Front Page Titles (by Subject) TO JAMES McHENRY, SECRETARY OF WAR. - The Writings of George Washington, vol. XIV (1798-1799)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
TO JAMES McHENRY, SECRETARY OF WAR. - George Washington, The Writings of George Washington, vol. XIV (1798-1799) 
The Writings of George Washington, collected and edited by Worthington Chauncey Ford (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1890). Vol. XIV (1798-1799).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
TO JAMES McHENRY, SECRETARY OF WAR.
Mount Vernon, 25th March, 1799.
My dear Sir,
You will not only consider this letter as a private one, but as a friendly one, from G. W. to J. M.; and, if the sentiments which you will find in it are delivered with more freedom and candour than are agreeable, say so; not by implication only, but in explicit language; and I will promise to offend no more by such conduct, but confine myself, (if occasion should require it,) to an Official Correspondence.
Thus premising, let me, in the name and behalf of the Officers, who have been appointed, and of the Army intended to be raised, ask what keeps back the Commissions, and arrests the Recruiting Service? Be assured that both among the friends of Government, excite astonishment and discontent. Blame is in every mind, but it is not known where to fix it. Some attach it to the P, some to the S. of W, and some, fertile in invention, seek for other causes. Many of the appointed Officers have quitted their former occupations, that they might be in perfect readiness to proceed in their Military duties, the moment they should receive their Commissions and Recruiting Instructions. Others, who were about to enter into business and plans of future life, stand suspended. Many are highly disgusted; some talk of giving up the idea of becoming Officers, unable to remain longer in the awkward situation they are involved in; and all are complaining. Applications are made by numbers to me to know what the cause of the delay is, what they are to expect, and what they ought to do.
What could I say? Am I not kept in as much ignorance as they are themselves? Am I advised of any new appointments, any changes, which have taken place; any of the views or designs of Government relatively to the Army? It is not unreasonable to suppose, that, if there be reasons of State operating the policy of these delays, that I was entitled to sufficient confidence to be let into the secret; or, if they proceeded from uncontrolable causes, I, still more than the public, ought not to have been left in the field of Conjecture, without a guide to direct me to a knowledge of them. For I shall frankly declare, that I do not, nor ever shall, consider myself in the light of a Mercenary Officer. Nothing short of a high sense of the Amor Patriæ could have placed me in my present situation; and though I stand bound, and will obey the call of my Country whenever it is made, agreeably to my letter of acceptance, none will regret the event with more poignancy, none will forsake the walks of retirement with more heartfelt sorrow, none can leave them with more real inconvenience to their private concerns, than I shall do. A sixteen years’ absence from home (with short intervals only) could not fail to derange them considerably, & to require all the time I can spare from the usual avocations of life to bring them into tune again. But this is not all, nor the worst; for, being the Executor, the Administrator, & Trustee for other Estates, my greatest anxiety is to leave all these concerns in such a clear and distinct form, that no reproach may attach itself to me, when I shall have taken my departure for the land of Spirits.
I have been thus full, as it regards myself, in order to shew you, that information in all matters of a Military nature are necessary for my Government, thereby having a prospective view of things, I may prepare accordingly, and not, though detached from the army until the exigencies of our affairs may require my presence with it, appear like a person just dropped from the clouds when I take the Command, ignorant of preceding occurrences. Nor will it, without doing great violence to the concerns of others equally with my own, be in my power to “take up my bed & walk” at any unexpected requirement, nor without great exertions, which it may not be in my power to make on a sudden call, unless previously hastened (which would be unnecessary), and unless I could discern beforehand the utility of the measure by the gradual unfolding of the prospect before us.
I shall now, with your permission, make a few observations as they respect the Recruiting Service. Had the organization of the Augmented Corps, and consequent Instructions for raising it, tread as close on the passage of the Law as the nature of the case would have permitted, a finer army for the size of it (with the discipline it might have received) the world had never seen. But the golden opportunity is passed, & probably will never occur again. The zeal, enthusiasm, and indeed resentment, which warmed the breasts of the American youth, and would have induced the sons of the respectable Yeomanry, (in all parts of the United States,) to enlist as noncommissioned officers & privates, are now no more. They are evaporated, & a listlessness has supplied their place. The next most favorable opportunity, namely, the idle & dreary scenes of winter, which bring on dissipation & want, from the cessation of labor, has also passed away. The enlivening prospect of Spring, the calls of the Husbandman indeed of every avocation for laborers in the approaching busy season, hath supplanted all thoughts of becoming soldiers; and now many young Gentlemen, who had (conditionally) last Summer & Autumn engaged their Companies, will find it difficult to enlist a single man of those so engaged; the latter pretending that, having waited a considerable time to see if their services would be wanted in the Field, and no overtures for them made, it became necessary for them to seek some other employment.
What is the natural consequence of all this? Why, that we must take the Rif-raf of the populous cities, Convicts, & foreigners, or have officers without men. But even this is not the worst of it. The Augmented Corps, (if I have conceived the matter rightly,) must have been intended as a well-organized and well-disciplined body of men, for others, (in case of need,) to resort to and take example from. Will this be the case if the enemy shall invade this country? Far from it! What better, in the first instance, are Regiments so composed than militia? And what prospect have those, who command them, of rendering service to their Country, or doing honor to themselves in the Field, opposed to Veteran troops, practiced in Tactics, and unaccustomed to defeat? These, my dear McHenry, are serious considerations to a man, who has nothing to gain, and is putting every thing to hazard.
When I began this letter I intended to stop here; but, as I may not again write to you with the freedom I now do, I shall make a few remarks on some other transactions, which have not struck me in the most favorable point of view.
1 The two Major-Generals and myself were called to Philadelphia in November last, and there detained five weeks, (very inconveniently to all of us,) at an inclement season, in wading through volumes of applications & recommendations for Military Appointments; and I will venture to say, that it was executed with as much assiduity, and under as little influence of favor or prejudice, as a work of that sort (from the materials which were laid before us) ever was accomplished. And what has followed? Why, any Member of Congress, who had a friend to serve, or a prejudice to endulge, could set them at nought. Out of a number, I will select one instance only in proof of this. It is a striking one. The case of Gibbes I allude to. He was personally known to you, General Hamilton, & myself, in his former services. He served through the whole Revolutionary war, from the assembling of the first Troops at Cambridge to the closing of the Military Drama at the conclusion of Peace, without reproach; and in the last Act of it, if I mistake not, was a Major in the selected Corps of light Infantry. He was strongly recommended by Generals Lincoln, Knox, Brooks, & Jackson, all on the same theatre with himself, and who ought to be perfectly acquainted with his respectability & pretensions; yet the vote of a member of Congress (I presume) was more respected & sufficient to set him aside.—
Another thing I will remark on, because, if the practice is continued, you will find that serious discontents & evils will result from it.
I find by the Gazettes (I have no other information of these matters), that Lieutt. Mercer of the Light Dragoons is promoted to the Rank of Captn. in that Corps. In the arrangement of officers, where every attention was paid, (that personal knowledge or information could reach,) to merit, age, respectability & standing in the community, he was not even placed (if my memory serves me) high up among the Lieutenants. What then will those Lieutenants, who are his Seniors in that arrangement, greatly his Seniors in age, of at least as much respectability, better known, and of equal merit, think of having him placed over them? Mercer, compared to them is a boy; and in such an army, as it was our wish to form, it will have an odd appearance to place a young man of 20 or 21 years of age over a Lieutent. of 30, in every other respect his equal.
I do not mean to derogate from the merits or deserts of this young Gentleman. On the contrary, I wish to see them properly rewarded, although his whole family are bitter in their enmity to the General Government. Nor would I be understood to mean, that, if a Captain (and so of any other grade) declines his appointment that during the act of formation, the vacancy is necessarily to be filled by the next in seniority. Necessarily so far from this, I maintain, that, when a vacancy is occasioned by non-acceptance, that it may without injustice be filled by a new character as in the first instance. But it is my opinion, at the same time, that, if you have recourse to promotion, the arrangement, which was made by the Board of General Officers in all its parts, who had regard to all the combinations and qualifications that have been enumerated in settling the relative rank, is the safest guide you could have resorted to.
It is not my intention to dispute the Powers of the President to make this or any other promotion, which his inclination or the solicitation of others may prompt him to; but I will add, without fear of contradiction by any one acquainted with the usages & prescriptive rights of armies, that, if he wishes to preserve the Peace and harmony of ours, rules must be observed, and the feelings of the officers attended to in promotions.
These observations relatively to the promotion of Lieutenant Mercer are not the result of any discontent I have heard expressed on the occasion; for, except those who take the Philadelphia Gazette, but a few of the Officers may be acquainted therewith, and of those few I have seen none since its annunciation to the public. It is on general grounds they are made, & by judging of the feeling of others by what would be my own in a similar case; for I do not think it will be a very reconcilable matter to Gentlemen of more respectable ages, better known in the walks of life, and much more likely to Recruit men, to have a young man fresh from College placed over their heads.
As vacancies have happened in the Cavalry by non-acceptances &c, and promotions have begun, may I ask if there would be any impropriety in letting Mr. Custis step from a cornetcy into the Rank of Lieutenant? If I mistake not, in the arrangement given in, he stands the first for promotion; that is, he was made the senior Cornet. The Major-Generals were desirous of placing him as lieutenant in the first instance; but, his age considered, I thought it more eligable that he should enter into the lowest grade of Commissioned Officers. If ample fortune, good education, more than common abilities, and good disposition, free from vice of any kind, give him a title, in the 19th year of his age, his pretensions thereto (though not to the injury of others) are good. But it is not my desire to ask this as a favor. I never have, and never shall, solicit any thing for myself or connexions. I mean nothing more than the statement of facts, in order to bring his situation to view.
There is one matter more, which I was in doubt whether to mention to you or not, because it is of a more delicate nature than any I have touched upon; but finally friendship have got the better of my scruples.
It respects yourself personally. You will recollect, I dare say, that more than once I expressed to you my opinion of the expediency of committing the Details of the Department to the exertion of others, and to bestow your thoughts and attention on the more important Duties of it; which, in the scenes we were contemplating, were alone sufficient to occupy the time and all the consideration of the Secretary. I I went no further then, nor should I have renewed the subject now, had not the delay in issuing the Commissions and commencing the recruiting service excited great reprobation and blame, though, as I have observed before, no one knows where with precision to fix it. Generally, however, it is attributed to the want of system & exertion in the Department of War. To apprize you of this is my motive for this communication.
I prefaced the sentiments of this letter with a request, that they might be considered as proceeding from a private man to his friend. No one would be struck more forcibly than myself with the impropriety of such a letter from the Commander-in-chief of the army of the U. States to the Secretary of War. If they are received in good part, the end is obtained. If otherwise, my motives and the purity of my intentions are the best apology I can offer for the liberty I have taken. In either case, however, be assured of this truth, that, with very great esteem and regard, I remain, my dear Sir, &c.1
[1 ]Major Caleb Gibbs.
[1 ]To this letter the Secretary of War answered in detail, explaining all the principal points, and enumerating the difficulties with which he had to contend, some of which were formidable.