George Washington Papers

To George Washington from James McHenry, 2 May 1799

From James McHenry


Dear Sir.War Dept [Philadelphia] 2 May 1799.

As it is by no means improbable those events may take place, which will render it indispensible and proper to raise the eventual army, in part or in whole, it has been thought expedient that measures should be taken, for selecting the best qualified among those who would be willing to serve to fill its different regimental grades, with a view of being prepared to proceed instantly, on the event occurring, to raise the men.

The course of reference to the Senators, has been pursued for the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware & Maryland. For Virginia, I have thought it best to refer the subject to yourself; and the States of South Carolina and Georgia to Gen. Pinckney. With respect to North Carolina, I have not yet been happy enough to fix upon proper characters to address, having some reason for overlooking the Governor. I mean, I do not think he is sufficiently impressed with the propriety of selecting real federal men.

The inclosed letter was written some time ago, and purposely detained, till the elections should be over in Virginia.1

Inclosed is the act giving eventual authority to the President of the United States to augment the army, in pursuance of which the present measure has been adopted.2 I am Dr Sir sincerely and Affly your ob. St

James McHenry


1By one of the acts passed in May 1798 after the publication of the XYZ dispatches, Congress authorized the president when faced with imminent or actual invasion by a foreign foe to create a Provisional Army of 10,000 men. It followed this legislation with an act in July authorizing the addition of twelve regiments to the regular army of the United States (the “New Army”). See McHenry to GW, 3 July 1798, n.1. GW and major generals Alexander Hamilton and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney went to work in November 1798 to identify the men who could serve as the officers of these regiments, and by this time in May 1799 most of the officers had been commissioned and the recruiting of soldiers had begun.

No action was taken under the terms of the Provisional Army act of May 1798, which remained in force only until the end of the year, but on 2 Mar. 1799 Congress enacted a bill that in effect extended the life of the 1798 act while somewhat expanding its scope. Secretary of War McHenry on 10 April wrote this letter to GW reporting President Adams’s decision to take preliminary action under the terms of the new Provisional Army act, but he delayed sending the letter until this time, 2 May: “The President thinks it highly expedient that no time should be lost in selecting proper characters to officer the twenty four regiments of Infantry, the regiment and Battalion of riflemen, the Battalion of artillerists and Engineers, and the three regiments of Cavalry, which may be raised in pursuance of an act giving eventual authority to the President of the United States to augment the army, passed the second of march, last, and contemplates, as soon as the selection shall be closed, to make the appointments. The selection of officers for the eventual army appears to be an object of primary importance, requiring all imaginary circumspection and care; their characters ought, if possible, to be such as to inspire a general and well grounded confidence that the fate of their country may be safely entrusted to them. I have, therefore, to request you will accord your full attention to the subject and furnish me as soon as practicable with a list of the names of such characters in your state, to fill the annexed military grades, as in your opinion, are best qualified, and willing to serve in case of an actual war, which will render it indispensable to recruit men for the most extended army. You will, doubtless, find a facility in forming the list from consulting and co:operating with proper persons in different parts of your State who may be calculated to give information of the requisite particulars, and upon whose patriotism and judgment a full confidence may be placed. Every cautionary measure is necessary to guard against errors in appointments which too frequently result from the case with which recommendations are generally obtained, the partialities of friends, and a delusive hope that men of bad habits, by being transplanted into the army, will become good men, and good officers.

“The officers proposed to be drawn from the State of Virginia are (viz.)

Four Colonels one Colonel
Eight Majors Two Majors
Forty Captains Eleven Captains and
and Eighty Subalterns of Infantry Twenty two Subalterns of Cavalry

“In making the selection, it will be proper to allow, if fit characters present themselves for a choice, a due proportion of Captains and Subalterns to the several counties, according to their respective population, as well with a view to facilitate the recruiting service as to give general satisfaction; this rule, however, is not meant to be so invariably observed as to exclude great superiority of talents, by too strict an adherence to it. As circumstances may exist at the time of the President’s making the appointment’s which may render it proper to make some changes in the list with which I may be furnished, you are requested not to give the parties recommended, such positive assurances as will render a change impracticable without wounding, too sensibly, their feelings” (DLC:GW).

As by this letter McHenry makes GW personally responsible for putting together a list of Virginians who were both willing and able to serve as the officers in the four regiments of infantry and one regiment of cavalry that Virginia would be called on to raise if the new Provisional Army became necessary, GW had to abandon the practice that he had been following in the creation of the new regiments of the regular army of forwarding to McHenry whatever applications or recommendations for commissions that happened to be sent to him. Instead, GW himself now began both to seek and to deal with applications and recommendations for commissions in the Provisional Army.

GW wrote McHenry on 13 May saying that because his “acquaintance with the People of this State” had become so limited he was turning to generals Henry Lee and John Marshall, and to colonels Daniel Morgan, William Heth, and Edward Carrington for aid in identifying Virginians who might serve as officers in the “eventual army,” as the Provisional Army was often called. GW wrote Morgan about this on 10 May, and Morgan provided him with the names of a number of men from the upper part of the state (see Morgan to GW, 12 and 26 June). Henry Lee proved to be less helpful (see Lee to GW, 22 May). On 12 May GW wrote a joint letter to Marshall, Carrington, and Heth, enclosing a copy of McHenry’s letter of 10 April (printed here), and asking their aid in compiling a list of potential officers in Virginia, but to little effect (see GW to Marshall, 6, 16 June, and note 2 of the latter document, and Marshall to GW, 16 May, 12 June).

In early June GW decided that in order to identify Virginians who might serve as officers in the Provisional Army, he would “follow the four grand Divisions of the State, as laid off by the Inspector General [Alexander Hamilton] in his arrangements for recruiting” Virginians for the new regular army regiments. In each of these divisions—(1) the Eastern Shore division which also included the tidewater counties to the north of the James River and a part of the Northern Neck; (2) the area of the state on the south side of the James; (3) the portion of the state to the west of the Eastern Shore division, to the north of the James, and east of the Blue Ridge; and (4) the transmontane region of the state—he would choose someone “for the command of a Regiment” and “request him to furnish me with the names of such persons, in his division, as are fit and willing to fill other grades” (GW to Marshall, 6 June; see also Alexander Hamilton to GW, 27 March). In July GW succeeded in securing John Cropper’s consent to serve as commanding officer of the Eastern Shore regiment if called upon to do so, and the names of possible commanders for the regiments in other divisions are mentioned in the correspondence, but as far as can be determined no steps were taken to designate any other regimental commanders.

Throughout the summer GW himself continued to seek suggestions, but only rarely and seemingly in passing. As early as 25 May GW sought advice from Burgess Ball, and in July and August he asked for, and received, suggestions from Alexander Spotswood and Richard Kidder Meade. See Ball to GW, 25 May, GW to Spotswood, 15 July, and GW to Meade, 12 August. For the most part, however, GW seems to have been content simply to receive and acknowledge the applications and recommendations that came to him unsolicited. On 26 and 27 June, and again on 4 Sept., GW’s friend Leven Powell, who had recently been elected to Congress, supplied GW with the names of men in Loudoun County and its environs who wished to serve as officers in the Provisional Army, and James McHenry forwarded to GW applications received from Virginians by the War Department (see McHenry to GW, 11 May, and notes).

A few unsolicited applications and recommendations for appointments in the regiments of the Provisional Army came in during July. On the thirteenth of that month several men from Fauquier County, Charles Marshall, Joseph Blackwell, Francis Brooke, George Steptoe Washington, and Martin Pickett, wrote a joint letter to GW recommending George Pickett, Jr., “who at present commands a company of militia in Fauquier has expressed a wish of entering into the provisi[o]nal army, We therefore take the liberty of recommending him as a young Gentleman a native of Fauquier whose character and deportment as an officer and private man has deservedly met with our approbation, that should he be promoted in the army of the united States we have not a doubt but he will acquit himself in a manner becoming his rank, He is and has always been friendly to the Government under which he lives and professes himself to be induced only by a wish to serve his County on a more active theatre than that presented in the militia, for offering himself a candidate in the military line” (DLC:GW). On 20 July Benjamin Bullitt wrote from Millfield saying “I hope, whin you send on the list of those who have made application to you for Commissions in the provisional arm⟨e⟩ you will think of me, prohaps as there is a grate number of applacations for Captainces there is a better chance for the Maj’s. apointment, how ever should I be honoured with any appointment, I shall be very thank full and shall endevour to do my duty. and do my self Credet in it” (DLC:GW). Four days later, on 24 July, William B. Wallace of Stafford County wrote to apply for the command of a company in the Provisional Army and said about himself: “Not having the honour of a personal acquaintance with your Excellency I ho⟨pe⟩ it is not Ostentatious (for me in support of my pretentions) on this occation to call to mind my services last War which commensed in the year 1775 in the second Virga Regt then commanded by Col. [William] Woodford when after one years service as a private & N. Com. officer I was appointed to a Lieutenancy in one of the 16 additional Regts commanded by Col. [William] Grayson & continued in this till the Regt was broke, when an aversion to leave the army till the end of the war induced me (contrary to a General Military Maxim) to prefer a 2d Lieutenancy in [Charles] Harrisons Regt of Artilly to a Supernumerary Captaincy in Graysons & in this I served to the end of the War, tho. not without experiencing a long and painfull Captivity with the Enemy in South Carolina, whence I again lost rank & came out of an army when promotion had necessarily been so rapid in many instances from the Number of vacancies that occurred with nearly the same grade I commenci[n]g with six or seven years before” (DLC:GW). GW replied on 29 July: “Sir, I have received your letter of the 24th instant, wherein you offer yourself as a Candidate for an appointment in the Provisional Army.

“Measures are now taking to select proper Characters for Officers in this Army, and as it is desireable to obtain those who have had experience in military affairs, and are otherwise qualified, your application will meet with due attention whenever the appointments take place.

“And in the mean time I will thank you to suggest to me the names of such persons, within your knowledge, as are fit & willing to serve in Regimental or Company Offices in case they should be appointed thereto: for my personal knowledge of Characters in this State is too confined to enable me, from that alone, to select proper Characte[r]s for the officers of four Regiments, which is the proportion aloted to Virginia; I must therefore obtain information from every source in my power of those who are qualified and willing to serve without giving any assurance of appointment as that must depend on the will of the President & Senate of the United States. With esteem & regard I am Sir Yr Most Ob. St G.Wn” (Df, DLC:GW).

On 12 Aug. GW wrote McHenry that he saw “no prospect of completing the selection of Officers from this State, for the Provisional Army, within any reasonable time.” In the fall of 1799 GW’s correspondence regarding the Provisional Army is minimal and intermittent. Most of these letters are quoted in GW to McHenry, 12 Aug., n.1, and GW to Richard Kidder Meade, 12 Aug., n.3.

2“An Act giving eventual authority to the President of the United States to augment the Army” was approved on 2 Mar. 1799.

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