Newly Published George Washington Papers Shed Light on Revolution in Autumn 1778

March 10, 2008 — There's good news for historians and other enthusiasts of the founding era of American history. The Papers of George Washington, housed at the University of Virginia, has released another volume of annotated Washington documents from the Revolutionary War period. The Washington books are published and available through the University of Virginia Press.

Volume 17 of the Revolutionary War Series project on Washington covers the period from Sept. 15 through Oct. 31, 1778, a time when Washington and his general officers were concerned with establishing strategic winter quarters while also struggling to interpret the puzzling moves of the British high command. Was the enemy about to abandon its occupation of New York City, as some signs seemed to suggest? And if so, would such an evacuation indicate British intent to pull out of the colonies entirely and end the war? Or were they secretly planning an offensive? As editor and longtime U.Va. historian Philander D. Chase writes in the volume's introduction:

"The Americans sensed impending changes in British strategy, but the complex movements of enemy ships, troops, and supplies during September and October obscured their designs. The burning questions in George Washington's mind concerned the likelihood of the British invading the Hudson highlands, attacking the French fleet at Boston, or evacuating New York City altogether. By mid-October he had correctly reasoned that they would do none of those things. Yet certainty eluded him."

The edition includes some 680 documents — letters to and from Washington, general orders he issued to his officers and various reports and other correspondences of a military, political or personal nature. Intelligence gathering was never far from his thoughts. In a letter dated Oct. 12, 1778, Washington directed the Rev. Alexander McWhorter to try to obtain useful intelligence from two men who had been condemned to death for spying and counterfeiting. In his letter to the reverend, Washington wrote: "While it serves to prepare them for the other world, it will naturally lead to the intelligence we want in your inquiries into the condition of their spiritual concerns." What, if anything, the condemned pair revealed to the clergyman before they went to that other world is not known.

This is to be the last volume edited by Chase, who will retire in the spring after 35 years with the project. Recognized as a leading expert on the life of George Washington, Chase frequently has been consulted by prominent book authors and other historians and educators. In recent years, the Papers of George Washington project has been acknowledged in a number of best-selling books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning "1776" by David McCullough.

The Papers of George Washington 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 numerous private owners around the world.

In addition to being the 17th book in the Revolutionary War Series, the newly published volume is the 57th published overall by the Washington Papers project. 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).

The Papers of George Washington is funded largely through grants and private donations. To contact the project, call Theodore J. Crackel, editor-in-chief at (434) 924-3569; send e-mail to; visit the Web site at; or write to: The Papers of George Washington, P.O. Box 400117, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4117.

— By Thomas Dulan