Gen. George Washington Bids Farewell to the Fabled Continental Army

"Transmit me as soon as possible a List of such Officers of your Departmt as it will be absolutely necessary to retain for the Troops which remain in service, and to acquaint the rest that their services are no longer necessary.

A great moment in American history

While General Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown on October 17, 1781 was decisive, it did not end the Revolutionary War. The British government had to receive word of the surrender and accept the meaning of the result, which took a number of months. By early 1782 the...

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Gen. George Washington Bids Farewell to the Fabled Continental Army

"Transmit me as soon as possible a List of such Officers of your Departmt as it will be absolutely necessary to retain for the Troops which remain in service, and to acquaint the rest that their services are no longer necessary.

A great moment in American history

While General Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown on October 17, 1781 was decisive, it did not end the Revolutionary War. The British government had to receive word of the surrender and accept the meaning of the result, which took a number of months. By early 1782 the British Army began withdrawing some troops from America, and Loyalists started fleeing to Canada. Peace talks in Paris began in April between Richard Oswald representing Great Britain and the American Peace Commissioners Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and John Adams. Negotiations were far along when the last battle of the Revolution was fought on November 10. The American negotiators were joined by Henry Laurens just after that, and the preliminary articles of peace were agreed upon and signed on November 30, 1782. They recognized American independence and established borders for the new nation.

Washington-Continantial-army-autograph

On February 4, 1783, Great Britain announced a cessation of hostilities. The Continental Congress waited until word of the fact crossed the Atlantic and followed suit on April 11; this ended the fighting from the American point of view. At the end of May Congress passed a resolution to furlough the Continental Army, and with men already leaving, on June 13 Washington gave the military order for the Continental Army to be furloughed. As “A Brief History of the Continental Army” states, the bulk of the army “simply faded away during the first half of June.” It continues, “In mid-November after the receipt of unquestionable confirmation of the final treaty with Great Britain being signed, these [remaining] men were discharged.”

The American Revolution officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783, and on November 1 the Pennsylvania Packet newspaper reported the recent arrival of the exciting news that the “definitive treaty” had been signed. Anticipating this, on October 18, Congress proclaimed the discharge of men enlisted for the war, and to permit officers on furlough to retire from service. Eleven days later it supplemented that proclamation with an order to discharge the army as of November 4, 1783, specifically mentioning troops from Pennsylvania south. However, troops north of Pennsylvania seem to have been affected as well, as histories cite November 4 as the date the army (and not merely just part of it) was ordered to be disbanded, and Washington took this as the occasion to bid the entire army his personal and emotional farewell. On November 2, Washington’s “Farewell Order” was read to the troops. In it he stated “…it only remains for the Commander in Chief to address himself once more, and that for the last time, to the Armies of the United States (however widely dispersed the Individuals who composed them may be) and to bid them an affectionate, a long farewell.”

On November 4, 1783, Washington issued a proclamation officially disbanding the Continental Army:  “Whereas the United States in Congress assembled were pleased on the 29 day of October last to pass the following resolve…In compliance therefore…I do hereby give this public Notice that from and after the 15th day of this instant November all Troops within the above description shall be considered as discharged from the service of the United States. And all Officers commanding Corps or Detachments of any such Troops are hereby directed to grant them proper discharges accordingly.” In fact, a token number of troops remained afterwards to maintain order, complete enlistment obligations, or because they were ill or needed to care for the sick. A few weeks later, in early December, Washington ordered General Henry Knox to discharge even these men, except for 500 infantry and 100 artillerymen.  According to Fitzgerald’s “Writings of George Washington”, Washington wrote just two letters on November 4, and both of these concerned his proclamation and related to the medical department’s particular needs in the disbanding. One of these letters was to the Secretary of War, and it stated that it was “impossible for me to judge of the necessity” of retaining particular medical people in the service, and promising to “write immediately to the Director General on the Subject.” The other was the following letter, the one Washington indicated he would write immediately.

Letter Signed, Rocky Hill, November 4, 1783, to Dr. John Cochran, the Continental Army’s Director General [surgeon general], officially informing him that he has issued his proclamation disbanding the army, and instructing him to discharge medical personnel no longer needed. “The Troops in Pennsylvania, and to the southward of it (except the garrison of Fort Pitt) being all discharged by a Proclamation of this day, it appears to me no longer necessary to keep in service so many Officers of the Hospital Departmt as are included in the within Copy of a Subsistence Roll for this Month as has been transmitted me. I am now to desire you, to transmit me as soon as possible a List of such Officers of your Departmt as it will be absolutely necessary to retain for the Troops which remain in service, and to acquaint the rest that their services are no longer necessary.” The letter is in the hand of Benjamin Walker, who was one of Washington’s staff officers and later served in the U.S. Congress. A search of auction records over the past 35 years discloses no other letter of Washington on the subject of disbanding or discharging the Continental Army from November 1783.

Washington said farewell to his remaining officers on December 4 at Fraunces Tavern in New York City. On December 23 he appeared in Congress, sitting at Annapolis, and returned his commission as Commander in Chief. Then he went home to Mount Vernon, thinking his service to his country was at an end.

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