George Baylor (1752-1784) was a young Virginia planter in 1775. He was a son of Col. John Baylor, who had been George Washington’s friend and companion during the French and Indian War. Therefore, when young Baylor decided to join the American war effort, he had an inside line on a top staff position.
Baylor arrived in Cambridge with Edmund Randolph, another Virginian. Both young men brought recommendations from the Virginia delegates to the Continental Congress; Edmund Pendleton, writing on July 12, 1775, praised Baylor’s “Ardor.” That quality, and old acquaintance, were enough for the commander-in-chief. On August 15 Washington’s general orders announced: “Edmund Randolph and George Baylor Esqrs are appointed Aids-de-Camp, to the Commander in Chief.”
Randolph and Baylor turned out to have very different abilities, and Washington soon learned whose talents he needed more. Randolph had trained in his father’s law office for a few years after a short stint at the College of William & Mary, and he had started to practice law on his own. He was “ready at his Pen,” the general recalled in a February 1776 letter. As the siege went on, Washington quickly realized that his headquarters needed more than simple “Ardor.”
Overseeing an army spread out across many miles, dependent on far-flung supply chains and the approval of distant governments, meant Washington’s written communication was vital. Over the eight years of the war, the headquarters office sent out about 12,000 letters and orders in the commander’s own name, plus more from his secretary and aides themselves. The general therefore needed men who could efficiently transform his thoughts into polished prose.
A later aide-de-camp, Dr. James McHenry, related that when writing a letter Washington would start by drafting notes on what he wanted to say. The assigned aide “made out a letter from such notes,” and the result “was submitted to the General for his approbation and correction—afterwards copied fair…and signed by him.” For shorter letters, Washington probably dictated his thoughts, and aides who were especially close or confident, such as Alexander Hamilton, conveyed his wishes in their own words with minimal consultation.
Even for letters that the general composed or carefully edited himself, the aides needed to write swiftly and legibly. Nearly every letter sent from the headquarters also had to be copied into blank notebooks, classified as either official or private. Handwriting was so important that on March 25, 1776, Washington expressed doubts about the suitability of Samuel Blachley Webb for a post at headquarters because “what kind of a hand he writes I know not—I believe but a crampt one.” Furthermore, the general said, a good aide should be “a plodding, methodical Person, whose sole business shd be to arrange his Papers &ca in such order as to produce any one, at any Instant it is called for, & capable at the same time of composing a Letter.”
After just a few months in command at the siege of Boston, General Washington learned that he needed “Aids that are ready Pen-men.” Regrettably, that did not describe George Baylor; “contrary to my expectation,” Washington wrote in November, this young Virginian was “not, in the smallest degree, a Penman, though Spirited and willing.” The general privately told Gen. Charles Lee in January:
Mr. Baylor is as good, and as obliging a young Man, as any in the World, and as 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.
Lee commiserated in his more colorful way, saying about Baylor and two of his own aides:
They can ride, understand, and deliver verbal orders; but you might as well set them to the task of translating an Arabick or Irish Manuscript, as expect that they shou’d, in half a day, copy a half sheet of orders.
In later years, Washington chose most of his aides-de-camp from the ranks of lawyers, doctors, attorneys, and other educated professionals rather than just any genteel young men who happened to apply, however ardent.
In November 1775, Washington gave Baylor a special assignment: he sent the aide to Connecticut to meet Martha Washington and escort her to Cambridge. At that time the general’s other aide-de-camp, Randolph, and his military secretary, Joseph Reed, had both suddenly departed, leaving him scrounging for office help. Nevertheless, General Washington felt that headquarters could afford to do without Baylor for several days. The young Virginian was clearly better at riding than at writing. He was the equivalent of a bike messenger on a staff of paralegals.
Baylor nonetheless remained one of General Washington’s aides de camp through 1776 as the Continental Army moved south. It seems to be have been too awkward to tell the young gentleman that this assignment was just not working out. After all, he was now the senior aide at headquarters, not to mention the son of an old friend. And Baylor appears to have remained perfectly agreeable about doing all the riding tasks his commander asked of him.
An eighteenth-century military tradition offered a graceful way out of this situation. After the British army won a major victory, it was traditional for the commander to choose one aide to carry his official report back to the capital. That was a big honor for the junior officer, not least because another tradition held that the bearer of such good news usually got a promotion. In 1762, for example, Gen. Robert Monckton sent Capt. Horatio Gates to London with word that the British forces had taken Martinique. The general recommended Gates “to His Majesty’s Favour, as a very deserving Officer.” Within five weeks of landing in England, Gates was promoted to major and given £1,000 toward purchasing a lieutenant colonelcy.
Unfortunately for General Washington, he had no victories to report in the fall of 1776 as the British pushed him out of New York and down through New Jersey. Finally, at the end of the December, the Continental troops surprised the Crown forces at Trenton. At last Washington had triumphant news to send to the Continental Congress. And for the honor of carrying that news and a captured flag to Baltimore (where the Congress had prudently removed), the general chose George Baylor.
Washington even added in his letter to the Congress:
Colo. Baylor, my first Aid de Camp, will have the honor of delivering this to you, and from him you may be made acquainted with many other particulars; his spirited Behaviour upon every Occasion, requires me to recommend him to your particular Notice.
Following tradition, the Congress made Baylor head of the new 3rd Continental Light Dragoon Regiment. Problem solved!
Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series (hereafter “PGW:RW”), Philander D. Chase, editor (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985), 1:109-11.
Arthur S. Lefkowitz, George Washington’s Indispensable Men: The 32 Aides-de-Camp Who Helped Win American Independence (Mechanicsburg, Penn.: Stackpole Books, 2003), 4.
Bernard C. Steiner, The Life and Correspondence of James McHenry (Cleveland: Burrows Brothers Company, 1907), 27.
Lefkowitz, Indispensable Men, 12.
Lefkowitz, Indispensable Men, 8, 11, 217.
Washington to Joseph Reed, March 25, 1776, PGW:RW, 3:536-8. Despite the concerns about his handwriting, Webb did become an aide-de-camp to Washington later that year.
Washington to Reed, November 20, 1775, PGW:RW, 2:407-8.
Lee to Washington, February 19, 1776, New-York Historical Society Collections, 4:308.
Max M. Mintz, The Generals of Saratoga: John Burgoyne and Horatio Gates (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990), 43.
Washington to John Hancock, December 27, 1776, PGW:RW, 7:461.
Lefkowitz, Indispensable Men, 99-100.