George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Elbridge Gerry, 13 January 1778

From Elbridge Gerry

York [Pa.] 13th of Jany 1778

Dear sir

I have waited some time, in Expectation of informing You with the Sense of Congress on the several Subjects mentioned in your agreable Favour of the 25th Decr; but am not yet fully able to answer my Purpose.

a Committee is appointed from Congress & the Board of War, who in Concert with your Excellency have full Powers to form & execute a Plan for reducing the Number of Batalions now in the Service; to recommend the necessary Appointments of General officers; to determine on the necessary Reinforcements for the Cavalry, Artillery, & Infantry, & report their Opinions on the best Mode of obtaining the same; to remove from office any officers of the civil Departments of the Army for Negligence, Incompetency, or Fraud, & appoint others untill the Sense of Congress can be known; to report the necessary Alterations to be made in the Regulations of these Departments; to remove all just Causes of Complaint relative to rank, confining it as nearly as may be to the military Line; & for other purposes mentioned in their Commission. the Members are Messs. Fulsom, Dana, General Reid, & Harvey from Congress; & Generals Gates & Mifflin & Colo. pickering from the Board of War.1 I sincerely wish that Despatch may be made in this Business, & that the first Thing may be to consider of the necessary Reinforcements, that Measures may be immediately pursued to obtain them, the Mentioning of this is however unnecessary to your Excellency. The Resolutions for allowing hereafter to Officers, the Cost of their Retained Rations, & for enabling your Excellency to encrease the Number of your Aids, I find by your Letters to Congress are at Hand;2 & the proposals of allowing to Officers who shall continue in the Service to the End of the War, & where regiments shall then be reduced, half pay for a limited Time; of enabling Officers after the War to sell their Commissions under proper Regulations, & of giving to the Widows of such officers as shall hereafter loose their Lives in the Service, pensions whilst they remain in a State of Widowhood, are now before Congress. the first has been largely debated, & I am apprehensive that it will meet with a negative; there are many weighty Arguments against it, such as the Infant State of the Country, it’s Aversion to placement & pensioners whereby G. Britain is likely to loose her Liberty, the Equality of the Officers & Soldiers of some States before the War, & the bad Effect that such provision would have on the Minds of the latter; but I must confess that none of these weigh so much in my Mind, as the Necessity of making a Commission so valuable that a Dismission will not only be disgraceful to an officer, but injurious to his Interest. this will introduce that Subordination to civil Authority which is necessary to produce an internal Security to Liberty; And to the high Officers of the military Department, such authority as to enable them to establish Discipline, without which an Army can be neither vigorous, nor successful.3

Colo. Wilkinson is appointed Secretary to the Board of War, which I hope, he will accept, that the just Causes of Complaint arising from his hasty promotion may be removed: should he refuse, I think Congress will be justified in taking effectual Measures to remedy the evils resulting therefrom.4

General Heath is directed to procure & send to your Excellency one thousand bell Tents, to prevent in future the Danger arising from heavy Rains at the critical Moment of an Engagement with the Enemy.5 Is it not necessary that Measures should be taken by Congress or your Excellency for further providing against this Evil, by appropriating, a Drummer, Fifer, or some other Officer in each Company to carry a Bell Tent for the same, in Times of Action when the Baggage Waggons are ordered to leave the Army: that whether advancing or retreating, the Soldiers may never be in Danger of having their Muskets & Ammunition rendered useless from the Want of this Article? I remain sir in Haste, but with much Esteem & Respect, your Excellency’s very hum. serv.

E. Gerry


1Congress had passed resolutions for the formation of this committee on 10 and 12 Jan. 1778 (see GW to Robert R. Livingston, 27 Dec. 1777, n.3). John Harvie (1742–1807), a lawyer of Albemarle County, Va., served in 1776–77 as a colonel of Albemarle County militia, in 1776 as a commissioner for Indian affairs in the middle department, and in 1780–81 as a purchasing agent for Virginia with the rank of colonel. He was elected a delegate to Congress by the Virginia general assembly in May 1777, but only began attending Congress in October of that year and resigned his seat in December 1778 (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 8:628, 9:804, 13:195). Beginning in the winter of 1778–79, Harvie’s estate on Ivy Creek four miles from Charlottesville, Va., harbored British and German prisoners from Burgoyne’s Convention Army, many of whom remained there until 1781. In 1785–86 Harvie was mayor of Richmond, and he later served as a director of the James River Company.

2For these resolutions, see ibid., 9:1068 and 10:15.

3A congressional committee formed on 24 Dec. 1777 was ordered “to take into consideration the wants of the army” and a letter from a Continental Congress camp committee to GW of 10 Dec., and it reported to Congress on 5 Jan. 1778 with the proposals enumerated here by Gerry, who was a member of the committee (ibid., 9:1052–53, 10:18–20). GW reiterated the importance of “a half pay and pensionary establishment” in his letter of 29 Jan. to a Continental Congress camp committee. Congress considered the proposals on numerous occasions over the next two months but failed to reach a resolution. Similar proposals were introduced on 26 Mar., and on 15 May Congress resolved to provide officers with half-pay for seven years after the end of the war and to award a bonus of $80 at the end of the war to soldiers and noncommissioned officers who served to the end of the conflict (ibid., 10:285–86; 11:502–3).

4Col. James Wilkinson, recommended “as a gallant officer, and a promising military genius” by Horatio Gates, received the brevet rank of brigadier general from Congress on 6 Nov. 1777, to the annoyance of many officers (ibid., 9:870). Nathaniel Folsom wrote Josiah Bartlett on 2 Jan. 1778 that “a Plan is laid by Sundrey members of Congress which I belive will be Carried to Remove [Wilkinson] out of the way by appointing him Secretary to the Board of War or by Sending him to Gorgia” (Smith, Letters of Delegates description begins Paul H. Smith et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C., 1976–2000. description ends , 8:517). Four days later, on 6 Jan., Congress elected Wilkinson to the Board of War (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 10:24).

5For the resolution of 5 Jan. ordering Maj. Gen. William Heath to send “one thousand good bell Tents” to GW, see ibid., 20.

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