George Washington, Letter, Signed Military Interest


Washington Inquires About a Major General’s Fitness for Duty

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George Washington wrote this letter to Major General Alexander McDougall (possibly in the hand of David Humphreys (1752-1818, aide de camp to Washington’s headquarters staff), Washington inquires if the major general’s health will permit him to take command of a division.

It reads, in full:

Dear Sir
Being about to make a general disposition for the command of the Army during the Winter and having it now in my power to place a Division of Troops in this Cantonment under your Orders I must request to be informed by you, as soon as possible whether your State of Health will enable you to accept that Command or not.

At the same time I shall be happy to give you a Command suitable to your Rank I think it proper to inform you, that the situation of the Service will, in case your Health requires your being absent to re establish it, admit of that indulgence without essential injury; so that my only wish is that [in] making your Option you may act perfectly agreable [sic] to your own inclination and feelings.
I am
Dr Sir
Your very Obed. Servt.

Go: Washington

Separated along integral fold. Professional restoration to previous separations at horizontal folds, with one fold just touching the signature. Small area of loss extending through both sheets affecting just one word. Light scattered soiling and foxing. Some toning chiefly found on page four.

George Washington, George. Manuscript Letter Signed (“Go: Washington”).  Head Quarters, Newburg” (New York); (November 6, 1782). 2 pages, 7.5″ x 9.25″, docketed.      $35,000.00

 The Backstory…


Washington shows his long-standing affection and compassion for his major general.  The previous August, in a court-martial lasting three months and in which McDougall defended himself, he had been cleared of six of seven charges relating to conduct unbecoming an officer; the seventh charge was minor and did not affect McDougall’s standing in the army or in Washington’s view.  Early in 1782, Major General William Heath (1737-1814) had McDougall arrested for seven counts of misconduct.  Heath and McDougall had engaged in a longstanding dispute over military decisions that dated back to 1776, which came to a head in 1782 when Heath had taken command of fortifications at West Point.  McDougall criticized Heath’s methods of command and attacked him in public.  During the trial, McDougall’s financial situation deteriorated along with his health.

Washington subsequently reprimanded McDougall for his public criticism of a fellow officer.  But, due to his fondness for the major general and after the proceedings ended with an acquittal, Washington  offered McDougall command of a division of the army composed of two Connecticut brigades, which is the content of the letter presented here.

McDougall responded to Washington’s offer on September 4, 1782, stating that while he was honored to receive the offer, he was in such dire financial straits that he lacked the appropriate attire for the command and was also suffering from poor health. In this letter, Washington inquires about McDougall’s health and if he can assume the command offered. If not, Washington informs the major general that he can deliver another command suitable to McDougall’s rank. McDougall responded the same day, provided thanks to Washington, and accepted the command. However, he requested it be put off until warmer weather due to his ill health.

Washington set up headquarters in Newburgh, New York on March 31, 1782, one day before he wrote this letter to McDougall. Washington’s headquarters were in Hasbrouck House, which overlooked the Hudson River. He lived there while he was in command of the Continental Army from April 1782 until August 1783. Newburgh was chosen for its comparatively safe location north of the strategically important West Point. The 7,000 troops under Washington’s command camped near what is today known as Vails Gate, a few miles to the southwest of Hasbrouck House.

This letter shows Washington’s affection and compassion for one of his favorite generals. Taking into account McDougall’s financial situation and his poor health, Washington attempts to find a command suitable to McDougall’s rank. It is accompanied by a hand-colored engraving of Washington by Johnson, Fry, & Co. and an engraving of Humphreys by G. Parker.

McDougall Biography: Prior to the war, Alexander McDougall (1732-1786) worked as a merchant in New York City. As tensions between the colonies and the Crown continued to rise, McDougall became increasingly furious with Britain’s financial interference, eventually joining the Sons of Liberty. In 1769, he was responsible for anonymously printing the radical broadside “To the Betrayed Inhabitants of the City and Colony of New York,” which created an uproar in New York City and landed McDougall in jail for libel after his identity was revealed. This further accelerated tensions in the city and led to a riot between British soldiers and the Sons of Liberty in the Battle of Golden Hill. The event also solidified McDougall’s place as a known radical patriot and led to his commission as a Colonel in the Continental Army in 1775.

McDougall came to be known as an officer dedicated to the Continental Army and the well-being of its soldiers, particularly after his son, Jack (1753-1775), died of camp fever in November 1775 and his younger son, Ranald (circa 1754-1786), spent time as a prisoner of war following his capture by the British in early 1776. During his service, McDougall was involved in several critical engagements, including the battles of Long Island, White Plains, and Germantown, over the course of which he was promoted to brigadier general (August 1776) and ultimately major general (October 1777). Following the war, McDougall continued his dedication to service and the welfare of his soldiers. In 1780, he represented the army before Congress to protest pay discrepancies, and again in 1783, he headed a committee of officers concerning further pay grievances. Outside of the military, he served as president of the New York Society of Cincinnati, the president of the first bank of New York, and one term as a U.S. Senator.

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