Alexandria and the early days of the Revolutionary War
On May 2, 1775, a man named James Hendricks from Alexandria, Virginia had breakfast with George Washington in Mount Vernon. Hendricks was a merchant from Alexandria. He was also a member of the Alexandria committee of correspondence. Committees of correspondence were formed to open communications channels between different towns and regions throughout the colonies. They were an attempt to organize and spread information and communicate how different towns planned to respond to British policies. Alexandria's committee of correspondence was established in May 1774. A year later, the committee had plenty of national events to keep the communication channels busy.
By early May 1775, the Revolutionary War was underway in Massachusetts. On the morning of April 19, 1775, the opening salvos of the war rang out in a town called Lexington. The British exchanged deadly fire with local militiamen on the town green. Eight militiamen were killed in the initial attack. From Lexington the British advanced on Concord, Massachusetts. The Battle turned bloody and resulted in nearly 400 total casualties with the British taking the brunt of them at approximately 300.
A year prior in May 1774, George Washington and other Alexandrians were learning about the Coercive Acts. These acts, which were also known as the Intolerable Acts, passed as the British response to colonial unrest in Boston that culminated with the Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773. Events in New England seemed to spiral deeper toward an impending conflict. However, war was not inevitable. There was still a narrow window of time to avoid it.
In Alexandria, the Fairfax Resolves passed on July 18, 1774. The Fairfax Resolves were a formal rebuke of British treatment and laid out in explicit terms the rights of the colonists as Englishman. The Resolves were written by George Mason with George Washington at Mount Vernon. Washington served as chairman of the Fairfax assembly that passed the Resolves at the Alexandria City Courthouse. Shortly after the Fairfax Resolves were passed, Washington joined his fellow Virginians including Patrick Henry to the First Continental Congress.
On May 2, 1775, Washington was preparing to go to the Second Continental Congress. His discussions with Hendricks must have involved the activity of the committee of correspondence and a general discussion about the war to include supplies and financing.
Horatio Gates and Washington Prepare at Mount Vernon
On that same day, Horatio Gates joined Washington and stayed with him at Mount Vernon for two days. We can only imagine that their conversation was about the military situation and how to organize, train, and equip troops. They probably also discussed ways to conduct operations against the British. Most importantly, who was going to lead those operations?!
Horatio Gates was British by birth and was promoted to major before retiring from service and selling his commission. He moved to colonial America in 1772 and settled on a plantation in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia (now West Virginia) called Traveller’s Rest.
During the French and Indian War, Gates and Washington served together in the Braddock Expedition of 1755. The Braddock Expedition is one of the most important events in Alexandria history and American history. The experience changed the city of Alexandria and planted the seeds of the American Revolution.
Gates and Washington must have remembered the details of the campaign beyond simply the bad outcome. For example, the Braddock Expedition involved a heavy logistical footprint. The soldiers that moved west needed to be fed, clothed, and armed.
The central question of any military campaign is where do these supplies come from? More importantly, who is going to pay for them? Military planning involves a lot of details beyond specific actions on the battlefield. To get the troops to the battlefield and in good condition was (and still is) always the most immediate problem.
Washington’s meetings with many merchants from Alexandria illustrates the fact that he was thinking through the details of how to equip an army in the field. Washington and Gates were probably discussing Thomas Gage, who had served with them in the Braddock Expedition. In May 1775, Gage was the Royal Governor of Massachusetts. He directed British troops to Concord to take supplies from the militia.
Two days after Gates arrived in Mount Vernon, George Washington left his home and traveled through Alexandria where he took a ferry to Maryland. His destination was Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to participate in the Second Continental Congress. At the Second Continental Congress, topics included many issues to include war and raising an army. Just as important, who should lead the army?
The question of who should lead the army was one that would cause Washington and Gates to have a significant falling out two years and seven months later. General Gates was the commander of troops at the Battle of Saratoga, which was one of the most critical American battlefield victories in the Revolutionary War. While Gates won a significant victory, General Washington’s army suffered two battlefield losses at Brandywine Creek and Germantown in Pennsylvania. The capital city, Philadelphia, also fell into British control in September 1777.
As Washington settled his army in winter quarters at Valley Forge, there was a movement both within the army and within the Congress to replace Washington with Gates as commander-in-chief. The incident is known historically as the “Conway Cabal.” The two generals did not get along after this incident. Later in the war, Washington recommended the appointment of Nathanael Greene to replace Gates as the commander of the southern department.
Perhaps when the two men met in 1775, there was a lot more goodwill. Could either of them have predicted what the next two and half years would look like? Most definitely not. The siege of Boston was underway. The British replaced Thomas Gage with General William Howe. The Battle of Bunker Hill was still a month and a half away. On June 15, 1775, the Continental Congress selected George Washington to be the overall commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. He was commissioned on June 19, and arrived in Boston on July 3, 1775.
As Washington and Gates dined and gazed out over the Potomac River, they had no idea what was in store for them. But surely they knew that there was no turning back. The Revolutionary War had finally broke out, and they were being called to serve a confederation of colonies that had not yet declared independence.
Perhaps in May, Gates and Washington speculated that Washington might be selected as commander-in-chief. It seems almost certain that the two of them would have considered which role they would play in the conflict. Based on Washington’s guest list at Mount Vernon and the events of the time, we can get a small picture of what was happening during the early days of America's Revolutionary War. We don’t know the details of the conversations. But we know the men involved, their backgrounds, and how events unfolded. All of this makes for fun historical speculation during one of the most critical periods during the American Revolution.
Below is a picture of Trinity Church in lower Manhattan. Horatio Gates sold his Shenandoah Valley estate and moved to New York City in 1790. He was active in New York politics and died in 1806. His remains are buried in Trinity Church although the location is unknown.