The True George Washington: Friends: Military Aides
The command of the Continental army brought a new kind of friend, in the young aides of his staff. One of his earliest appointments was Joseph Reed, and, though he remained but five months in the service, a close friendship was formed. Almost weekly Washington wrote him in the most confidential and affectionate manner, and twice he appealed to Reed to take the position once more, in one instance adding that if "you are disposed to continue with me, I shall think myself too fortunate and happy to wish for a change." Yet Washington none the less sent Reed congratulations on his election to the Pennsylvania Assembly, "although I consider it the coup-de-grace to my ever seeing you" again a "member of my family," to help him he asked a friend to endeavor to get Reed legal business, and when all law business ceased and the would-be lawyer was without occupation or means of support, he used his influence to secure him the appointment of adjutant.
Reed kept him informed as to the news of Philadelphia, and wrote even such adverse criticism of the General as he heard, which Washington "gratefully" acknowledged. But one criticism Reed did not write was what he himself was saying of his general after the fall of Fort Washington, for which he blamed the commander-in-chief in a letter to Lee, and probably to others, for when later Reed and Arnold quarrelled, the latter boasted that "I can say I never basked in the sunshine of my general's favor, and courted him to his face, when I was at the same time treating him with the greatest disrespect and villifying his character when absent. This is more than a ruling member of the Council of Pennsylvania can say." Washington learned of this criticism in a letter from Lee to Reed, which was opened at head-quarters on the supposition that it was on army matters, and "with no idea of its being a private letter, much less the tendency of the correspondence," as Washington explained in a letter to Reed, which had not a word of reproach for the double-dealing that must have cut the General keenly, coming as it did at a moment of misfortune and discouragement. Reed wrote a lame explanation and apology, and later sought to "regain" the "lost friendship" by an earnest appeal to Washington's generosity. Nor did he appeal in vain, for the General replied that though "I felt myself hurt by a certain letter ... I was hurt ... because the same sentiments were not communicated immediately to myself." The old-time intimacy was renewed, and how little his personal feeling had influenced Washington is shown in the fact that even previous to this peace-making he had secured for Reed the appointment to command one of the choicest brigades in the army. Perhaps the friendship was never quite as close, but in writing him Washington still signed himself "yours affectionately."
John Laurens, appointed an aide in 1777, quickly endeared himself to Washington, and conceived the most ardent affection for his chief. The young officer of twenty-four used all his influence with his father (then President of Congress) against the Cabal, and in 1778, when Charles Lee was abusing the commander-in-chief, Laurens thought himself bound to resent it, "as well on account of the relation he bore to General Washington, as from motives of personal friendship and respect for his character," and he challenged the defamer and put a bullet into him. To his commander he signed himself "with the greatest veneration and attachment your Excellency's Faithful Aid," and Washington in his letters always addressed him as "my dear Laurens." After his death in battle, Washington wrote, in reply to an inquiry,—
"You ask if the character of Colonel John Laurens, as drawn in the Independent Chronicle of 2d of December last, is just. I answer, that such parts of the drawing as have fallen under my observation, is literally so; and that it is my firm belief his merits and worth richly entitle him to the whole picture. No man possessed more of the amor patriae. In a word, he had not a fault, that I could discover, unless intrepidity bordering upon rashness could come under that denomination; and to this he was excited by the purest motives."
Of another aide, Tench Tilghman, Washington said, "he has been a zealous servant and slave to the public, and a faithful assistant to me for near five years, great part of which time he refused to receive pay. Honor and gratitude interest me in his favor." As an instance of this, the commander-in-chief gave to him the distinction of bearing to Congress the news of the surrender of Cornwallis, with the request to that body that Tilghman should be honored in some manner. And in acknowledging a letter Washington said, "I receive with great sensibility and pleasure your assurances of affection and regard. It would be but a renewal of what I have often repeated to you, that there are few men in the world to whom I am more attached by inclination than I am to you. With the Cause, I hope—most devoutly hope—there will be an end to my Military Service, when as our places of residence will not be far apart, I shall never be more happy than in your Company at Mt. Vernon. I shall always be glad to hear from, and keep up a correspondence with you." When Tilghman died, Washington asserted that
"He had left as fair a reputation as ever belonged to a human character," and to his father he wrote, "Of all the numerous acquaintances of your lately deceased son, & midst all the sorrowings that are mingled on that melancholy occasion, I may venture to assert that (excepting those of his nearest relatives) none could have felt his death with more regret than I did, because no one entertained a higher opinion of his worth, or had imbibed sentiments of greater friendship for him than I had done.... Midst all your grief, there is this consolation to be drawn;—that while living, no man could be more esteemed, and since dead, none more lamented than Colo. Tilghman.
To David Humphreys, a member of the staff, Washington gave the honor of carrying to Congress the standards captured at Yorktown, recommending him to the notice of that body for his "attention, fidelity, and good services." This aide escorted Washington to Mount Vernon at the close of the Revolution, and was "the last officer belonging to the army" who parted from "the Commander-in-chief." Shortly after, Humphreys returned to Mount Vernon, half as secretary and half as visitor and companion, and he alluded to this time in his poem of "Mount Vernon," when he said,—
"Twas mine, return'd from Europe's courts
To share his thoughts, partake his sports."
When Washington was accused of cruelty in the Asgill case, Humphreys published an account of the affair, completely vindicating his friend, for which he was warmly thanked. He was frequently urged to come to Mount Vernon, and Washington on one occasion lamented "the cause which has deprived us of your aid in the attack of Christmas pies," and on another assured Humphreys of his "great pleasure [when] I received the intimation of your spending the winter under this Roof. The invitation was not less sincere, than the reception will be cordial. The only stipulations I shall contend for are, that in all things you shall do as you please—I will do the same; and that no ceremony may be used or any restraint be imposed on any one." Humphreys was visiting him when the notification of his election as President was received, and was the only person, except servants, who accompanied Washington to New York. Here he continued for a time to give his assistance, and was successively appointed Indian commissioner, informal agent to Spain, and finally Minister to Portugal. While holding this latter position Washington wrote to him, "When you shall think with the poet that 'the post of honor is a private station'—& may be inclined to enjoy yourself in my shades ... I can only tell you that you will meet with the same cordial reception at Mount Vernon that you have always experienced at that place," and when Humphreys answered that his coming marriage made the visit impossible, Washington replied, "The desire of a companion in my latter days, in whom I could confide ... induced me to express too strongly ... the hope of having you as an inmate." On the death of Washington, Humphreys published a poem expressing the deepest affection and admiration for "my friend."