“That a General be Appointed to command”

The War Years (1775-1783)

July 22, 2021
by Jeff Dacus Also by this Author


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After the events at Lexington and Concord on April 19, it appeared that military force of some sort might be warranted in dealing with Great Britain. There was a mass of militiamen and volunteers outside of Boston but there were many questions about their purpose, organization, and leadership. When George Washington set off for the Second Continental Congress on May 4, 1775 there was no Continental Army, no army acting for the entire thirteen British colonies.

Before leaving Virginia, Washington had served on a committee to explore how the colony should prepare its defenses. He had also taken the time to drill five militia companies in his local area. Arriving in Philadelphia he joined other men from across the Thirteen Colonies to explore what actions, military or diplomatic, Congress should adopt in dealing with any British attempt to forcibly deal with the recalcitrant colonists.

During the First Continental Congress in the fall of 1774 prominent men of the colonies had become acquainted with Washington, learning of his experiences as a soldier in the French and Indian War, as a wealthy landowner, and as a member of the House of Burgesses. When the new Congress opened, on May 15, he found himself asked to serve:

Resolved, that a committee be appointed to consider what posts are necessary to be occupied in the Colony of New York, and by what number of troops it will be necessary they should be occupied guarded.
Resolved, That Mr. [George] Washington, Mr. [Thomas] Lynch, Mr. S[amuel] Adams, and the delegates from New York, be the committee for the above service, and that they be desired to report as speedily as possible.[1]

Aware of the colonial troops surrounding Boston in the aftermath of Lexington and Concord, Washington hinted that he might be inclined to join them when he wrote to his close friend George William Fairfax, then living in England: “Unhappy it is though to reflect, that a Brother’s Sword has been sheathed in a Brother’s breast, and that, the once happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched with Blood, or Inhabited by Slaves. Sad alternative! But can a virtuous Man hesitate in his choice?”[2]

On June 2 a letter from Massachusetts was read before Congress entreating that body: “As the Army now collecting from different colonies is for the general defence of the right of America, we wd. beg leave to suggest to yr. consideration the propriety of yr. taking the regulation and general direction of it, that the operations may more effectually answer the purposes designed.”[3] The responsibility for the fledgling army outside Boston was being tossed into the laps of the delegates in Philadelphia. Later that day the delegates resolved: “That Mr. Washington, Mr. [Philip] Schuyler, Mr. [Silas] Deane, Mr. [Thomas] Cushing, and Mr. [Joseph] Hewes be a committee to bring in an estimate of the money necessary to be raised.”[4]

A few days later, Congress again asked Washington to serve: “Upon motion, Agreed, That Mr. Washington, Mr. Schuyler, Mr. [Thomas] Mifflin, Mr. Deane, Mr. [Lewis] Morris and Mr. S Adams, be a committee, to consider of ways and means to supply these colonies with Ammunition and military stores and to report immediately.”[5]

Charles Willson Peale’s 1772 portrait of George Washington in the Virginia colonel’s uniform he wore during the French & Indian War. (Washington and Lee University)

Serving on these committees placed Washington in a position to voice his views on the military side of events and how Congress should proceed. John Adams wrote: “Colonel Washington appears in Congress in his Uniform, and by his great Experience and Abilities in military Matters, is of much service to Us.”[6] Wearing his blue Virginia Regiment uniform indicated his willingness to serve in a military capacity, possibly in leading Virginia’s forces in marching to Massachusetts to join the army there. After the army around Boston was adopted by the Continental Congress on June 14 Washington was given another assignment: “Upon motion, Resolved, That Mr. Washington, Mr. Schuyler, Mr. Deane, Mr. Cushing, and Mr. Hewes be a committee to bring in a dra’t of Rules and regulations for the government of the army.”[7]

Unfortunately during weeks from the arrival of the letter requesting adoption of the army from Massachusetts until Congress actually adopted it, the Journals of the Continental Congress lack details of any discussions going on. The records contain only a vague ending to each day’s activities: “Resolved, That the Congress will to Morrow again resolve itself into a committee of the whole to take into their further consideration the State of America.”[8] What were those considerations? What were they talking about? It appears that they were not only considering the adoption of the army but also who would lead it.

There were several choices to command the army. John Adams later wrote of the deliberations:

Who then should be general? On this question; the Members were greatly divided. A Number was for Mr Handcock; then President of Congress and extreamly popular throughout the United Collonies and called “King Handcock” all over Europe. A greater Number, (can you believe it?) were for General Charles Lee, then in Philadelphia, extremely assidious in his Visits to al the Members of Congress at their Lodgings, and universally represented in America as a classical and universal Schollar, as a Scientific Soldier, and as one of the greatest Generals in the World, who had seen service, with Burgoyne in Portugal, and in Poland &c and who was covered over with Wounds he had received in Battles. In Short, this General Lee was a kind of Precursor of Miranda. He excited much Such in Enthusiasm and made as many Proselytes and Partisans. A Number was for Washington: but the greatest Number was for Ward . . . The Nominations were made: Ward, I believe by Mr Cushing: Lee by Mr Mifflin; and Washington by Mr Johnson of Maryland.[9]

Adams alluded to various behind-the-scenes attempts for some type of unanimity: “The Subject was postponed to a future day. In the mean time, pains were taken out of doors to obtain a Unanimity, and the Voices were generally so clearly in favor of Washington that the dissentient Members were persuaded to withdraw their Opposition, and Mr. Washington was nominated, I believe by Mr. Thomas Johnson of Maryland, unanimously elected, and the Army adopted.”[10] There is no record how the delegates were “persuaded” to vote for Washington.

In the same account, Adams took credit for the final selection of Washington:

I am determined this Morning to make a direct Motion that Congress should adopt the Army before Boston and appoint Colonel Washington Commander of it. Mr. [Samuel] Adams seemed to think very seriously of it, but said Nothing. Accordingly When congress had assembled I rose in my place and in as short a Speech as the Subject would admit . . . I concluded with a Motion in form that Congress would Adopt the Army at Cambridge and appoint a General, that though this was not the proper time to nominate a General, yet as I had reason to believe this was a point of the greatest difficulty, I had no hesitation to declare that I had but one Gentleman in my Mind for that important command, and that was a Gentleman from Virginia who was among Us and very well known to all of Us, a Gentleman whose Skill and Experience as an Officer, whose independent fortune, great Talents and excellent universal Character, would command the Approbation of all America, and unite the cordial Exertions of all the Colonies better than any other Person in the Union. Mr. Washington, who happened to sit near the Door, as soon as he heard me allude to him, from his Usual Modesty darted into the Library Room.

John Hancock was disappointed in the final selection, as recorded again by Adams: “Mr. Hancock, who was our President, which gave me an Opportunity to observe his Countenance, while I was speaking on the State of the Colonies, and the Army at Cambridge and the Enemy, heard me with visible pleasure, but when I came to describe Washington for the Commander, I never remarked a more sudden and sinking Change of Countenance. Mortification and resentment were expressed as forcibly as his Face could exhibit them.”[11]

Although little is known about the deliberations, it is clear that on June 15 Congress decided: “Resolved, That a General be appointed to command all the continental forces, raised, or to be raised, for the defence of American liberty. That five hundred dollars, per month, be allowed for his pay and expences. The Congress then proceeded to the choice of a general, by ballot, when George Washington, Esq. was unanimously elected.”[12]

Eliphalet Dyer, delegate from Connecticut, noted Washington’s personal attributes but also noted the geographical significance of the choice:  “You will hear that Coll Washington is Appointed Genll or Commander in Chief over the Continental Army by I don’t know but the Universal Voice of the Congress . . . it removes all jealousies, more firmly Cements the Southern to the Northern and takes away the fear of the former . . . he is Clever, & if anything too modest. He seems discret & Virtuous, no harum Starum ranting Swearing fellow but Sober, steady, & Calm.”[13]

In accepting the command, George Washington of Virginia was being asked to take on a task that was filled with many unknowns. He was willing to serve but would he chance the ruin of his reputation, his place in Virginia Society, and the loss of his plantation to accept the leadership of an unknown army?

Washington accepted the assignment with sincere modesty:

Mr President, Tho’ I am truly sensible of the high Honour done me in this Appointment, yet I feel great distress, from the consciousness that my abilities & Military experience may not be equal to the extensive & Important Trust: However, as the Congress desire i[t] I will enter upon the momentous duty, & exert every power I Possess In their service & for the Support of the glorious Cause; I beg they will accept my most cordial thanks for this distinguished testimony of their Approbation.
But lest some unlucky event should happen unfavorable to my reputation, I beg it may be remembered by every Gentleman in the room, that I this day declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think my self equal to the Command I [am] honoured with.
As to pay, Sir, I beg leave to assure the Congress that as no pecuniary consideration could have tempted me to have accepted this Arduous empliment at the expence of my domestk ease & happi[ness] I do not with to make any profit from it: I will keep an exact Account of my expences; those I doubt not they will discharge & that is all I desire.[14]

Despite being given the greatest task of his life, he laconically wrote in his diary: “Dined at Doctr. Cadwaladers. Spent the Evening at my lodgings.”[15]

It was not an easy choice to accept the command. There were still many unanswered questions about the forces around Boston. Would the citizen soldiers there even acknowledge him as their commander? He wrote of his misgivings to his wife Martha:

I am now set down to write to you on a subject which fills me with inexpressable concern—and this concern is greatly aggravated and Increased when I reflect on the uneasiness I know it will give you—It has been determined in Congress, that the whole Army raised for the defence of the American Cause shall be put under my care, and that it is necessary for me to proceed immediately to Boston to take upon me the Command of it. You may beleive me my dear Patcy, when I assure you, in the most solemn manner, that, so far from seeking this appointment I have used every endeavour in my power to avoid it, not only from my unwillingness to part with you and the Family, but from a consciousness of its being a trust too great for my Capacity and that I should enjoy more real happiness and felicity in one month with you, at home, than I have the most distant prospect of reaping abroad, if my stay was to be Seven times Seven years. But, as it has been a kind of destiny that has thrown me upon this Service, I shall hope that my undertaking of it, is designd to answer some good purpose—You might, and I suppose did perceive, from the Tenor of my letters, that I was apprehensive I could not avoid this appointment, as I did not even pretend ⟨to intimate when I should return—that was the case—it was utterly out of my power to refuse this appointment without exposing my Character to such censures as would have reflected dishonour upon myself, and given pain to my friends—this I am sure could not, and ought not to be pleasing to you, & must have lessend me considerably in my own esteem.[16]

Congress proceeded to appoint major generals, brigadier generals, and an adjutant general. It also authorized Washington three aides and a secretary. In addition Congress established the posts of commissary general, quartermaster general, paymaster general, two chief engineers, and a commissary of musters.[17]These officers, not yet appointed, would form the basis of Washington’s staff.

Washington was genuinely unsure of the new assignment. He enjoyed domestic happiness as the master of Mt. Vernon, he was respected for his role in the French and Indian War, and he enjoyed his status as a member of the House of Burgesses.  The new assignment was filled with uncertainties. Where would the army get supplies and how would it be paid? There was no formal table of organization. There was no command structure. He knew little of what he would inherit upon arrival in Massachusetts. He was ignorant of the geography around Boston. Later Dr. Benjamin Rush would write: “I saw Patrick Henry at his lodgings, who told me that General Washington had been with him, and informed him that he was unequal to the station in which his country had placed him, and then added with tears in his eyes ‘Remember, Mr. Henry, what I now tell you: From the day I enter upon the command of the American armies, I date my fall, and the ruin of my reputation’”[18]

What were his orders? His commission stated:

We, reposing special trust and confidence in your patriotism, valor, conduct, and fidelity, do, by these presents, constitute and appoint you to be General and Commander in chief, of the army of the United Colonies, and of all the forces now raised, or to be raised, by them, and of all others who shall voluntarily offer their service, and join the said Army for the Defence of American liberty, and for repelling every hostile invasion thereof: And you are hereby vested with full power and authority to act as you shall think for the good and welfare of the service.[19]

Whatever reservations Washington may have had, the delegates were pleased with their choice. Delegate Silas Deane wrote to his wife in Boston:  “Genl Washingtonwill be with you soon; elected to that high office by the unanimous voice of all America. I have been with him for a great part of the last forty-eight hours, in Congress and Committee, and the more I am acquainted with, the more I esteem him.”[20]

On June 20 Congress expanded their instructions:

First, You are to make a return to us, as soon as possible of all forces, which you shall have under your command, together with their military stores and provisions; and also as exact an account as you can obtain of the forces, which compose the British army in America.
Secondly, You are not to disband any of the men you find raised until further direction from this Congress; and if you shall think their numbers not adequate to the purpose of security, you may recruit them to a number you shall think sufficient not exceeding double that of the enemy.
Thirdly, In all cases of vacancy occasioned by death or a removal of a Colonel or other inferior officer, you are by Brevet or Warrant under your seal to appoint another person to fill up such vacancy, until it shall be otherwise ordered by the provincial Convention or Assembly of the colony, from whence the troops, in which such vacancy happen, shall direct otherwise.
Fourthly, You are to victual at the continental expence all such volunteers as have joined, or shall join the united army.
Fifthly, You shall take every method in your power, consistent with prudence, to destroy or make prisoners of all persons, who now are, or who hereafter shall appear in arms against the good people of the United Colonies.
Sixthly, And whereas all particulars cannot be foreseen, nor positive instructions for such emergencies so beforehand given, but that many things must be left to your prudent and discreet management, as occurrences may arise upon the place or from time to time fall out; You are, therefore, upon all such accidents or any occasion, that may happen, to use your best circumspection and (advising with your council of war) to order and dispose of the said army under your command, as may be most advantageous for the obtaining the end, for which these forces have been raised, making it your special care, in discharge of the great trust committed unto you that the liberties of America receive no detriment.

By Order of Congress,

John Hancock President

In addition to yr Instructions it is Resolved by Congress, That the troops including the volunteers be furnished with camp Equipage & blankets if necessary at the continental expence.
That the Officers now in the army receive their commissions from the Genl & commander in chief.[21]

In the days before Washington left for Boston, he purchased a new uniform of buff and blue as well as many necessities for his journey. Adding to the uncertainty of his assignment was news that arrived on June 22 indicating that a battle had been fought at Bunker Hill near Boston on June 17.

On June 23, accompanied by his aide de camp Thomas Mifflin, secretary Joseph Reed, and major generals Charles Lee and Philip Schuyler, Washington set out for Boston. On June 30 Congress passed sixty-nine articles of war to help guide the new commander in chief. Washington was probably aware of these articles as he had been on the committee that considered them.

Washington wrote to many of his friends and relatives using nearly the same words each time. Typical is the letter to his brother-in-law Burwell Bassett:

I am now Imbarkd on a tempestuous Ocean from whence, perhaps, no friendly harbour is to be found. I have been called upon by the unanimous Voice of the Colonies to the Command of the Continental Army—It is an honour I by no means aspired to—It is an honour I wished to avoid, as well from an unwillingness to quit the peaceful enjoyment of my Family as from a thorough conviction of my own Incapacity & want of experience in the conduct of so momentous a concern—but the partiallity of the Congress added to some political motives, left me without a choice—May God grant therefore that my acceptance of it may be attended with some good to the common cause & without Injury (from want of knowledge) to my own reputation.[22]

After traveling through New Jersey, Washington came to New York at the same time royal governor William Tryon also arrived. Passing through Connecticut, crowds gathered and acknowledged him along the way. The new commander in chief arrived at Cambridge, Massachusetts on July 3, 1775. The next day, mythically under an “elm tree,” Washington took command of the mass of men termed an army and embarked on an endeavor filled with unknowns. Unaware that his command would take the next eight years of his life, he optimistically wrote to Martha that he expected “a happy meeting with you sometime in the Fall.”[23] His assignment would not end until the thirteen English Colonies became the thirteen United States of America.


[1]Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, Volume II, 1775, May 10-September 20 (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1905), 52-53.

[2]W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig, ed., The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 10, 21 March 1774 – 15 June 1775 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 368.

[3]Letter from the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, May 16, 1775, Journals of the Continental Congress, 77.

[4]Journals of the Continental Congress, 80.

[5]Journals of the Continental Congress, 67.

[6]John Adams to Abigail Adams, May 29, 1775, Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive, Massachusetts Historical Society, www.masshist.org/digitaladams/.

[7]Journals of the Continental Congress, 90.

[8]Ibid.; each day this was the final entry.

[9]John Adams to James Lloyd, April 24, 1815, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-6460.

[10]John Adams autobiography, part 1, “John Adams,” through 1776, sheet 20 of 53, Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive.


[12]Journals of the Continental Congress, 91.

[13]Eliphalet Dyer to Joseph Trumbull, June 17, 1775, Paul H. Smith, ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, August 1774-August 1775  (Washington, Library of Congress, 1977), 499-500.

[14]Philander D. Chase, ed. The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 1, 16 June 1775 – 15 September 1775 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985), 1.

[15]Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington, Volume III, 1 January 1771–5 November 1781 (Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1978), 336.

[16]Chase, ed. The Papers of George Washington, 3–4.

[17]Journal of the Continental Congress, 96.

[18]George W. Corner, ed., The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1948), 113.

[19]Journals of the Continental Congress, 96.

[20]Edmund C. Burnett, ed. Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, Volume I, August 29, 1774 to July 4, 1776 (Washington, D.C., Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1921), 126.

[21]Chase, ed. The Papers of George Washington, 21–22.

[22]Ibid., 12–13.

[23]Ibid., 27.

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