Washington's Aide-de-Camps: Robert Hanson Harrison


For most of George Washington’s thirty-two aide-de-camps, few had the privilege to know the Commander in Chief prior to the start of the war. Over the course of the Revolution, Washington built his military family from the ground up, electing to pick young, educated men whose time on staff would sharpen their leadership skills for future commands. Yet, Washington needed a cornerstone of dependability of older men who were content with their positions in helping Washington without expectation of returning to a field command. Washington’s friend and lawyer, Robert Hanson Harrison, proved vital to his operations. Harrison was best at keeping functions of the headquarters moving in Washington’s absence and interpreting Washington’s communications to Congress.[1]


Harrison was born in Maryland in 1745. His father, Richard Harrison, was a wealthy landowner, politician, and Colonel of the Maryland Militia. The moderate wealth and status of the family allowed Harrison to practice law. In 1769, he opened his own law office in Alexandria where he met Washington who needed a lawyer. The relationship between the two began on a professional basis, as Harrison provided council to Washington’s legal transactions. Soon the two became closer with Harrison being a frequent visitor to Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon. The two were also hunting partners. While his career was taking off, Harrison married Sarah Johnston. Daughter of George Johnston who was a friend to Washington, and an advocate of American rights and freedoms. [2]


As tensions flared between the colonies and Great Britain, Harrison followed his father’s footsteps in politics. He joined Alexandria’s Committee of Correspondence and held an officer’s rank in the local militia. In October of 1775, Harrison received a letter from Washington asking him to be his Aide-de-Camp. Harrison quickly adjusted to military life at camp and soon earned praise.[3] Washington’s trust in his ability to write allowed Harrison to communicate directly with Congress.


During the disastrous Battle of Long Island, Washington ordered him to report the catastrophe to Congress even though the battle was still ongoing. In his report, Harrison mentioned that

“Early this Morning a Smart engagement ensued between the Enemy and our Detachments, which being unequal to the force they had to contend with, have sustained a pretty considerable loss-At least many of our men are missing, among those that have not returned are Genls Sullivan & Lord Stirling. The Enemy’s loss is not known certainly, but we are told by such of our Troops that were in the Engagement and that have come in, that they had many killed and wounded. Our party brought off a Lieutt, Sergt, and Corporal with 20 privates prisoners.”[4]

Harrison was quick to offer words of encouragement during seemingly terrible situations. To his benefit, Harrison was not fully aware of the magnitude of the unfolding disaster when his letters were received by Congress. Therefore, he was able to delicately weigh both negative and positive outcomes in equal measure. Washington would continuously use Harrison to convey reports to Congress throughout the war.


Harrison was on Washington’s staff for six years, making him the second longest serving of all the aides. He was present at Dey Mansion during the month of July, and only for a small time in October of 1780. It is then he took a leave of absence due to the death of his father, whom had been looking after his daughters. Having missed so much of their lives, and the abysmal state of his own personal finances, he formally resigned his post in March of 1781 and was offered the position of Chief Justice for the State of Maryland.


After the war, Washington offered Harrison the position of a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Despite being conferred by the Senate. Harrison, after much thought, ultimately declined.[5] Like many of the aide-de-camps, he was an astute and tireless individual. Yet his work ethic resulted in poor health. When serving Washington during the war, Harrison was known to suffer from “the piles” or hemorrhoids, most likely induced from long hours of sitting.[6] These afflictions garnered him the nickname “old secretary.”[7] His sicknesses continued after the war concluded. His various ailments ultimately led to his death on April 2, 1790. Harrison’s commitment to Washington and the American cause is worthy of remembrance. While he was not in the spotlight like Hamilton, Harrison carried with him the fate of Washington’s image to Congress during the most difficult moments of the war.



Kelly J. McManus

Museum Attendant, Dey Mansion Washington's Headquarters


[1] Arthur Lefkowitz, George Washington’s Indispensable Men: Alexander Hamilton, Tench Tilghman, and the Aides-de-Camp Who Helped Win American Independence, (Lanham: Stackpole Books, 2003), 110. [2] “September 1769,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-02-02-0004-0024] and Lefkowtiz, 34 – 36 and https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1990-12-31-1990365150-story.html [3] Lefkowitz, 36. [4] “Lieutenant Colonel Robert Hanson Harrison to John Hancock, 27 August 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-06-02-0124. [5] “From George Washington to Robert Hanson Harrison, 28 September 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0067. [6] Harrison, S. A. and Tilghman, Oswald, Memoir of Lieut. Col. Tench Tilghman (Albany: J. Munsell, 1876) 111 [7] Lefkowtiz, 111

 

Bibliography


Lefkowitz, Arthur. George Washington’s Indispensable Men: Alexander Hamilton, Tench Tilghman, and t


he Aides-de-Camp Who Helped Win American Independence. Lanham: Stackpole Books, 2003.

“From George Washington to Robert Hanson Harrison, 28 September 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0067.


“Lieutenant Colonel Robert Hanson Harrison to John Hancock, 27 August 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-06-02-0124.


“September 1769.” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-02-02-0004-0024]


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