George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Samuel Huntington, 20–26 December 1780

To Samuel Huntington

New Windsor 20th[–26] Decr 1780


At a time when the Army is about to undergo a material change1—when Congress and the States individually, are disposed to establish it upon the best principles for the equal Administration of justice, and the preservation of the rights of the Officers, I am perswaded it will not be deemed presumptuous in me to offer any opinion, which in my judgment, may serve to promote either of these ends and render our Military system as unexceptionable as possible—Upon thi⟨s⟩ ground therefore, I take the liberty of observing.

That promotion in our Army, according to the custom which prevails at present, is regimental to the rank of Captain—thence in each State line to the grade of Colonel—both Inclusive—I do not at this time recollect the inducements which led to regimental promotion, but as it has been found productive of many hard cases injurious to the feelings of Officers, I would propose that all promotion in the respective State lines to the rank of Colonels inclusive should be lineal—This may disappoint the hopes of a few Subalterns, who, perchance stand high in the regiments they are newly arranged to, but can do no injustice to any of them, & will remedy the evils complained of; as every vacancy will then be filled by the Senior Officer of the next grade where there is no interposition in favour of extra merit, or exclusion for want of it.

A regulation like this, is so consonant to the principles of justice, & so agreeable to the wishes of the Army in general (as far as I have been able to collect the Sentiments of it) that I think there can be no possible objection to the alteration proposed—By resignations (chiefly)—deaths, & other casualties, we have instances, & not a few of them, of Sergeants even, in one regiment coming to the command of Companies before Lieutenants in another—this, though Submitted to, has been the cause of much discontent, as it always hurts the feelings of an Officer to obey those whom he has commanded.

The Artillery & Cavalry have heretofore been considered in the same light as the line of a State, and rose accordingly; that is regimentally to the rank of Captn and in their respective lines afterwards—and this mode I presume must still be continued, or their rise made wholly regimental (as the regiments are from different States) otherwise the Officers of different States would very soon get blended together, wch does not seem to be the intention of Congress by their apportioning of them to particular States, nor do I believe it to be the wish of the Officers—but to avoid discontent, and the disputes which will arise from clashing interests—it is indispensably necessary to lay down some principle of promotion, declaring it to be lineal, or regimental wholly, or partly, as is mentioned before.

It is more difficult, and may be more delicate for me to express a sentiment respecting the promotion of Colonels, and General Officers; but as the good of the Service and the peace of the Army require that some principle should be established, by which these promotions should be governed, I have no doubt of its being done—The custom of appointing the Senior Colonels in each State line to be Brigadiers (where the number of Regiments are sufficient to form a Brigade, or more) has obtained consistency, and gives general satisfaction—but the appointment of Major Generals seems to be under no fixed government; for it sometimes happens by seniority—at other times by State—and has been a source of much discontent; threatning the loss of very good Officers—I see but two ways by which the promotion of Major Generals can take place upon any fixed or satisfactory ground, & if there is not a known rule for it, and irregular promotions happen, the Service I am certain will be injured by it; because Officers of their rank will not—nor cannot submit to a junior, unless there is some established principle to reconcile it to their feelings—The one is by Seniority wholly—the other by seniority & States jointly—As thus—If Congress shall judge it consistent with justice & policy to allow Major Generals to the States which have more Brigades than one in the field, let them rise in their own State line by Seniority, as other Officers do—and as this will not furnish a sufficient number for the Service (as their will be wanting for seperate commands—for the Wings of the Army—light Infantry &ca) let the deficiency be taken from the Senior Brigadiers of the whole line, to be succeeded by the oldest Colonels of the State lines from whence they are taken—The first mode gives, in all cases, the Senior Brigadiers for Major Generals—The Second, allows each State a compleat Corps of Officers to its quota of Men—and entitles every Brigadier in the line besides, to promotion, according to the date of his Commission.

Which of these modes, or whether either of them will be adopted by Congress is submitted to their better judgment—all I aim at, is to have some system established by wch we may harmonize; for there is nothing more certain than that th⟨e⟩ promotion of junior Officers over the heads of Seniors, unless it is agreeable to some known and established principle, never fails to produce a great deal of discontent—ill blood—& party,2 which are always injurious.

As I have gone so far into this subject, of promotion, there is one point more I would beg leave to touch upon—and that is with respect to the Colonels of the smallest States, whose quota of Troops does not entitle them to a Brigadier, and who without some relief are not only cut off3 from all hope of promotion—the object of a Soldiers desire—but after years of faithful Service, experience the frequent mortification of seeing themselves passed by—this must be exceedingly grating to a deserving Officer, and is a personal injury, because the State having but one Regiment can have no claim to a Brigadier—for remedy however of the evil—& the sake of justice, I would, with all due deference, suggest the propriety of promoting them, and others in like circumstances, to the Rank of Brigadiers whenever they shall become the Senior Colonels of the whole line, & Brigadiers are wanting, which may often be the case for extra Service—Command of the light Infantry &ca.

Congress will readily percieve that all these are expedients to accomodate matters (in the best manner the nature of the case will admit of) to the system of State Troops—for if we were one Army instead of a confederated Army, lineal promotion by the common course of succession—where merit or demerit did not interfere—would be the easiest, simplest & most equitable of any, but as this is not the case, and we are considered as a federal body we have three interests to attend to—viz.—the common interest—State Inte⟨rest⟩—and individual interest—Whether any of the expedients I have proposed are likely to answer the ends in view, is submitted with all possible deference,4 and without further apology by Your Excellency’s Most Obedt & Most Hble Servt

Go: Washington

P.S. 26th This letter has been unavoidably delayed for want of a conveyance.5

ALS, DNA:PCC, item 152; ADfS, DLC:GW; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. Congress read this letter on 1 Jan. 1781 and referred it “to a committee of three” (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 , 19:1). Huntington acknowledged this letter when he wrote GW on 2 Jan. 1781 (DLC:GW).

1GW refers to the new establishment of the Continental army that commenced on 1 Jan. 1781 (see General Orders, 1 Nov. 1780).

2GW wrote and struck out “disputes” after this word on his draft.

3GW wrote “of” for this word on his ALS.

4GW had promised to bring the issue of promotions to congressional attention when he wrote New Hampshire delegate John Sullivan on 17 December.

5For an effort to secure an express to Philadelphia, see General Orders, 22 Dec., source note.

Congress subsequently considered a report from its committee and adopted a resolution regarding promotions on 25 May 1781 (see 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 , 20:539–41, and Huntington to GW, 28 May 1781, DLC:GW; see also the general orders for 5 June 1781 and the source note above).

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