senior officers, handling correspondence and conducting headquarters business.

[5] William Bradford to Burr, January 24, 1776, in Matthew L. Davis, ed., Memoirs of Aaron Burr, 2 Vols. (New York: 1836), 75.

[6] Davis, Memoirs of Aaron Burr, Vol. I, 78. The quoted opinion is in Davis’s words. Considering that Burr dictated his experiences to Davis, and Davis wanted to portray Burr in the most positive light, I accept Davis’s statements about Burr’s motivations and opinions.

[7] Davis, Memoirs of Burr, Vol. I, 79-80, 82-83.

[8] Lomask, Aaron Burr, 43-44; General Orders, June 21, 1776 and June 22 1776, Writings of Washington, Vol. 5, 164-165.

[9] Arthur S. Lefkowtiz, Indispensable Men: The 32 Aides-de-Camp Who Helped Win American Independence (Mechanicsburg PA: Stackpole Books, 2003), 58.

[10] Gerald Edward Kahler, “Gentlemen of the Family: General George Washington’s Aides-de-Camp and Military Secretaries,” Masters Thesis, University of Richmond, 1997, 17.

[11] See Isenberg, Fallen Founder, 34, and Lomask, Aaron Burr, 45.

[12] Davis, Memoirs of Aaron Burr, Vol. I, 83

[13] Certificate from Isaac Jennings and Andrew Wakeman, Memoirs of Aaron Burr, Vol. I, 104.

[14] Davis, Memoirs of Burr, Vol. I, iii-iv; Lomask, Aaron Burr, 50.

[15] Burr to Ogden, March 7, 1777, in Davis, Memoirs of Burr, Vol. 1, 109.

[16] Livingston to Washington, February 15, 1777, George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, accessed July 19 2015 via http://memory.loc.gov; Washington to Livingston, February 22, 1777, Writings of Washington, Vol. 8, 306.

[17] Washington to Burr, June 27, 1777, Writings of Washington, Vol. 8, 306.

[18] Burr to Washington, July 21, 1777, in Davis, Memoirs of Burr, Vol. 1, 111.

[19] Isenberg, Fallen Founder, 42-45.

[20] Lomask, Aaron Burr, 56-57.

[21] Lee to Burr, October, 1778, Memoirs of Burr, Vol. 1, 135. Only Lee’s response survives so the details of what Burr expressed are unknown.

[22] Lomask, Aaron Burr, 58; Historian Thomas Fleming also discusses Burr’s support for Lee and the effect it may have had on Washington’s opinion of him in, Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America (New York; Basic Books, 1999), 85.

[23] Burr to Washington, Elizabethtown, 24th October, 1778, Memoirs of Aaron Burr, Vo 1, 136.

[24] Isenburg, Fallen Founder, 49-50.

[25] Burr to Peter Colt, January 21, 1779, Burr Papers, Library of Congress.

[26] Burr’s Orderly Books, January-February, 1779, Burr Papers, LOC.

[27] Richard Platt to Commodore Valentine Morris, January 27, 1814, Memoirs of Burr, Vol. 1,179.

[28] Burr to Peter Colt, January 21, 1779, Burr Papers, LOC.

[29] Burr to Washington, February 25, 1779, Burr Papers, LOC.

[30] Washington to Burr, April 3, 1779, Memoirs of Burr, Vol. 1, 168.

[31] Aaron Burr Pension File, Burr’s Testimony.

[32] Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2000), 36.

10 Comments

  • Thank you for a well-crafted and well-researched article, Mike. I always look forward to your work because of those and other features that you bring to anything you write.

    I find it interesting that Burr became disgusted with Arnold, two men both with bloated self-importance… although granted: Arnold deserved glory in his early, non-traitorous days. Burr – sort of a whiner.

    He pretty much had his clock cleaned career-wise after shooting Alexander Hamilton to death, though. I think he had to escape out of NYC pretty fast for fear of his life. Washington, I think, detected that unsavory character flaw in Burr. Maybe it was when Burr though Washington’s camp was amateurish.

    Great article (again), Mike!

  • Thanks a ton John!

    The arc of the Burr-Arnold relationship is indeed interesting: first there was mutual attraction, followed by devotion, and ultimately neither man liked the other. I suppose we could say that familiarity breeds contempt. Or, it is possible that two extremely self-impressed people easily grate on each other.

    Washington’s 1798 statement clearly indicates that there was something about Burr that he did not like. I personally believe that it was a slow burn, brought on by the combination of his Revolutionary War service and opposition to Washington in the early Republic.

    One problem with more definitively identifying what happened in Burr’s life is that he did not leave a large trove of documentation. Much of his correspondence was lost at sea, along with his beloved daughter. What is left is fragmentary, leaving us to piece things together.

    Burr remains an enigmatic character. And he may like it better that way.

    Thanks again, and I think you’re wanted on the set now.

  • Michael, I wonder if the basis for Washington’s comments might not have been of more recent vintage (to 1798). I am not a Burr historian, but I have read that after he entered New York politics in the 1790’s Burr flirted with both the Jeffersonian Democrats and the Federalists, eventually alienating both by backstabbing them on various issues. Washington was a very adept politician, and he may have been concerned that Burr might use his position to undermine the Adams administration and the Federalists. The bitter and divisive election of 1800 was, after all, only two years later.

    1. Ron – You’re probably right. My article focused on Burr’s Continental service but I think that Washington’s opinion resulted from his knowledge of Burr’s maneuvering in both the military and political arenas. Burr’s playing different sides for advantage was something that particularly irked Hamilton, for one. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • Excellent article Michael!

    Your supposition is plausible that Washington’s views Burr were based on his perpetual discontent and on leaving the army in a time of need. Considerable fighting occurred after 1779 with an uncertain outcome. People remember those who help persevere in tough situations!

    Very interesting point Ron – politics does have a way of inflaming passions!

    1. I’m honored Gene! As a point of contrast in resiliency, Burr’s friend Matthias Ogden, who joined the army with him at Cambridge, rose to be the colonel of the 1st New Jersey, was captured, exchanged, returned to duty, and served to the end of the Revolution. I suspect Washington had a higher opinion of Ogden than his friend Burr. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • Great article! Do the Burr papers indicate which units he assumed command of “on the lines” in Westchester? These are the same units (supposedly) taken over by Maj Hull prior to the beginning of the King’s Ferry Campaign; ive never been able to find who this group was composed of!

    1. Michael – You are correct that Maj. William Hull took command of Burr’s lines upon Burr’s departure, but I was not able to pin down exactly what units composed Burr’s line. In a letter contained in Burr’s memoirs, Capt. Richard Platt, who was the aide-de-camp for Gen. McDougall, recalled that Burr took over command of “a detachment of about three hundred troops” under command of Lt. Col. Littlefield of the Mass. Line. Platt describes Burr’s line as running from Tarrytown to White Plains to Mamaroneck. But Platt names no regiments. Neither does the correspondence between Burr and McDougall name any regiments. Burr’s orderly books for the period are (frustratingly, I felt) cataloged as “detachment at White Plains under McDougall.” The “Littlefield” who Platt mentions could be Lt. Col. Noah Littlefield of the 11th Mass., but it would take some more digging to confirm that. Burr’s correspondence mentions some other officers on Burr’s line, and the Burr pension file has some statements from soldiers who served on the Westchester line. I’d be happy to send those names to you if you’re interested in tracking down their regiments. I’d be interested in the answer!

      I’m glad you liked the piece and thanks for reading and commenting!
      Mike

      1. I would indeed! I think you have my email at Stony Point; if i find anything id be happy to report back!

  • Hi Mike,

    I was wondering if you could clarify whether Lt. Col. Littlefield served directly under Burr, or if he simply transferred a detachment of 300 from his own men to Burr.

    On that note as well, the only other Littlefield I found from this period who achieved a field officer rank was Major Daniel Littlefield, who died at the Battle of the Bagaduce in 1779. I’m fairly certain this is Noah Moulton Littlefield of the 11th Mass., who encamped at Valley Forge.

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