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Home and Headquarters

The first shots of the Revolutionary War took place at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, in April of 1775. Soon after, the Continental Congress voted to form an army to fight the British. They called it the Continental Army. Congress chose George Washington to be the new army’s Commander in Chief. Washington was chosen for two key reasons. He had military experience as a colonel in the French and Indian War (1754-1763). He was also a leader from Virginia, a large and influential colony. Congress hoped that appointing a Virginian to command an army that was largely made up of men from New England would build unity among the colonies in their war effort.

As he prepared for war, Washington thought about where he would work and sleep as the Continental Army’s top general. He needed a tent to stay in while his army moved from place to place. In 1776, George Washington purchased a set of military tents for himself. He ordered two marquees, or large tents. One was for dining and meetings. The other one had an office space and a chamber for sleeping. A third and smaller tent was used for storing equipment. Two years later, a second set of tents was made for him to replace the first dining and sleeping marquees.

Although he was Commander in Chief, Washington was careful about how he presented himself. He did not want to appear elitist by using a lot of fancy and expensive equipment. His tents were similar to the tents used by the officers who served alongside him. He decided not to have large tents made of striped fabrics like some military officers or kings in Europe. Even his furniture choices, such as his folding camp stools and camp bed, were simple. He wanted to make sure he was seen as a different type of military leader, one who didn’t place himself far above the people he commanded. This is often referred to as republican leadership, which refers to a style of ruling, not a political party.

As the Continental Army traveled from place to place, George Washington’s sleeping and office marquee was his home and headquarters. The tent was a busy place. Even when he stayed in other people’s homes, his tent served as his private office. There, Washington wrote and received letters that reflected the high and low points of the war. Inside the tent, Washington slept, ate meals, put on his uniform, and worried about the future.

A Military Family

George Washington did not manage the headquarters of the Continental Army alone. He traveled with a large group of people that included military assistants, the Commander in Chief’s Guard, and free and enslaved servants. He considered this group of people to be his “military family.”

Military Assistants
Washington invited young men with “talents and abilities of the first rate” to join him in the roles of aide-de-camp (military assistant) and military secretary. These important men gave him advice, delivered his letters and orders, and supported him in other ways.

Over 30 different men served as Washington’s military assistants throughout the war. Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette were two of them. Alexander Hamilton was Washington’s aide-de-camp for five years of the war. He helped with correspondence — writing letters — and the finances of the army. Lafayette was an advisor to Washington and helped convince the French to join the war in support of the United States. Both men were present in Washington’s tent for many important wartime decisions.

This graphic depicts a lightbulb and, by clicking, will provide you with short essays that put the stories of Andrew, Deborah, Eve, Jack, and London into historical context.

Did You Know?
Washington’s aides-de-camp assisted the General in writing out more than 10,000 orders and letters during the eight-year war.

Commander in Chief ’s Guard
An infantry company known as the Commander in Chief’s Guard had the job of protecting, transporting, and setting up Washington’s field headquarters. Sometimes known as the “Life Guard,” these soldiers were selected from various regiments of the Continental Army, although Washington had a preference for soldiers from his home state of Virginia. Soldiers in the Commander in Chief’s Guard were chosen based on their strength and ability to both follow instructions and make decisions. Initially, Washington required the soldiers to be between 5 feet 9 inches and 5 feet 10 inches tall. At the beginning of the war, the guard was made up of 50 private soldiers and their officers. Later, their ranks grew to as many as 200 men.

People of African Descent
Men and women of African descent, both free and enslaved, helped to run General Washington’s headquarters. No one, except Washington himself, spent more time in the sleeping and office tent than William Lee. Lee had been enslaved by Washington at Mount Vernon since 1768. During the Revolutionary War, Lee played an important part in Washington’s military family, serving as the General’s valet or personal servant. Lee helped with many personal day-to-day tasks, including laying out Washington’s clothes, making his bed, and keeping his mobile headquarters organized. He may have also helped organize and protect Washington’s important papers and distribute his messages, among other responsibilities. During battle, Lee, a skilled horseback rider, stayed close to Washington’s side.

Other people of African descent assisted General Washington during the Revolutionary War. Margaret Thomas, a free woman from Philadelphia, washed and repaired clothes for the General beginning in February 1776. Hannah Archer Till, an enslaved woman, and her husband Isaac Till, cooked meals for Washington. The Tills were able to use the money they earned from working as part of Washington’s military family to buy their freedom in 1778. Records from the General’s headquarters also list Jack, Lydia, James, Jenny, Cato, Dinah, Peter and Frank, all as enslaved people of African descent who worked for Washington as he traveled during the Revolutionary War.

The Traveling Tent

Wherever Washington went during the Revolutionary War, his tents went with him. His travels brought him as far north as Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point in New York, and as far south as Yorktown, Virginia. Throughout the eight-year war, Washington never abandoned his soldiers or the Revolutionary cause. Instead, he chose to remain in the “tented field” with the army. He went home to Mount Vernon, his home in Virginia, only twice during the war. As a result of his decision to share in his army’s hardships, soldiers and observers came to see Washington’s sleeping and office tent as a symbol of his leadership.

I noticed on a little hill which overlooked the camp an assemblage of tents, which I recognized easily as the quarters of General Washington.
Charles-Louis-Victor, Prince de Broglie, September 1782

Washington’s tent was witness to many key events during the Revolutionary War, including the siege of Yorktown, the last major battle of the war in 1781. After Yorktown, the Continental Army prepared for continued fighting against the British in New York City. North of the city, Washington designed an encampment at Verplanck’s Point and invited his allies, the French, to visit. He hoped to show the strength of his army and to convince the French to support a continued war effort. Washington had his sleeping and office marquee set up on a hill overlooking the encampment. It was a visible reminder that he was with his troops.

This graphic depicts a lightbulb and, by clicking, will provide you with short essays that put the stories of Andrew, Deborah, Eve, Jack, and London into historical context.

Did You Know?
On December 23, 1783, Washington stood before Congress, then meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, and resigned from the Continental Army. At the time, many Americans worried about the future of the newly independent United States. History had shown them that revolutions often led to dictatorships, where a military leader took control of the government. By resigning as Commander in Chief, Washington led by example. He used his power to show what it meant to be a good citizen, leaving the leadership of the new nation to the elected Congress. Washington’s noble act only added to his popularity. In 1789, the American people elected him as the first President of the United States.

After the War

After the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, General Washington’s military equipment was stored at Mount Vernon. Washington used his swords, parts of his uniform, and his tent only a few more times. For example, in 1784, when the General visited his properties west of the Appalachian Mountains, he brought one of the marquees with him. Afterwards, his wartime equipment would remain in storage until Martha Washington’s death in 1802.

After Martha’s death, Washington’s possessions, including his war tents, became prized connections to the beloved Commander in Chief and President. George Washington Parke Custis, the General’s step-grandson, felt that connection more than anyone else. He hoped to preserve Washington’s memory and accomplishments. Custis purchased Washington’s tents and other equipment. He built his home, called Arlington House, near the new capital city of Washington, D.C., as a museum and monument to his step-grandfather. Custis often set up the tents at Arlington House for curious tourists and politicians and gifted pieces of them as souvenirs to important guests. For over 30 years, he also sent the tents on the road to be displayed at special events in places like New York, Pittsburgh, Richmond, and Baltimore. Custis helped turn the tents into relics, making strong connections to General Washington for a new generation of Americans and an expanding nation.

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