Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Meeting Notes: March 15, 2017

"Officer Resignations in the Continental Army: General Washington's Constant Headache," Bill Ferrarro

“I quit.”

Although Continental army officers phrased their resignation requests to George Washington in much more diplomatic language, many officers submitted their resignations throughout the war for a variety of reasons.

“This was an important subject that took lots of Washington’s time, said William M. Ferrarro at the March 15, 2017 meeting of the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond. “In fact of all the correspondence which we have today on Washington’s wartime writings, approximately 10% of it dealt with the subject of officers who complained about their rank and/or their wish to resign their commissions from the Continental army.”

Ferrarro is the managing editor of the Washington Papers at the University of Virginia, and has studied many of the officer resignation requests submitted to Washington. At the Round Table meeting he read quotes from various resignation letters. 

In addition to complaints about their rank and lack of promotion, Continental officers typically cited family finances and the need to take care of family affairs as reasons to resign their commissions. 

“Washington frequently implored Congress to pay more money to keep from losing good officers but Congress had no taxing authority,” said Ferrarro. “As for trying to discourage officers from going home, Washington tried to set a personal example by never taking a furlough.”

Subordinate officers also frequently cited the deaths of close family members as a reason for resigning their commissions. These deaths ranged from those of loved-ones killed in combat to those of elderly parents who died back home.  

When a Continental officer submitted his resignation, it had to be approved by Washington. Before an approval was granted, Washington’s staff checked to make sure that the resigning officer didn’t owe the Continental army any money. Each resigning officer was also expected to leave behind all military equipment owned by the army. 

Typically an officer resigning his commission would ask his superior officer to write a letter to Washington on behalf of the officer, or to write a letter accompanying the officer’s resignation letter to Washington. Usually Washington replied to routine resignation letters by writing an outline, and then giving his outline to one of his staff officers such as James McHenry to write the official army reply. 

“Washington was much more engaged in his correspondence to Congress than he was to resignation requests submitted by most officers,” said Ferrarro. “He was an incredible administrator.” 

Resignation requests typically slowed during the summer months and increased during the winter ones. Since many enlisted men served on a calendar-year basis, the loss of officers during winter months deprived the Continental army of experienced officers to train newly-enlisted recruits.

Washington was particularly concerned with the loss of officers from the states of Massachusetts and Virginia. Massachusetts furnished the most regiments in the Continental army, and of course Virginia was Washington’s home state.

Among the highest ranking officers who submitted their resignations were Generals Philip Schuyler and Artemas Ward.

“Schuyler went back and forth on whether to submit his resignation,” said Ferrarro. “Washington liked Schuyler but Congress didn’t. As for Ward, Washington wasn’t happy with him and was glad to get rid of him.”

Prior to the speaker’s presentation the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond discussed the following topics:

1. President Bill Welsch urged the membership to submit via email their nominations of organizations to serve as the 2017 ARRT-Richmond Preservation Partner. He asked to receive all nominations prior to the next ARRT-Richmond meeting on May 17, 2017. 

2. Several members announced various upcoming classes, seminars and programs that relate to the American Revolution. Please see the ARRT-Richmond website for details on these events.  

 --Bill Seward