An aid-de-camp is an officer appointed to attend a general officer. He receives and carries their orders, as occasion requires. He is seldom under the degree (rank) of a captain. This employment is of greater importance than is generally believed. It is, however, often entrusted to young officers of little experience, and of as little capacity; but in most foreign services, they give great attention to this office.
A military secretary or aide-de-camp did not necessarily have to be a soldier. Washington stated in a letter to a Congressional Committee: “They ought to be men of abilities...constantly calling for talents and abilities of the first rate: men who possess them ought to be taken wherever they can be found.” Washington wanted men of abilities as his aides, and was not interested in appointing someone because of his political connections, family pedigree, or battlefield experience. However in almost every instance, Washington selected men who possessed unassailable family credentials for his staff, not because he was a snob but because the men he needed could only be found among the wealthy and genteel class of colonial America. The 18th century term for men who were recruited by Washington for his staff were “gentlemen.” Washington often referred to his personal staff during the Revolution, both officially and unofficially as “the gentlemen of the family.” In the strictest 18th century definition, “gentlemen” were men of independent means who did not have to work for a living
There was no shortage of job seekers for a position as general’s aide-de-camp in the Continental Army. It was looked upon as a means of social mobility. While the position as an aide was desirable, the general set high standards for his aides and the position was beyond the reach of most men. The individuals Washington sought for his staff were urbane and intelligence men who sometimes preferred a commission in a line regiment or a prominent post in the new national or state governments rather than work in the shadows at HQ. He was aware that the men serving in his “military family” were capable of holding more prestigious offices and he appreciated their unselfish devotion to the cause.
Washington also wanted what he called “confidential” men as his aides-de-camp. In letters and speeches he mentioned his aides as his “Confidential Officers.” What he meant was that he wanted only men who could be trusted and be loyal around him. His aides had access to the most important information that was of value to the enemy or could adversely affect the Army itself.
Several aides-de-camp went on to do notable work for our country. These men were the likes of one Alexander Hamilton, John Trumbull, and Tench Tilghman among many others.
(Interpreted and written from General Washington’s Indispensible Men, Arthur S. Lefkowitz, 2003, p. 6-7 with permission.)