Washington, Congress, and War Strategy, 1779

George Washington after the Battle of Princeton by Charles Willson Peale, 1779. (Cleveland Museum of Art/Wikimedia Commons)

If you think that 1779 was a quiet year during which Gen. George Washington carefully kept his army out of reach of his British foes, trying to wear them down, it’s time for a history lesson. The latest volume in the Journal of the American Revolution book series, Washington’s War, 1779, by JAR contributor and historian Benjamin Lee Huggins, addresses this fallacy, demonstrating that Washington pursued an aggressive strategy even though it didn’t result in the kind of major battlefield confrontations that had characterized the previous four years. The extract below, from the book’s first chapter, sets the stage for the tense and dramatic year that is all too often passed over as unimportant.

Washington began 1779 in discussions with a committee of the Continental Congress. With his army encamped in winter quarters, the general was able to travel to Philadelphia for the conference. He had asked for the meeting to resolve strategy in regard to an expedition to Canada, which he opposed. The series of meetings lasted for over one month—from December 24, 1778, to February 1, 1779. The general quickly persuaded Congress to set aside the Canada invasion plan.[1] He and the committee then proceeded to examine all aspects of army administration and strategy. In January, he submitted two papers on “the general operations of the next Campaign.”[2]

In his first paper, Washington covered recruiting, strategy, ordnance, clothing, and the hospital department. “The first and great object is to recruit the Army,” he wrote. No bounty should be spared to expand the enlistments of all the men then in the army to the duration of the war. If successful, such action would end the need to recruit new troops every year and would increase the professionalism of the army. He proposed two plans of operations for 1779: one against New York City and Rhode Island, and the other against Niagara, the center of British power in the west. If Congress’s finances could support a campaign against New York and Rhode Island, he argued, “we ought to direct almost our whole force and exertions to that point.” A diversionary expedition against Detroit would protect the frontiers. If Congress could not finance the complimentary expedition against Niagara, it should be dropped and all efforts concentrated on New York and Rhode Island. “To determine therefore what we can undertake—the state of the army the prospect of recruiting it—paying, cloathing and feeding it—the providing the necessary apparatus for offensive operations—all these matters ought to be well and maturely considered. On them every thing must depend.” But, he asked the committee, would not the depreciation of the Continental currency, the lack of bread, the scarcity of forage, and the exhausted state of the resources in the middle states make it advisable to remain on the defensive with the main force of the army and conduct only an expedition in the west against the Indians? “It is in vain to attempt things which are more the objects of desire than attainment. Every undertaking must be, at least ought to be, regulated by the state of our finances, the prospect of our supplies and the probability of success.” He then gave the committee a preliminary analysis of the administrative challenges facing the army and his view of the best arrangements for the artillery, ordnance, and engineers.[3] The committee was impressed with this first memorandum. “We therefore request that you will be pleased to point out what ought to be done with respect to the Arrangement of the Army—the Department of Artillery & Ordinance—the Cloathing Departmt the Inspectorship & the Branch of Engineers,” committeeman James Duane wrote to him. “Indeed we think it woud be adviseable to vest the Commander in Chief with power to make these & every other Arrangement for the good Government of the Army by forming a compleat System to be adopted by Congress as their Act.”[4]

In a letter to a committee member written shortly before he submitted his second paper on campaign strategy for 1779, Washington, undoubtedly frustrated by his lack of control over all the affairs and departments of the army, called for “a controuling power” over all departments of the army “to preserve harmony and correspondence in the system of the Army.” The orders of Congress and the Board of War “to any department or Officer,” he asserted, should go through the commander in chief. Otherwise “collision of orders and confusion in affairs will be the inevitable consequence.”[5]The committee, and Congress, would soon act on this recommendation.

In his second, and more extensive, paper on strategy for the coming campaign Washington put forward three alternative plans, each with their governing considerations, advantages, and drawbacks. He discussed the practicability of each. In his first plan, he proposed a campaign by the main army against New York and Newport, Rhode Island. This plan he viewed as “the most desirable,” he told the committee, “because if it could succeed, it would be decisive.” But it had drawbacks. Washington pointed out that the central position of the British posts in New York, the strength of their forts, and their ability to move troops by water to reinforce any of their posts were “obstacles not easily to be overcome.” He estimated it would require twenty-six thousand effective troops—a larger number than they had ever put into the field—and he warned of the difficulty and expense of supplying so large an army.

Washington proposed as his second plan an expedition against Fort Niagara with an expeditionary force of seven to eight thousand troops to “give effectual security to our Frontier and open a door into Canada.” A defensive force of thirteen thousand men would be left in lower New York and the Hudson Highlands. Though this plan required fewer troops, the object was less and it risked almost as much as the first plan and might exhaust the country’s resources in “distant and indecisive Expeditions.”

As a third option Washington proposed to keep the main army “intirely on the defensive” and send an expedition against the hostile nations of the Iroquois confederation “to divert their ravages from us.” He remarked that because the prospects for any “capital offensive” seemed “so slender,” they appeared driven to the “necessity” of adopting this third plan. But this plan had advantages: it would offer them the opportunity of “retrenching our expenses” and adopting a system of economy. Congress might then be able to act to restore the public credit and the value of the currency. The general feared the impact on the campaign of the rapidly depreciating currency, “the great impediment to all vigorous measures.” The army could be recruited and given “a firm and permanent texture.” The plan would also offer “some repose to the Country” and thus help relieve the scarcity of food supplies. Five days after Washington submitted this paper the committee had made its decision. Accepting his judgment of the “absolute necessity of contracting our system,” the committee adopted the third plan. The army would remain on the defensive in 1779 except for an expedition against the Iroquois.[6]

The committee of conference did more than just discuss strategy with Washington. Their conference extended to all the areas covered in his first memorandum. Demonstrating his mastery over army administration, the general soon submitted highly detailed papers covering almost every aspect of army administration.[7] The committee accepted almost all of Washington’s recommendations.

Few historians have taken note of these meetings with the committee of Congress in the winter of 1779, but the conference was a crucial turning point in Washington’s evolution as a commander. It became the foundation for his war in 1779. The meetings firmly established him as commander in chief of all the Continental army. As the coming months would show, Congress would now place all operational and strategic planning under his direction. On January 23, even before the conference concluded, Congress gave Washington complete control over military operations in every department and placed all army affairs under his direction. Congress resolved “That the Commander in Chief be directed to superintend and direct the military operations in all the departments in these states, subject to the regulations and orders of Congress.” They specifically placed the operations from Fort Pitt and the Northern Department under his direction.[8] As the New York delegates, one a member of the committee, wrote to the governor of their state: “The operations which will be most effectual are submitted to his Judgement, and every Department is placed under his immediate Superintendence.”[9] James Duane, a member of the committee, put it simply: “Congress have the most unlimited Confidence in his Wisdom & Judgement as well As his Zeal and Integrity.”[10] Vested with this new authority and with such strong backing from Congress, Washington could be confident in carrying out plans for operations across the continent in 1779.


[1]GW to Maj. Gen. Lafayette, December 29, 1778, Theodore J. Crackel and Edward Lengel, et al. eds.,The Papers of George Washington Revolutionary War Series, 25 vols. to date (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1985-), 18:526-27. Hereafter cited as PGWRW.

[2]GW to the Continental Congress Committee of Conference, January 8, 1779, PGWRW, 18:594.

[3]GW’s memorandum to the Continental Congress Committee of Conference, January 8, 1778, enclosed in his letter to the committee of that date, PGWRW, 18:594-597.

[4]Duane to GW, January 9, 1779, PGWRW, 18:605.

[5]GW to James Duane, January 11-12, 1779, PGWRW, 18:612-15.

[6]GW to the Continental Congress Committee of Conference, January, 13, 1779, PGWRW, 18:624-31; and GW to Philip Schuyler, January 18, 1779, PGWRW, 19:18-19; see also GW to James Duane, 11-12 January, 11-12, 1779, PGWRW, 18:612-15.

[7]On January 20, he submitted a paper on officers’ pay; on January 23, he presented a paper on clothing the army; on January 23-31 he gave the committee a paper on artillery corps organization, the commissariat, barrack masters, and appointment of brigadiers; and on February 2 a paper on the ordnance department; PGWRW, 19: 38-43, 52-62, 122-23.

[8]Journals of the Continental Congress, 13:109-110.

[9]James Duane, John Jay, William Floyd, and Francis Lewis to George Clinton, February 19, 1779, PGWRW, 19:356.

[10]James Duane to Philip Schuyler, February 20, 1779, PGWRW, 19:218.

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  • Great excerpt. Washington’s wisdom, gained through the painful lessons of 1776 and the near-annihilation of his army in New York, shone forth in this moment. The Continental Army was the one functioning institution in the country, and as long as it continued to exist, and avoid battles it couldn’t win, the Cause would exist. Washington’s judiciousness in 1779 and beyond kept the war going.

  • A really fine excerpt. Washington’s skills as a general were indeed mixed very well with an understanding of the politics and economics behind the strategy. As Geoff noted above, he kept the Continental Army and the cause alive by making the number one priority always to keep the army intact. A strategy utilized by subsequent leaders including Robert E. Lee, and Ho Chi Minh. Certainly his decisions and actions in 1779 made it possible to both extend, and eventually win the war and our nations independence.

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