Washington’s Staff During the American Revolutionary War: Major General of the Day

Illustration depicting the Continental Army du...
Major General of the Day

The Continental Army of 1776 did not have a chief of staff, one officer charged with making the commander’s requests known. In Washington’s army, one of the major generals was given the assignment each day as “Major General of the Day.”This officer took on many of the Commander-in-Chief’s routine duties, which allowed General Washington to take care of the many other pressing responsibilities that came to his attention.

The appointee would review troops, meet with Brigadiers, check on supplies and requisitions, attend hospitals, look to sanitary conditions, overview disciplinary measures, and, when necessary, observe disciplinary measures carried out. In essence, he became the General Washington persona when viewing the troops and interacting with them. During an engagement, he was the eyes and ears of the Supreme Commander by traveling to and assessing lines and entrenchments, studying terrain and enemy placements, and spotting munitions and battery placements.

General Samuel Holden Parsons

On a slightly smaller scale, when the Major General was assigned a position that directly confronted an enemy, he was given a ‘General of the Day,’ shared by his Brigadier Generals. That officer carried out many of the Major General’s routine duties while attending to the enemy’s displacements. For example, on August 27th, 1776, the day the British began their offensive on Long Island, it was General Parsons’ turn to be the designated General of the Day. Upon British General Grant’s first shots at 3 AM, he was roused from bed behind the Brooklyn defenses and raced with only his fugitive guards to Gowanus Heights. Not only did he see and report what was occurring, he held off Grant’s advance with only twenty fugitive guards until Lord Stirling’s brigade came to his assistance.

Another daily aspect of The General of the Day’s position was to relay to the Adjutant General the daily orders of the day issued by the Supreme Commander, in this case Washington. The process was as follows: Brigade Majors, aide-de-camps, or staff officers of Brigadier Generals, reported to headquarters at a set time. The Adjutant General dictated the orders as given to him by the Major General of the Day.  The Brigadiers then returned to their brigades and regimental adjutants (Colonels) and gave the required orders. The adjutants returned to their regiments and assembled the orderlies, first sergeants, and issued the orders for the companies which were then relayed to the Captains of those companies. Records were kept at each step of relaying the orders by the adjutant or secretary.

Major General Friedrich Vilhelm von Steuben

Later in the war, at Valley Forge, Baron von Steuben made known that he did not care for this system.  That it was too cumbersome and errors in communication were more likely to occur as the orders filtered down the lines through Brigadiers and Regimental Colonels until finally falling upon the company commanders.  He suggested that the generals themselves appear before Washington each day to be issued the orders and immediately assembled their regimental commanders including Captains to review the orders.  This was a system adopted by Frederick the Great, but von Stueben’s advice fell on deaf ears and was not adopted into the Continental Army.

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 Heitman, Fancies Bernard, Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army During the Revolution.  1914  Nation Capitol Press, Washington  D.C.

Milsop, John, Continental Infantrymen of the American Revolution.  2004 Osprey Publ. UK.

Wright, Colonel John W., Notes on the Continental Army,  The William and Mary Quarterly, Second Series, Vol 12, No 2 (April 1932) pp 79-103.

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