How George Washington’s Failure in Boston Saved the Revolution

By Stephen Yoch

 

In July 1775, George Washington was dispatched by the Second Continental Congress to lead the fledgling Revolutionary Army against the British occupying Boston. With the help of a brilliant Boston bookseller, Henry Knox, 60 cannons were dragged from Fort Ticonderoga and raised to the Dorchester Heights, forcing a British retreat and giving America its first victory of the Revolution. None of this would have happened if Washington’s first visit to Boston in February 1756 had not been spectacularly unsuccessful.

 

Two decades earlier, George Washington was one of the most famous young men in America. In July 1755, the British had been routed by the French and Indians under General Edward Braddock just outside Fort Duquesne, near modern-day Pittsburg. While the British force was almost completely annihilated, Washington fought bravely, and was one of the few officers who not only kept his head, but escaped unscathed.

 

After the battle, the 23-year-old Washington was made the colonel in charge of the entire Virginia Regiment. Nevertheless, as a colonial officer, even a mere captain with a British royal commission could overrule him. This led to repeated disputes, causing Washington to visit Governor Shirley in Boston to seek a royal colonelcy. Washington had served with Shirley’s son, who was killed along with General Braddock in the battle, and was hopeful he could realize his dream of a colonelcy in the British army.

 

The following is an excerpt from Becoming George Washington:

 

February 27, 1756 – Boston

Exhilarated by his trip up the eastern seaboard, George arrived in snow-covered Boston. The newspapers hailed him as the “Hon. Colonel Washington, a gentleman who has deservedly a high reputation of military skill, integrity, and valor, though success has not always attended his undertakings.” He celebrated his twenty-fourth birthday with fine parties, enjoyable gambling, and spectacular shopping in the cosmopolitan city.

At the top of Milk Street, Governor Shirley occupied Province House, a fine three-story brick mansion capped by a cupola. George hoped the enthusiastic reception of the city’s inhabitants would carry over to its governor. Thus, bounding into the Governor’s office on the heels of Shirley’s secretary, George felt confident he would prevail in his quest for a royal colonelcy. The instant he saw Shirley’s haunted look, his enthusiasm evaporated in the face of a father’s grief. The tall, stooped man with an enormous nose stared at him with a profound melancholy. George was aware the governor had lost both of his sons in war in the colonies. His second son, John, had died of fever in Oswego, and his eldest son, Robert, was slain at the Battle of the Monongahela. 

Since my first battle, I have seen grieving wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, brothers, sons, but fathers . . . fathers are always the hardest. The women and children wail and cry. While horrible, and not something I’ll ever forget, I give them a warm hug and a gentle lie about bravery and a quick death, and they seem consoled.

The fathers . . . dear God. Their stoic looks. Sometimes accusing. Sometimes just displaying a bottomless sadness. Always seeking an explanation that I can never provide. I supposed because Shirley was the commander in chief, he would be different; that I might be spared from this unhappiest of duties. Of course, that was foolish. He is still a man who has lost not one son, but both in this horrid war.

Shirley gestured to a well-upholstered chair in front of his large mahogany desk. “Please be seated, Colonel. I appreciate you taking the time to come and visit us in Boston. I am honored that a man of your courage and distinction is sitting here before me.”

As George looked behind the governor’s intelligent eyes, he saw the fatigue of countless sleepless nights, the familiar pleading look, the loss of legacy and immortality, and the weight of years knowing your dreams cannot continue through your sons.

“Governor Shirley, first I want to express my sincere condolences for the loss of your sons Robert and John. I did not know John, but Robert was an extraordinary young man. All in the general’s family liked and respected him. I enjoyed many earnest and meaningful conversations with him on the march.”

I will refrain from mentioning that we often discussed our mutual disillusionment with the infighting among Braddock’s officers.

“Thank you, Colonel. Robert spoke well of you in the letters he sent us before . . .” The large eyes closed for a second to revisit the most incomprehensible of truths. “Before the battle. We also received your kind note after his death regarding Robert. It was greatly appreciated. It was appropriately discrete for the sake of his mother.”

After another pregnant pause to collect his thoughts, he continued, “As a soldier, I must ask: were you were with him when he died?”

George nodded.

“I hesitate to impose, but I want to know . . . I need to know . . . how did he die?”

George knew this question was coming and was ready with an honest and straight-forward answer. “He died well. I was near him. We were in the heaviest fighting. He never flinched or wavered. He, along with other officers, showed incomparable bravery that to this day leaves me at a loss for words.”

“And his death?”

George tried to hide the shiver that passed through him as he was reminded of young Shirley’s violent and gruesome demise.

“It was truly instant. I know many say this to ease a family’s pain, but I give you my word as an officer and a gentleman. I was . . .” George, at this point, for the first time looked directly into Shirley’s bloodshot and pained gaze. “I was there. He endured no pain and avoided both the savage’s and surgeon’s blade. I know that is little consolation, but he did not suffer. He was a good man, and I miss him. I can only imagine your loss. Please know you have my deepest sympathy.”

“And his body?”

George’s mind momentarily slipped to imagine his scalped and unburied friends left to the pointed teeth of foxes, raccoons, and other woodland scavengers feeding on the corpses’ cold flesh.

Now, my dear Governor, the whitest of lies . . .

“In the course of the battle, some men were buried on the spot”—Never happened—“and the French, I understand, also buried many of our dead”— Untrue. “I confess that I did not see Robert interred, but I believe given the early timing of his death”—The timing of his death is irrelevant—“he was likely buried.”

Forgive me, Governor, for those untruths. I have no doubt your son’s lovely hair and scalp are now a trophy of some savage’s lodge. As to his body . . . God only knows.

“Yes . . . thank you, Colonel, you are very kind. Obviously this loss weighs heavily on me, and your words mean much, coming from a man who was there.”

The veil of agony partially lifted as he tried to cast off the renewed memory of his lost son and change the subject: “Let me start by saying that I have read all the correspondence relating to this matter from Governor Dinwiddie and others. I sympathize with your situation. I do not know this Dagworthy, but you are a brave and accomplished young man who should not be shouldering these challenges. Your Governor Dinwiddie suggests that I merely issue a brevet royal colonelcy to solve this command issue. I know this seems to be the best solution at first blush.”

George tried to remain impassive, but he took an involuntary, heavy intake of breach. Shirley seemed ready to grant his colonelcy.

“However, my tenure as commander in chief is limited,” continued Shirley. “If I issue the brevet promotion, it will expire with my term, and it would not convert into a regular commission.” The strained expression lessened as he focused on George, “No, I believe the better solution here is to examine the authority of this uncooperative captain. His commission, while originally royal in origin, also comes with a commission from the governor of Maryland, and thus he is junior to other similarly situated provincial officers—such as you, Colonel Washington. I will issue an order that you are the senior provincial officer at the fort, and that your authority shall be paramount and not subject to question. A ruling of this type is not subject to expiration upon the end of my tenure. Thus your command will remain unchallenged from Captain Dagworthy or other similarly situated inferior provincial officers.”

Goddamn it! I didn’t come all the way to Boston to control a fort. I came for a colonelcy and a royal commission. Quietly, George took in a deep breath.

Calm down. You have a victory of sorts, and you will do yourself a disservice by arguing with this man. He is an important person with whom you have developed a rapport, and you need to be gracious.

“I appreciate your careful consideration of this matter, Governor Shirley. Rest assured, I am grateful for your support, and I am hopeful such problems will be avoided in the future,” George said with far more enthusiasm than he felt.

Here we go . . . I need to at least argue for a change in London to avoid this problem in the future.

Edging forward in his chair, George continued. “I believe the solution to this ongoing problem, which I have seen in the past in my admittedly short career, is for a formal ruling from London that recognizes the ability of senior colonial officers to command inferior royal officers,” George said.

The always politic Shirley responded, “You raise an important issue, Colonel, which I, too, hope will be definitively addressed in London. I know you have a long trip ahead of you. I will have my secretary prepare an order consistent with our discussion. I am hopeful you will remain for the evening and enjoy some games of chance with my staff.”

Standing at the obvious conclusion of the meeting, George bowed. “Of course, Governor. I am grateful for your hospitality and insight, and again, my deepest sympathy.”

Shirley nodded politely, and George bowed again and left.

George’s despondence worsened as his prior success playing cards earlier in his trip was wiped out by the “sharks” circling the governor’s gaming table.

 

Washington returned to his Regiment disappointed, but did not give up his campaign to secure a royal commission. In March 1757, he visited Lord Loudoun in Philadelphia and was not only denied the commission, but was treated as a backwoods fool and was quickly dismissed from the commander’s presence. These repeated denials of a royal commission left a deep-seated impression on the proud and young Virginian. He would never forget, or forgive, the British refusal to accept him.

 

When America was looking for a general to lead its forces against the King, Washington attended the Second Continental Congress in his Virginia Colonel’s military uniform. This was a clear announcement to his fellow delegates that he was ready to pick up the mantle of leadership and prove, once and for all, that the British had made a mistake in not inviting him into their ranks.

 

There is little doubt that if Governor Shirley had made Washington a colonel during his visit to Boston, Washington would have served as a loyal British officer. Instead of looking down from the Heights of Dorchester in 1776, he would have been looking up in a British uniform, and the Revolution itself may never have succeeded.

 

Stephen Yoch is the author of the historical fiction novel Becoming George Washington.