George Washington departed Philadelphia on June 23, 1775, to take command of the Continental Army troops in Cambridge, Mass. As he leaves the city, a post rider from Massachusetts meets him and relays word of the Battle of Bunker Hill.
John Adams accompanied Washington a little way out of town. He described the parade-like departure in a letter to Abigail: Three generals – Washington, Philip Schuyler and Charles Lee – rode on horseback, while the Continental Congress delegates came along with their servants and carriages. There was a large troop of light horse in their uniforms, militia officers in theirs as the martial music played.
In a foreshadowing of the resentment he would later feel toward Washington, Adams added:
Such is the pride and pomp of war. I, poor creature, worn out with scribbling for my bread and my liberty, low in spirits and weak in health, must leave others to wear the laurels which I have sown; others to eat the bread which I have earned; a common case.
Adams had nominated Washington as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. He believed a leader from Virginia would help unite the colonies, as most of the fighting was happening in New England. Adams thought Washington uneducated, but he defended his choice as commander throughout the war.
George Washington Leaves Philadelphia
Washington protested – to his wife, his captains, his brother – that he didn’t seek the appointment. However, he showed up at the 2nd Continental Congress in full military uniform. Perhaps he knew there wasn’t anyone else who could take the job.
Washington had plenty of misgivings about his new command. A few days before he left Philadelphia, he drafted a will and wrote a letter to Martha:
You may believe me, my dear Patsy, when I assure you, in the most solemn manner, that so far from seeking this appointment, I have used every endeavour in my power to avoid it, not only from my unwillingness to part with you and the family, but from a consciousness of its being a trust too great for my capacity.
He’d much rather stay at home, he wrote. But he didn’t have a choice.
…[A]s it has been a kind of destiny, that has thrown me upon this service, I shall hope that my undertaking it is designed to answer some good purpose … It was utterly out of my power to refuse this appointment, without exposing my character to such censures, as would have reflected dishonor upon myself, and given pain to my friends.
To his brother Augustus Washington, he wrote:
I am embarked on a wide ocean, boundless in its prospect, and in which, perhaps, no safe harbour is to be found….That I may discharge the trust to the satisfaction of my employers, is my first wish; that I shall aim to do it, there remains little doubt. How far I may succeed, is another point; but this I am sure of, that, in the worst event, I shall have the consolation of knowing, if I act to the best of my judgment, that the blame ought to lodge upon the appointers, not the appointed, as it was by no means a thing of my own seeking, or proceeding from any hint of my friends.
This story was updated in 2022.