The Freeman Letters On George Washington


One is forced to the conclusion that Washington’s mastery of endless details of plantation management, his service as vestryman and then as warden, and his multitude of small services for neighbors gave him an equipment which proved adequate in the hour of test on a larger stage. … It seems a strange statement to make, but Washington schooled himself for dealing with Horatio Gates and Charles Lee and Benedict Arnold through the things he had done patiently and not always willingly for a most unusual combination of neighborhood deadbeats and rascals. This is what the record shows; but the reader of 1950, I suspect, is going to be as much surprised as the country was in 1775–76 by the quality of the command Washington exercised during the Siege of Boston. The country, in fact, was so much amazed by his bloodless victory in driving Howe from Boston that the resolutions adopted by the legislature in Massachusetts just before Washington left to meet the threatened attack on New York breathe all the veneration we associate with the Washington of 1797. …

An unexpected problem has developed in connection with the Siege of Boston. This has to do with the identification of old defences and the determination of some of the elevations. Tell it not on Beacon Hill and proclaim it not at a meeting of the Massachusetts Historical Society, but Boston, even Boston has forgotten some of her most renowned sites! It is a matter of some difficulty to identify in South Boston the famous Dorchester Heights. I went over them carefully in June and think I established the essential facts, but I received today a letter in which a distinguished gentleman who is helping me determine the elevations confessed, in effect, that he had not been able as yet to find Signal Tree Hill. It’s lost! I shall start to work this week on a new map of the Boston defences because none of those now in existence gives the facts the average reader will want.

Letter of April 12, 1950

[ Freeman remarks that the past five months’ research has been most fruitful and has given him great new respect for Washington’s talents as an army administrator. He continues: ]

More clearly than at the time of my last report, I see that Washington, and probably Washington alone, kept the Revolution alive. He was the only man who combined military experience with infinite patience, inflexible determination, a sound sense of organization, absolute integrity, regard for civil rights and a justice so manifest in every act that even his rivals had to admit his superiority of character. … As I have stated elsewhere, the Revolution never commanded the support of a majority of Americans until it had been won. …

My research since last I wrote you has been particularly in the year and a half during which the Revolutionary cause scraped bottom—November, 1776, to the spring of 1778. Every bad quality in Washington’s subordinates came to the surface then. His most frequent word to describe the state of the public was “languor,” but he might have used a harsher term. I believe that if he had been captured or killed, the Revolution would have collapsed in 1777. As it was, he barely was able to keep the cause alive at that time ^of public doubt, of private selfishness, depreciated currency and tightened blockade.

It is not popular, of course, to say such a thing, but I believe that in the black year of the Revolution there were not more than 500 intelligent leaders—political and military—who were willing to sacrifice all they had and all they hoped to be, for the triumph of America. A most surprising number of men who would have been expected to lead in the establishment of a new nation showed in the hour of disappointment and probable defeat an ambitious, quarrelsome selfishness that mars the traditional picture of a self-sacrificing company of patriots. …

All this means that in writing the life of Washington the emphasis is shifted. Instead of watching step by step the development of Washington’s strategy, which remained essentially and simply that of avoiding a general engagement with a superior force, I have had to describe how he sought vainly to get shoes for his men, how he tried to prod negligent commissaries and somnolent quartermasters, how he had to rid the Army of incompetent officers and to repeat year by year the disheartening task of rebuilding an army that disbanded in December. I have had to deal with the problems of desertion and, above all, with the perplexities of human relationship that involved more arrogance and self-assertiveness on the part of subordinates than was shown in any of the other wars I have studied or witnessed.

Letter of January 4, 1952

[ Here Freeman says Volume V is nearing completion. It will end with Washington’s surrender of his commission to Congress, December 23, 1783. He talks about new material obtained from the Papers of the French Ministry of Marine., in the French Archives Nationales, and mentions material indicating that the real French hero was Rochambeau—“He is as surely a symbol of Franco-American accord as Lafayette ever was—and was self-effacing. Lafayette was not.” He goes on: ]