A letter from George Washington written to Dr. Samuel Stringer in Albany, NY, written from Washington in New York, 15 May 1776. The body of the letter was written in the hand of Washington’s aide-de-camp Robert H. Harrison.
This letter highlights the multiple problems facing General Washington at this time – the condition of American forces in Canada, the perennial lack of supplies, and bickering within the ranks of the Continental Army.
The letter reads in full:
“Sir, I received your Letter of the 10 Inst [ant] last night by Mr. Bennet, and this morning transmitted to Congress a Copy of it & of the Estimate for their order & direction on the subject of it, so far as relates to the Seniors, mates &c. As to the Medicines, when Doctor Morgan arrives, I shall direct him to send you immediately such a Supply as can be spared. I am Sir, your Most H[umble] Servant. G Washington”
Dr. Samuel Stringer, appointed by Congress as Director of the Hospital in Albany, served in General Philip Shuler’s Army of the Northern Department as Chief Physician and Surgeon. Doctor Robert Morgan, Director General of the Medical Department of the Continental Army, was engaged in an ongoing dispute with Dr. Stringer over his jurisdiction within the Department. Stringer’s request, referred to a Congressional Committee on 16 May, was ultimately declined.
The one page letter was written on bifolium stationery, which measures approximately 6” x 7.7” as folded.
Bifolium stationery is two pages that were folded together into one. This was done in this era so that the outside page would become the envelope, usually sealed with wax. In this case the wax seal was torn off when the letter was opened, leaving a hole. With the exception of this paper loss, the letter is in fine condition overall, with expected mailing folds and toning throughout (darker towards the edges). Washington signed at the conclusion using a thinner mottled ink (likely from an early form of fountain pen rather than quill). Considering the age, both the text and the signature have held up quite well.
Robert Hanson Harrison was an American Army officer, attorney, and judge. He was a Continental Army veteran of the American Revolution and is most notable for his service as George Washington’s military secretary, the de facto chief of staff of Washington’s headquarters for most of the war. (He became Washington’s military secretary the day after this letter was written.
GENERAL GEORGE WASHINGTON 1775-1776:
Washington assumed command of the colonial forces outside Boston on July 3, 1775, during the ongoing siege of Boston, after stopping in New York City to begin organizing military companies for its defense] His first steps were to establish procedures and to weld what had begun as militia regiments into an effective fighting force. He was assisted in this effort by his adjutant, Brigadier General Horatio Gates, and Major General Charles Lee, both of whom had significant experience serving in the British Army.
When inventory returns exposed a dangerous shortage of gunpowder, Washington asked for new sources. British arsenals were raided (including some in the West Indies) and some manufacturing was attempted; a barely adequate supply (about 2.5 million pounds) was obtained by the end of 1776, mostly from France. In search of heavy weapons, he sent Henry Knox on an expedition to Fort Ticonderoga to retrieve cannons that had been captured there. He resisted repeated calls from Congress to launch attacks against the British in Boston, calling war councils that supported the decisions against such action. Before the Continental Navy was established in November 1775 he, without Congressional authorization, began arming a “secret navy” to prey on poorly protected British transports and supply ships. When Congress authorized an invasion of Quebec, believing that province’s people would also rise against British military control, Washington reluctantly went along with it, even authorizing Benedict Arnold to lead a force from Cambridge to Quebec City through the wilderness of present-day Maine.
As the siege dragged on, the matter of expiring enlistments became a matter of serious concern. Washington tried to convince Congress that enlistments longer than one year were necessary to build an effective fighting force, but he was rebuffed in this effort. The 1776 establishment of the Continental Army only had enlistment terms of one year, a matter that would again be a problem in late 1776.
Washington finally forced the British to withdraw from Boston by putting Henry Knox’s artillery on Dorchester Heights overlooking the city, and preparing in detail to attack the city from Cambridge if the British tried to assault the position. The British evacuated Boston and sailed away, although Washington did not know they were headed for Halifax, Nova Scotia. Believing they were headed for New York City (which was indeed Major General William Howe’s eventual destination), Washington rushed most of the army there.
Washington’s success in Boston was not repeated in New York. Congress insisted that he defend it and recognizing the city’s importance as a naval base and gateway to the Hudson River, Washington delegated the task of fortifying New York to Charles Lee in February 1776. The faltering military campaign in Quebec also led to calls for additional troops there, and Washington detached six regiments northward under John Sullivan in April. The wider theaters of war had also introduced regional frictions into the army. Somewhat surprised that regional differences would be a problem, on August 1 he read a speech to the army, in which he threatened to punish “any officers or soldiers so lost to virtue and a love of their country” that might exacerbate the regional differences. The mixing of forces from different regions also brought more widespread camp diseases, especially dysentery and smallpox.