Historical Context 

George Washington was a young man during the Seven Years’ War, which was known as the French and Indian War in North America. As a major in the Virginia militia, he suffered a humiliating defeat at Fort Necessity in present day Pennsylvania and survived a disastrous attack in the Ohio Valley under General Edward Braddock. Despite these embarrassments, his reputation as a military leader grew.

Washington attended the First Continental Congress in summer of 1774 as a delegate for Virginia. The Crown’s harsh reaction in Massachusetts to the Destruction of the Tea (as the Boston Tea Party was called at the time) raised concerns throughout the colonies. The convention gathered to petition the King for a redress of grievances. The body decided to convene again if the King did not hear its pleas. His Majesty did not respond as requested and the Second Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia in the summer of 1775. Calling men to arms topped the agenda. The armed conflict had already begun; Americans fired upon the King’s troops in Lexington and Concord in April and the Regulars readied themselves to crush the rebellion, and the spirits, of the obstinate Americans.

Congress searched for a commander in chief of the army. Some Congressmen favored the former British officer Charles Lee, but Samuel Adams argued the southern colonies would only support the cause if a Virginian led the army. George Washington was the only Virginian with experience of command who was young enough to take the field. Samuel and John Adams proposed and seconded the nomination. Congress made it unanimous. Everyone was happy except George Washington, who turned to Patrick Henry and said, “Remember, Mr. Henry what I now tell you: from the day I enter upon the command of the American armies, I date my fall, and the ruin of my reputation.”

Documents and Essential Questions

Commission from the Continental Congress, June 19,1775

What is the appointment George Washington is receiving?

Who will George Washington command?

What does Congress decree officers and soldiers under George Washington’s command do?

How is Washington directed to be careful in executing the great trust given to him?

How long is the appointment term?

George Washington to Martha Washington, June 18, 1775 

What is the news George Washington is writing about to his wife, Martha Washington?

How does he feel about telling her this news? Support your answer with text from the letter.

Does Washington feel up to the challenge of being commander in chief of the army? Support your answer with text from the letter.

Why would it fill Washington with “expressible concern” to inform his wife that Congress appointed him as commander in chief of the army?

Why did Washington draft a will?

What are some of the challenges Washington could face as commander in chief of the army?

George Washington to John Augustine Washington, June 20, 1775

In your own words, explain what George Washington means by this sentence, “I have been called upon by the unanimous voice of the colonies to take Command of the Continental Army…”

Does Washington feel qualified to be the commander in chief of the army? Support your answer with text from the letter.

When Washington leaves Philadelphia, where will he be going? Why do you think he will be going there?

Who does Washington hope will join him at this destination?