History books are filled with glorification of exploits on the battlefield and we have all heard the story of Alexander Hamilton bristling at the role of Aide-du-Camp and demanding his opportunity to prove himself in the field. The reality of military operations, however, is very different. Much of the real WORK of a military commander does not happen in the field but behind a desk managing the complex choreography of troop movements, supply logistics, recruitment and payrolls, political correspondence, and all the administrative work needed to set the stage for a few hours of actual combat. Without this careful planning and management, the actions of the army are likely to devolve into chaos and failure. This is one of the chief differences between a professional army and an unregulated militia.
The responsibility of managing all these complex operations falls upon the headquarters staff and Washington required capable officers in his headquarters to handle military correspondence, making copies of each day’s General Orders, distributing those orders to the commanding officer at each military post, maintaining record books of orders, managing payrolls for the various regiments under his command, and all the administrative work needed to run the army. Congress had authorized one military secretary and three aides-de-camp for the commander-in-chief, but this number soon proved inadequate. In a era where all communication was either spoke or handwritten, all maps had to be manually redrawn, all records had to be maintained and researched on paper, and there was no office equipment other than a quill, inkwell, and a few boxes to store your papers; managing the army required a huge amount of labor. Even a simple task of writing out several copies of the daily orders could require hours of effort.
Faced with such a small staff, the headquarters operations ran day and night. Washington’s pleas for Congress to authorize two additional aides were ignored, so he augmented his staff with volunteers. It was not until January 1778 that Congress granted the commander-in-chief the power to appoint headquarters staff as he saw fit.
The Continental Army was small so Aide-du-Camp was not just a desk job. On the battlefield, the aides-de-camp were couriers—delivering Washington’s orders on horseback and gathering or relaying intelligence on enemy troop movement. Samuel Blachley Webb was wounded at the October 28, 1776, Battle of White Plains and at the December 26, 1776, Battle of Trenton. John Fitzgerald and John Laurens were both wounded at the June 28, 1778, Battle of Monmouth, where Alexander Hamilton’s horse was shot from under him. George Johnston served barely four months, before dying of disease at the Morristown headquarters. These men served with valor and distinction. Of course, you don’t get a Purple Heart for eyesight ruined by hours of close detailed work in poor lighting…
“Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for, I have grown not only gray, but almost blind in the service of my country.” ― George Washington, at Newburgh, New York, March 15, 1783