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This Week in History
October 4-10, 2015

Special from the Committee of Correspondence*

General George Washington Teaches Mr. Howe a Lesson
(October 6, 1777)

By Pam Lowry

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General George Washington at Princeton (1779), by Charles Willson Peale.

* The Committees of Correspondence, best known from Benjamin Franklin’s work, were the American colonies’ means for maintaining communication lines in the years before the Revolutionary War. In 1764, Boston formed the earliest Committee of Correspondence to encourage opposition to Britain’s stiffening of customs enforcement and prohibition of American paper money. The following year, New York formed a similar committee to keep the other colonies notified of its actions in resisting the Stamp Act. In 1773, the Virginia House of Burgesses proposed that each colonial legislature appoint a committee for intercolonial correspondence. The exchanges that followed built solidarity during the turbulent times and helped bring about the formation of the First Continental Congress in 1774. The Committees continued to function in the following years as a US Intelligence Service.

Oct. 6, 1777—General George Washington has used a battle and a dog to teach British Commander in Chief Sir William Howe a pointed lesson. On October 4, an American Army only one year old attacked the main British Army at Germantown, Pennsylvania, and would have carried the day but for a thick bank of fog which forced the suspension of operations. According to even Tory sympathizers, General Washington simply "out-generaled" Sir William Howe.

It is reported that General Howe at first did not believe the Americans would dare to mount a frontal attack, and cried out to the retreating Redcoats around him, "For shame, Light Infantry, it is only a scouting party!" But then the fog briefly parted to reveal a solid front of Continental troops firing grapeshot at the British lines. A British officer riding near General Howe is reported to have said afterwards, "I never saw people enjoy a charge of grape before, but we really all felt pleased to hear the grapeshot rattle about the Commander in Chief's ears after he had accused the battalion of running away from a scouting party."

Today, in the aftermath of the battle, a dog belonging to General Howe wandered into the American camp. General Washington asked one of his aides to compose a letter to General Howe which would be sent back under a flag of truce with the errant dog. Now, it must be remembered that to this day, all British generals have refused to admit that the Continental Army is really an army and that George Washington is its Commander in Chief. Therefore, when they send letters to General Washington they always address them insultingly to "Mr. Washington." When these letters arrive, General Washington always leaves them unopened, saying, "These are addressed to a Mr. Washington, a farmer who lives at Mount Vernon, and he will open them after the war is over."

Consequently, when General Washington's aide produced a letter laden with the polite phrases and extravagant compliments common to the British court, the General took his quill and crossed out all the florid language and empty pleasantries. When the aide attempted to retire to his tent and recopy the now simple and direct letter to Mr. Howe, General Washington stopped him. The General directed that the original draft, with his cross-outs and corrections plainly visible, should be the one sent, with the dog, into the august presence of Sir William Howe.