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Men of the Revolution: 17. Joseph Reed
He served well as Washington’s secretary and Adjutant General early in the War, but Reed was never quite sure how best to use his abilities.
June 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 4
Unhappily for all parties involved, on an occasion when Reed was absent from headquarters Washington opened a communication from Lee to Reed, and it was all that was needed to make him realize that Reed—the member of his official family on whom he relied most—had turned against him. The aftermath of this was an awkwardness between the two that could not be repaired; and regrettably for Washington, who had been so well served by Reed, the easygoing, intimate relationship they had once enjoyed was gone for good. Reed’s service to the commander in chief was by no means at an end, however. As a former resident of Trenton he supplied Washington with vital information before and during the battles of Trenton and Princeton, and largely on the strength of Reed’s intelligence reports Washington decided where and how to attack the latter place. Within three weeks of the victory at Princeton, Reed resigned as Adjutant General. Washington magnanimously offered him command of the cavalry, which Reed declined (largely, it appears, because Congress was slow to confirm him as a brigadier general). And then, curiously, he volunteered as an aide without pay in time to serve Washington admirably at the battles of Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth. That same year he was offered the position of chief justice of Pennsylvania (he refused); he was elected to Congress (he accepted); and in 1778 he became president of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. As the state’s chief officer Reed was responsible for pressing charges of misconduct against the American commander in Philadelphia, Benedict Arnold (charges that were virtually dismissed, although it turned out later that Arnold’s dishonesty was even worse than Reed had suspected), and in January of 1781 he had the onerous and unhappy task of putting down the mutiny of the Pennsylvania Line. By then not much time remained to Joseph Reed, even though he was still a young man. After the war he returned to his law practice and made a journey to England, but his health had failed. He died in 1785 at the age of forty-four, leaving us to wonder what he might have achieved had he lived longer. Would he have come into his own, fulfilling at last the promise of his natural abilities? Or would he have shown, yet again, that he was not quite sure how to make use of them?