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The Freeman Letters On George Washington
“Washington, and probably Washington alone, kept the Revolution alive.”
February 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 2
In an earlier report I mentioned the unpleasant discovery of evidence which might indicate that Nathanael Greene, while serving as quartermaster general, may have been on both sides of the counter at the same moment and may, as an individual, have sold to himself as a government official. Thanks to the kindness of Dr. Bernhard Knollenberg, I have examined the collection of papers of Jeremiah Wadsworth that Dr. Knollenberg acquired and gave to Yale. In some of these papers there is ample proof that Greene and Wadsworth and Barnabas Deane, a brother of Silas Deane, were engaged in some form of secret trading. I am going to have someone go through the whole body of the Wadsworth papers to see what they disclose. Our first sifting yielded nothing of importance.
In the Greene papers at Ann Arbor, I am sorry to say, we found a letter which shows plainly that on one occasion Greene and his Philadelphia partners, who also were his assistant quartermasters general, shipped tobacco to St. Eustatius and brought back duck which was sold “to the Quartermaster.” Unless there was some aspect of this barter not now apparent, the transaction manifestly was improper. It is in the hope it may be cleared up that I am going to have the whole corpus of surviving Greene papers examined. …
As I soon shall be saying good-bye to Washington the soldier, I should like to state that the final view I take of him is that of a man much bolder in spirit than circumstances permitted him to be in strategy. If ever a man had to fight shackled and with one hand tied behind him, Washington did.
He had to overcome every obstacle that could be placed in his way—save one: in maturity, he never had to contend for long with his own spirit. Because he mastered himself, he had the patience to deal with as remarkable a company of ambitious, troublesome, supersensitive and wrong-headed lieutenants as ever gathered under a revolutionary standard. …
For example, it would be difficult to pick much more of a spoiled, pouting, puffed-up boy than Alexander Hamilton proved to be after he married Elizabeth Schuyler. The most significant fact about the life of Washington the Revolutionary leader is not one fact but a thousand, the combined detail of the incredibly difficult situation Washington had to face. Some of his old soldiers may have known a considerable part of what he had to endure but posterity has not ever vaguely sensed what he had to overcome of human pride, shortcoming and perversity. He lived on the brink.
It may be doubted whether there was a time, prior to the summer of 1781, when it could be said with reasonable certainty that the continental cause would survive for six months longer. To what did it owe its continued, if precarious, existence? Beyond all doubt, to the example and character of Washington more than to any single influence.
After struggling for months with the ugly detail of administration and camp diplomacy, it has been a great delight to turn to Yorktown as a full campaign, ready set, as it were, for detailed study according to the new techniques. It probably will be, I may say in passing, the last military campaign of which I shall write in detail. I could not ask for one more interesting. It is a textbook model in the relationship of allies and, above all, in concentration.
How strange that these two aspects of the operations of August-October, 1781, have received so little attention 1 Thanks to Rochambeau, the resources of the French engineering and artillery staffs were placed at Washington’s disposal completely and unostentatiously. Few jealousies were aroused, while the French did . brilliantly several things the inexperienced Americans scarcely would have been able to do at all.
This was particularly true of the running of the first and second “parallels,” as the siege trenches were styled. Washington matched this with a concentration that ranks with the best Eighteenth-Century achievements of logistics, though Washington himself would not have understood what we mean by that overwhipped word. He heard on the fourteenth of August, 1781, when he was on the Hudson, that De Grasse’s fleet was coming to Virginia. One month later, to the very day, Washington rode into Williamsburg in the knowledge that Barras’ French squadron from Newport, the French garrison of that base, all their siege guns, the army of Rochambeau from the New York front, an American detachment of 2,000 men and the baggage of the Franco-American forces were moving toward him. Before the end of September, Washington had all these troops and most of this equipment in hand, and began his advance on the works of Cornwallis at Yorktown. He used every means of transportation he could find and he somehow was able to co-ordinate them. The Revolution produced nothing more remarkable.
[ Now Freeman discusses his plans for 1952 and remarks that the grant last autumn by the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation—$10,000 a year for three years—was wholly unexpected. He says that in answer he asked if he might impose a condition: that every penny of the grant would go for books and materials and for pay and travel of his assistants. He asked, further, that the money be paid to the Johns Hopkins University, as the Carnegie Foundation grants are, and he notified the Collector of Internal Revenue that this was an expense account and not for his own use. ]
Letter of September 15, 1952
[ Here Freeman discusses Volume V, just printed and about to be issued. He discusses his exploration of the French archives, and goes on: ]