The British Are Coming! New Volume of George Washington Papers Has Local Twist


A marker on Barracks Road in Charlottesville. Photo by Dan Addison

July 1, 2008 — For many of us living in and around Charlottesville, the name "Barracks Road" means shopping. But both the shopping center and the road for which it is named owe their identities to events that transpired in the autumn and winter of 1778-79. Much of that story unfolds in a newly published volume of The Papers of George Washington, based at the University of Virginia.

Volume 18 of The Papers of George Washington's "Revolutionary War Series," released recently by the University of Virginia Press, covers the period from Nov. 1, 1778, through Jan. 14, 1779 — a period highlighted by the long march of British and German prisoners south from Boston to Charlottesville, the complex movement of Continental troops to winter cantonments and Washington's rejection of a plan to invade Canada.

In his introduction, editor Edward G. Lengel writes that Washington at this time "turned his attention to a plan hatched by Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates and some members of Congress for the conquest of Canada" by combined Continental and French forces.

"After gathering information from military officers, commissaries, and frontiersmen, Washington concluded that the proposed invasion … was doomed to failure," Lengel wrote. In a lengthy letter to Congress detailing his objections, Washington cited mainly the difficulties of supplying an army and marching it over hundreds of miles of wilderness to assault well-defended enemy positions. Privately, however, Washington had even darker misgivings about the opportunity that the conquest of Canada by a Franco-American army would create for France to rebuild the North American empire it had lost after the French and Indian War.

Other matters occupying Washington's thoughts at this time, writes Lengel, "included the movement of more than 4,000 British and German prisoners captured at the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777, from Boston to new barracks in Charlottesville, Virginia. This lengthy and complicated movement, which began on 9 Nov. 1778 and ended on 19 Jan. 1779, raised problems of supply, escape and possible interception, but it was concluded successfully."

There were other distractions as well. Among the more intriguing was "the development of an increasingly sophisticated espionage system [and] a new recipe for invisible ink that John Jay and his brother Sir James Jay introduced. … Impressed by this recipe, which was so secret that its elements remain unknown to this day, Washington would use it in covert correspondence for the remainder of the war."

The Washington Papers project was established in 1968 at U.Va. under the joint auspices of the University and the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. An exhaustive worldwide document search has yielded the most complete collection of Washington documents ever assembled — photocopies of some 135,000 manuscript items from more than 300 repositories and private owners around the world.

The annotated documents are being published in separate series corresponding to significant segments of Washington's life. Completed series include "The Diaries of George Washington, 1748-99" (six volumes); the "Colonial Series, 1748-75" (10 volumes); the "Confederation Series, 1784-88" (six volumes); and the "Retirement Series, 1797-99" (four volumes). Two series remain in progress: The "Presidential Series, 1788-97" has published 13 of a projected 21 volumes; and the "Revolutionary War Series, 1775-83" is expected to number at least 40 volumes upon completion. The project also has published "The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793-97" (one volume).

"In addition to being the 18th book in the 'Revolutionary War Series,'" said Editor-in-Chief Theodore J. Crackel, "the new volume is the 59th published overall by the Washington Papers project." Copies of this and other volumes are available through the University of Virginia Press, P.O. Box 400318, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4318. Orders also can be placed by telephone (800-831-3406) or by e-mail (vapress@virginia.edu).

The Papers of George Washington is funded largely through grants and private, tax-deductible donations. To contact the project, call 434-924-3569, send e-mail to gwpapers@virginia.edu, visit the project's Web site at gwpapers.virginia.edu, or write to: The Papers of George Washington, P.O. Box 400117, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4117.

-- By Thomas Dulan

Contact: Theodore J. Crackel, editor-in-chief, tjc4n@virginia.edu, or associate editor Edward G. Lengel, egl2r@ virginia.edu, or call 434-924-3569.