WASHINGTON, George. Autograph letter signed ("Go: Washington") to Brig. Genl. John Sullivan (1740-1795), Cambridge, 28 January 1776. 4 pages, 4to, seal holes neatly repaired with loss of some letters along right edge.
WASHINGTON PREPARES FOR THE CONTINENTAL ARMY'S FIRST TEST AGAINST THE BRITISH AT BOSTON, 1776
By the end of 1775, six months after assuming command, Washington was beginning to despair over the "dearth of public spirit" and "want of virtue" that characterized the American war effort in Boston. Militias would not stay a moment past the expiration of their term, "and such a dirty, mercenary spirit pervades the whole, that I should not be at all surprised at any disaster that may happen." (C. & M., 162) But in January 1776, Washington was indeed surprised, even shocked, to discover that he had only 8,212 men in camp (down from 17,000 at the time of Bunker Hill), of which a mere 5,582 were fit for duty. Meanwhile, his British counterpart, General Sir William Howe, had some 11,000 troops under arms. Even more alarming was the dearth of rifles and powder. Some 2,000 of Washington's men had no weapons at all.
Amid this distracting gloom, Washington sat down with Brig. Gen. John Sullivan on the night of January 27, 1776, to go over the pay rolls for a departing contingent of New Hampshire militia men. "I quite forgot," Washington writes the next day, "to enquire last night (when you were shewing me the Militia Rolls) at what rates the officers pay was charged. I am willing to allow them the same pay as the troops here had, and have--that is, to the first of Jany. agreeable to the old Establishment--(more I cannot)--and for the month of Jany. according to the present pay. This is putting of them in all respects up on a footing with the Continental Army. You will consider therefore how far this alteration will square with your mode of making up the Pay Rolls..." He asks Sullivan to make sure that the Captains "be very correct in making up their accts., not only because they are to swear to them, but because I must for my own justification have all the extensions & additions...and I must again desire that they may be cautioned against Including Men that have Inlisted into the Continental Service, as I will take a good deal of pains to prevent and if not prevented, to detect an Evil, which I am apprehensive will be practiced." That is, through inadvertence or outright corruption, some troops might end up on both the militia and the Continental pay rolls.
This letter gives a vivid sense of Washington's exhausting administrative burdens, piled on top of crushing military and political woes. Thinking of "the Roll you shewed me last night," Washington recalls that "men of the same Company, and as I suppose from the same Town, are charged a different number of days, whereas I think the Ingagement is that they are to be paid from the time of their Marching from the Town--however as I was ingaged in reading Letters & News Papers at the time, I might have Mistaken the matter."
By February, reinforcements raised Washington's total force to over 16,000 (including Sullivan's three New Hampshire regiments that would also see action at Trenton, Monmouth and Saratoga in years ahead). He wanted to attack immediately, across the ice of Back Bay, before Gen. Howe received his own reinforcements. Washington's generals opposed the plan, doubting that the poorly supplied Army could defeat the British in a head-on clash. They convinced their commander to move to seize the unoccupied strategic hills at Dorchester Heights instead. Once the Americans had mounted their cannons on the Heights (British cannon, dragged by ox-cart from captured Fort Ticonderoga), General Howe realized that he could not hold Boston and evacuated the city on March 17, 1776. Washington had recaptured the city with only 20 men killed in battle over the course of an eight-month siege. In spite of all his burdens and obstacles, Washington had pulled off a stunning success. Published in Papers of GW, Rev. War Series, 3:207-208.