For a few years I was the editor of the Longfellow House Bulletin. For each issue I conducted an interview. Here is my most exceptional interview, by far:
In each issue of the Bulletin we include an interview with an individual whose interest in, or whose affiliation with, the Vassall-Craigie-Longfellow House is uniquely important. We are pleased to offer our readers an “interview” with General Washington in his own words at three different intervals during his stay at the Vassall House. We were delighted he gave his candid opinions despite the controversies they might arouse.
The Longfellow House Bulletin: In June, shortly before your arrival here in Cambridge, you told the Continental Congress of your hesitation in accepting the appointment as commander-in–chief of the American forces. What were your thoughts at that time?
General Washington: As I wrote to my wife: so far from seeking this appointment, I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it, not only from my unwillingness to part with [Martha] and the family, but from a consciousness of it being a trust too great for my capacity…. But it has been a kind of destiny, that has thrown me upon this service, I shall hope that my undertaking it is designed to answer some good purpose. It was utterly out of my power to refuse this appointment without exposing my character to such censures as would have reflected dishonor upon myself and given pain to my friends.
LHB: And what was your opinion of the troops of which you took command?
GW: I found a mixed multitude of people here, under very little discipline, order, or government…. I have already broke one Colonel and five Captains for cowardice and for drawing more pay and provisions than they had men in their companies… in short they are by no means such troops, in any respect, as you are led to believe of them from the accounts which are published, but I need not make myself enemies among them by this declaration, although it is consistent with truth. [There is] an unaccountable kind of stupidity in the lower class of these people which, believe me prevails but too generally among the officers of the Massachusetts part of the Army who are nearly of the same kidney with the Privates, and adds not a little to my difficulties…
LHB: And what was your first assessment of the enemy?
GW: I found the enemy in possession of a place called Bunkers Hill, on Charles Town Neck, strongly entrenched and fortifying themselves. Their force including Marines, Tories, etc. are computed from the best accounts I can get at about 12,000 men. Ours, including sick, absent, etc., at about 16,000.
LHB: Mrs. Washington arrived at Vassall House in December when soldier and civilian alike faced another common enemy.
GW: The Small Pox is in every part of Boston…. If we escape [it] in this camp and the country round about, it will be miraculous—Every precaution that can be, is taken to guard against this Evil both by the General Court and myself.
LHB: In the past months there have been great changes in the numbers and the condition of your troops. What strategies did you use to bring about such improvement?
GW: It is easier to conceive than to describe the situation of my mind for some time past, and my feelings under our present circumstances. Search the vast volumes of history through, and I much question whether a case similar to ours is to be found; to wit, to maintain a post against the flower of the British troops for six months together, and at the end of them to have one army disbanded and another to raise within the same distance of a reinforced enemy… [w]hat may be the final issue of the last maneuver, time only can tell. Three things prompt men to a regular discharge of their duty in time of action, Natural bravery—hope of reward —and fear of punishment. The two first are common to the untutored and the disciplined soldier, but the latter most obviously distinguishes the one from the other.
LHB: We hear that Dunmore is encouraging the enlistment of Negro troops.
GW: In December it was represented to me that the free Negroes who have served in this army are very much dissatisfied at being discarded. As it is to be apprehended that they may seek employ in the Ministerial Army, I have presumed to depart from the resolution [of the Continental Congress] respecting them and have given license for their being enlisted. [In August] several Indians of the tribe of St. Francis came here and confirmed the former accounts of the good dispositions of the Indian Nations, and Canadians to the interests of America. A most happy event.
LHB: All reports declare the British have fled under the threat of bombardment from the fortifications erected by our troops upon Dorchester Heights in just one night.
GW: The last trump could not have struck them with greater consternation. OnSunday the 17th at 9 o’clock in the forenoon, the ministerial Army evacuated the Town of Boston, and…the forces of the United Colonies are now in actual possession thereof. I have great reason to imagine their flight was precipitated by the appearance of a Work which I had ordered to be thrown up last Saturday night, on an eminence at Dorchester which lay nearest to Boston Neck, called Newkes Hill. The Town, although it has suffered greatly, is not in so bad a state as I expected to find it. The situation in which I found [the enemy’s] works evidently discovered that their retreat was made with the greatest precipitation. They have left their barracks and other works of wood at Bunkers Hill, etc. all standing and have destroyed but a small part of their lines.
LHB: Would you favor us with some of your reflections on these past nine months, sir, as you prepare to leave for Philadelphia?
GW: I believe I may, with great truth affirm, that no man perhaps since the first institution of armies ever commanded one under more difficult circumstances than I have done—to enumerate the particulars would fill a volume—many of my difficulties and distresses were of so peculiar a cast that in order to conceal them from the enemy, I was obliged to conceal them from my friends, indeed from my own army thereby subjecting my conduct to interpretations unfavorable to my character…I am happy however to find, and to hear from different quarters that my reputation stands fair—that my conduct hitherto has given universal satisfaction…
LHB: So to sum up the matter thus far…
GW: It is a great stake we are playing for, and sure we are of winning if the cards are well managed.
Sources: George Washington: Writings, (The Library of America, 1997)
Henry Steele Commanger and Richard B. Morris, eds., The Spirit of Seventy-six: The Story of the American Revolution as told by Participants (New York: Da Capo Press, 1995)
George Washington Papers, at the Library of Congress