Revolutionary War Historical Article
George Washington's Military Family
by Donald N. Moran
Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the December 1998 Edition of the Liberty Tree Newsletter
In the 18th century the expression used to describe the staff of a general officer was "his family". By examining his choice of family members is one of the best methods of judging a general's administrative ability. The men chosen by General George Washington is a study in excellence.
From surviving accounts, being a member of George Washington's family was exhausting. It required the Aides-de-Camp to get up before sunrise and work until the late hours of the night. Army exists because of paperwork! In the 18th century, that meant quill and paper.
There were two means of communication available to Washington, person-to-person conversation and handwritten letters, laboriously prepared, always by quill, and often by the inadequate light of a flickering candle.
The method of preparing and preserving written communications is a story in itself. Generally a subject was discussed between the General and his Aidesde-Camp, a draft letter or order was prepared, corrected and approved by the General, then rewritten in final form for his signature. A copy was then written in the "Letter Book", along with the letter it referred to, or the answer to the General's letter was inserted. If the letter was important enough, it was personally delivered by one of the Aides-de-Camp. These duties were constant, whether the army was encamped, or on the march.
The duties of the Aides-de-Camp were often dangerous. On the field of battle, they galloped about the battlefield delivering the General’s orders or observing the action for him. At the Battle of Monmouth, in 1778, three Aides-de-Camp, Alexander Hamilton, John Fitzgerald, and John Laurens were all wounded. On more than one occasion the Aides-de-Camp had to gallop through a hail of musket balls to force the utterly fearless Washington to retire to safety.
Is it any wonder that General Washington went through twenty-nine Aides-de-Camp during the war? We have presented here brief biographies of each of the twenty-nine Aides-de-Camp, in the order in which they served.
Served: July 1775 to August 1775. He was a delegate to the 1st Continental Congress. After serving in Washington's family, he advanced in rank to Major General. He served as a delegate to the Constitutional Congress in 1787. He finished his career in public service as Governor of Pennsylvania, serving for nine years.
Served: July 1775 to May 1776. Born in Trenton, New Jersey, of Irish immigrant parentage. After serving in the Washington Family, he became a delegate from Pennsylvania to the Continental Congress, and after serving one term he returned to his law practice, dying prematurely at age 44.
Served: July 1775 to August 1775. He was the famous painter whose 200 renderings are among the best known Revolutionary War paintings. His father was Governor of Connecticut and his brother Jonathan also served as an Aide-de-Camp to George Washington.
Served: August 1775 to January 1777. He later formed the Third Continental Dragoons. He was I wounded at Old Tappan, New York , and never recovered from his wounds, expiring in 1784.
Served: August 1776 to March 1777. He left the Army to serve as Virginia's Attorney General. He also served as a delegate to the Continental Congress, Governor of Virginia, and was our first U. S. Attorney General.
ROBERT HANSON HARRISON
Served: November 1775 to March 1781. After the war he served as Chief Justice of the Maryland State General Court and in 1789 declined an appointment to the United States Supreme Court.
Served: March 1776 to June 1776 and again in January of 1777. He was born in Ireland. After serving in Washington's family, he was promoted to Quartermaster General. Later he raised a Regiment of Cavalry, the 4th Continental Dragoons. He was promoted to Brevet Brigadier General when he left the Army in November of 1783. After the war he served as U. S. Commissioner of loans.
Served March 1776 to April 1776. After serving in Washington's family he became Paymaster, and in 1780 he was sent by Congress on a mission to France and was lost at sea.
Served: March 1776 to November 1783. Commanded the General's Guard, and in May 1776 was appointed Aide-de-Camp. He received a minor wound during the attack on Redoubt No. 10 at Yorktown. After the war he was appointed by then President Washington to Storekeeper for the Charlestown Navy Yard. He purchased the material needed to build such ships as the U.S. S. Constitution.
Served: May 1776 to May 1778. He served throughout the war as a Major of Cavalry often being assigned to Washington's Headquarters. He was the son of Betty Washington Lewis, sister of George Washington. After the War he returned to Virginia to be a planter.
(1747 - 1806)
Served: June 1776 to December 1776. After the war he settled in Springfield, N. Y.
SAMUEL B. WEBB
Served: June 1776 to January 1777. He was the stepson of Silas Deane. His fellow Aidesde-Camp called him "the unlucky aide" as he was wounded three times in three different battles. After his assignment in Washington's family he raised a Regiment designated the 3rd Connecticut Dragoons. He served to the end of the war, leaving the army as a Brevet Brigadier General.
Served August 1776 to January 1777. After serving in Washington's family, he was authorized by Congress to recruit a regiment of infantry. In 1781 he resigned his commission to join the Congressional Board of War. After the war he served in the Virginia House of Delegates, and was one of the first Senators from Virginia.
Served: August 1776 to June 1783. He volunteered to serve without pay. Historians agree that he became the General's right arm, and was treated like a son. He was selected to carry the captured British colors to the Congress in Philadelphia after Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown. He served until the army was disbanded in 1783, then reopened his mercantile business in Philadelphia.
Served: November 1776 to July 1778. He was born in Ireland. After the war he became director of the Potomac Navigation Company in which Washington was a business partner. Of all his Aides, Fitzgerald was the most frequent visitor to Mount Vernon.
(1738-1828) Served: January 1777 to August 1777. He was the brother-in-law of Aide-deCamp Robert Harrison.
JOHN WALKER (1736-1809)
Served: February 1777 to December 1777.
Served: March 1777 to April 1781. He led the attack on Redoubt No. 10 at Yorktown, ending the siege, and forcing the surrender of Lord Cornwallis. He stayed in the Army until it was disbanded in 1783. He was a delegate from New York to the Constitution Convention. He became the first United States Secretary of the Treasury. In 1797 he was commissioned a Brigadier General.
RICHARD K. MEADE
Served: March 1777 to October 1780. He remained a lifelong friend of the General and was a frequent visitor to Mount Vernon.
Served: September 1777 to October 1781. He was the son of Henry Laurens, President of the Continental Congress. He served at Yorktown, but instead of returning north after the taking of Lord Cornwallis, he stayed to assist his home state of South Carolina. In 1782, he was killed in action.
Served May 1778 to June 1780. He was born in Ireland and was a doctor having studied under famed Doctor Benjamin Rush. He was elected to the Maryland State senate in 1783. That same year he served as a delegate to the Confederation Congress until 1786. In 1796 Washington named him Secretary of War. Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor, the inspiration for the "Star Spangled Banner" is named after him.
Served: June 1780 to January 1784 and as Washington's personal secretary from May 1786 to September 1790. After the war he served as secretary to the American Commission in Paris, Secretary to the first American Minister to Portugal, and then to the American Minister in Spain. He was a favorite of Washington's and was to have helped him write his autobiography. Unfortunately the work was never completed.
Served: January 1782 to December 1783. He was born in England (The only English born Aide-de-Camp Washington had). In 1783 he served as Secretary in the New York State Government. He was appointed the Federal Naval Officer for the port of New York. He served one term as a Congressman from New York State.
Served: May 1781 to December 1783. He served as an Aide-de-Camp to Benedict Arnold. After Arnold's treason, he was cleared of any complicity by a Court of Inquiry, but his close association with Arnold ruined his military career. Washington wiped out any lingering suspicions by appointing him as one of his own Aides-de-Camp. After the war he served in the New York State Legislature, codified the laws of the State and served as Mayor of the City of New York. New York's Varick Street is named after him.
JONATHAN TRUMBULL, JR.
Served: June 1781 to January 1783. He was the eldest son of Governor of Connecticut. In 1775 he was selected to be paymaster of the Northern Department of the Army. He was then appointed Comptroller of the National Treasury until he was selected by Washington to serve as one of his Aides-de-Camp. After the war he was elected Congressman from Connecticut and served two terms. He was Speaker of the House of Representatives during his second term. He then was elected U.S. Senator from Connecticut, but resigned midterm. He was then elected Governor of Connecticut and served an incredible eleven terms, dying in office.
Served: June 1781 to January 1783. He was a doctor from Boston, but preferred politics to medicine. He served as a Congressman from Massachusetts (1793-1845) and served as President of the Massachusetts State Senate.
Served: July 1781 to February 1783. He was the son of Washington's old friend, Colonel William Fitzhugh. He served with George Baylor and was severely wounded at Old Tappan and captured. He had just been exchanged and still suffering from his bayonet wounds and was no doubt pleased to accept a position in the General's family.
WILLIAMS S. SMITH
Served: July 1781 to April 1785. After the war he married the daughter of then Vice President John Adams. He was appointed Federal Marshal in New York City and later became the head of New York's Internal Revenue Department.
JOHN PARKE CUSTIS
Served October 1781 to November 1781. He was Washington's stepson and volunteered to serve as an Aide-de-Camp at the then upcoming Yorktown battle. He came down with camp fever and died on November 5th, 1781. His mother, Martha Washington and his wife rushed to his death bed in Williamsburg. His stepfather arrived there from Yorktown at the moment of his death.