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When one thinks of famous American historical figures, George Washington is probably one of the first that comes to mind. There are innumerable cities and counties named after him, not to mention the nation's capital and one of its States. He shows up on our money, has a place on Mount Rushmore, as well as a giant monument in DC. He is known as the "father of our country" and praised as being "first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen."
Given that the American Revolution and the founding of the Republic were mass movements involving many people, does Washington really deserve to stand out for the special recognition that he gets? I argue yes, his deeds really do live up to all the hype.
First though, I'd like to point out what George Washington was not.
- He was not a particularly good orator. He had a reputation for remaining silent in Congress or at other political events.
- He was not a particularly good battlefield tactician. He lost almost all of the battles in which he fought. His battle plans were often unrealistic and impossibly complicated, His subordinates often had to talk him out of crazy schemes of attack that almost certainly would have been suicide.
- He certainly was not a man of the people. He remained aloof from most of his own officers and soldiers, as well as political colleagues. He saw no problem having living conditions much better than his soldiers in the field.
- He was not a strong political leader. President Washington typically ceded to Congress in setting policy. What did come out of his Administration was the work of his talented Cabinet members.
Despite these limitations, however, George Washington was an amazing man. His personal bravery in battle was legendary. Like many great officers of the time, Washington seemed to be able to ignore gunfire all around him, standing unconcerned in the midst of a firefight. At the time, most weapons were terribly inaccurate, so being hit was largely a matter of chance anyway. But Washington had no compunctions about riding into a firefight to rally his men, or trying to prevent a retreat.
Washington also had great personal integrity. After losing a number of important battles in 1776 and 1777, many in the Army, in Congress, and in the public generally, thought Washington incompetent and in need of replacement. The Continental Army had several professional officers, including Gen. Charles Lee, who had served in the British Army before the war. There was a serious movement to replace Washington, who refused to defend his actions in the press or even in most conversations. Typically, he would not second guess or publicly criticize the mistakes of his subordinates, even those gunning for his job. He let his actions speak for him, and was willing to accept any Congressional decision to replace him.
This is not to say he was never critical. Washington gave his would-be replacement Charles Lee a prominent command at the Battle of Monmouth in 1778. A great victory might have convinced Congress to give Lee overall command. But Lee almost immediately began a retreat after seeing the enemy. When Washington rode onto the field and saw the retreat, he lost his temper and berated Lee for his cowardice and incompetence (something he almost never did). Washington took direct control of the soldiers and led a successful attack.
Washington was a strict disciplinarian. He was not afraid to court marshal officers who shirked their duty or to have soldiers flogged or even executed for bad behavior or desertion. He demanded his army respect civilian rights and property and that they treat prisoners with respect and basic humanity. Violations of these rules were subject to strict punishments.
Washington's many good qualities made the nearly impossible victory of the Revolution possible. It is hard to imagine many other leaders acting as he did. After military success, many expected the Revolution to go the way of many earlier wars where the army finally tires of incompetent politicians and overthrows the government. That is how Oliver Cromwell came to control Britain over a century earlier. It is also how Caesar famously took control of Rome. Washington looked at these historic examples and saw the need to make clear that Congress remained the supreme leader. Washington's army would always defer to Congress, despite its great incompetence in many areas.
There are many wonderful biographies of George Washington that go into this in far more detail. For this post, I would like to focus on just two events that could have taken history in a far different direction without the leadership of General Washington.
Washington's Crossing of the Delaware
The first event is generally well known: Washington's famous crossing of the Delaware. In August 1776, The British invaded New York City. They easily chased Washington's army through New Jersey and into Pennsylvania. Washington attempted to stop the British advance by destroying every boat he could find along the Delaware river. The British settled into winter quarters, convincing most citizens of New York and New Jersey to declare loyalty to the King in exchange for a pardon for their previous treason. Many quickly agreed. It seemed clear that a spring campaign would allow the British to move into Philadelphia (where Congress was seated) and take control. Many people thought this insurrection was pretty much over, and mostly wanted to avoid being hanged for treason at this point.
Even most of Washington's army was ready to go home. They had not just been beaten, but terribly routed in the battle of New York. The British humiliated the Americans by blowing hunting calls on their bugles. The implication being that it was not a real battle. It was a fox hunt, and the Americans were the foxes. Most of the terms of enlistment for his army ended on January 1, only a week away. Since the War seemed clearly lost, there seemed little chance that many would reenlist. In short, The Continental soldiers would all become civilians again and Washington would be left with nothing.
It was in this desperate context that Washington's officers finally agreed to one of his many crazy schemes to attack the enemy. The Continental Army would attempt to cross the Delaware River, filled with dangerous ice flows, at night. This would be a coordinated crossing from three different locations, after which the starving and barefoot soldiers would march through the snowy night to surprise the Hessian soldiers at Trenton, somehow synchronizing this three pronged night attack with little, if any, communication between the different prongs. The crossing would take place on the evening of December 25, Christmas Day, with the attack scheduled for the following morning.
Like most of Washington's hopelessly complex and demanding strategies, this one fell apart almost from the beginning. Terrible weather forced two of the three crossings to be called off. Only the one directly under Washington's supervision succeeded. Even that one took hours longer than planned. It was already 4:00 AM by the time the army was across the river and could even begin the nine mile march to Trenton. A surprise night attack would now be impossible. In addition, powder was getting wet from the storm. It was unclear if their guns would even work when they arrived for battle.
Washington received word that the two other crossings had failed, meaning he only had a portion of his planned force. Still, Washington pressed on. The password selected for the night was "victory or death." This was quite literal in the sense that if this attack failed, it would be the end of the Continental Army. I think Washington would have preferred to die in the field rather than see that happen.
Things continued to get worse. The army struggled to travel the necessary distance. Two soldiers died from exposure as a result of the difficult march. Even worse, just before reaching the enemy garrison, the army encountered a group of 50 local patriot militia who had just conducted a raid on the enemy post. Washington was devastated. Now the enemy would be on alert and the critical factor of surprise was certainly lost. Still Washington had no choice but to continue.
It turned out that several bad tidings ended up cancelling each other out. The delayed start allowed local Tory spies to alert the enemy to the attack. However, when the militia raid struck and then fled, the Hessians believed that was the attack about which they had been warned and let down their guard. They had been receiving such warnings for weeks. Given the terrible weather, they saw little chance of any serious attack coming.As a result, Washington was able to carry out the raid as a surprise and capture over 1000 prisoners.
Many leaders would have considered the raid a great success and returned home But Washington decided to roll the dice again. After bringing his army and prisoners back to Pennsylvania, Washington crossed the Delaware into NJ a second time to meet a force of 8000 British Regulars led by Gen. Cornwallis to counter the American raid.
Remember, most of Washington's Army had their enlistment's expire at the end of the year. This second attack began on January 1. Washington first offered the men a $10 bonus to stay with the army for just one more month. Since monthly pay as $6 per month, this was not an insignificant amount. But not a single man stepped forward to continue. No amount of money was worth the misery and suffering of continuing this winter campaign without the necessary food or clothing. Then Washington, never much of a speaker, made an impassioned plea to the men. "My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected; but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay only one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty and to your country which you probably never can do under any other circumstances." At first there was a pause, but slowly the bulk of his army agreed to continue for another month.
Washington and his army determined that they would meet the advancing British force at Trenton and set up defensive lines. After the first day of skirmishing, however, it became clear, however that the large and well prepared British force would be able to flank the American lines and cut off any possible retreat back to the Delaware River. The British set up camp that evening within sight of the Continental Army on the other side of a small creek. Washington decided a direct battle could be disastrous, so he changed plans. Washington left a few dozen men in camp to keep fires stoked and make as much noise as possible. While the British army heard what they thought was the entire Continental Army in camp, Washington took his men on a back trail to Princeton where he attacked a British reserve force of about 1200 men, killing about 200 and taking another 300 prisoner. Perhaps more importantly, the Continental Army was able to capture the British supply wagons, providing his men with a great many needed supplies. Washington then pulled his Army up to North NJ to await the next British movement.
By this time, the British saw the futility of chasing the Americans around NJ. They never wanted a winter campaign at all. The Commanding General Howe ordered Cornwallis to pull back all British troops to Northern NJ near New York City where they stayed in camp for the winter.
These actions were relatively minor victories but were absolutely critical to keeping the American cause alive. It proved that the Continental Army could defeat the British. Not any leader would have made such a daring attack, especially when the plans seemed to fall apart during the march on the enemy. Not any commander would have dared to face the British a second time or had the good sense to retreat and then attack the reserve force when a frontal assault likely would have proved fatal. There was unquestionably a great amount of luck in pulling off the whole campaign, but a good commander knows when to take such chances. Truly, Washington was indispensable to the success of this critical campaign.
The second incident that made Washington indispensable to the success of the Revolution is less well known. Two years after the battle of Yorktown, in 1783, Britain and the US were still trying to work out a treaty that would end the war. British troops still occupied New York City, but were making no attempts at offensive actions. Washington's Continental Army camped a few miles away in Newburgh, NY just in case the British attempted anything. For the most part, camp life was quiet, settled, and routine. Everyone realized the War was coming to an end.
The Continental Army was not in a celebratory mood, however. The Confederation Congress, which did not have the power to tax, could not raise any money to pay the soldiers. Soldiers were ill clad, ill fed, and unpaid. Even worse, they had been promised generous pensions or other bonuses when Congress desperately needed them to remain with the Army. Now that it came time to pay and the army was not needed as badly, Congress looked as if it would break all of its promises to the soldiers.
Officers had sent multiple petitions to Congress begging that it keep its promises. But these fell on deaf ears. While soldiers suffered from deprivation in the field, civilians were beginning to thrive in the peacetime economy. Those who had sacrificed for their country were justifiably upset at their treatment.
On March 10, 1783 an anonymous letter circulated through the Army calling for a meeting to demand action. The topic was to discuss having the Army march on Philadelphia and demand their promised pay and benefits, at gun point if necessary. There was also talk of replacing the incompetent Congress with a military leader, preferably Washington, to take charge of the country, much like General Oliver Cromwell had kicked out Parliament and become Lord Protector of England a century earlier after the English Civil War.
Washington put out an announcement objecting to an anonymous meeting and instead allowed a meeting of officers to be scheduled on March 15. No one expected Washington to participate in this meeting where essentially treason against Congress would presumably be discussed. But Washington walked in unexpectedly and asked to address the officers. He gave a short speech recommending continued patience. He said they should oppose anyone "who wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood." Despite their long loyalty to Gen. Washington, these officers seemed largely unmoved and unwilling to change their views.
Washington then produced a letter from a member of Congress to read to the officers. He looked at the letter as if he had trouble reading it, and fumbled with it for some time without speaking. He then took a pair of reading glasses from his pocket. These glasses were new, and few of the men had seen him wear them. He paused, looked to the gathered officers and said: "Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country." Almost at once this changed the tone of the meeting.
The officers at once understood that their leader Washington had personally sacrificed a great deal for the Revolution, just as much as any of them. Many of those present were moved to weep openly. Despite all that sacrifices that Washington and the rest of his men were forced to make, Washington continued to remain loyal to Congress and would submit to its will. The movement to use any force against Congress ended immediately. The assembly drafted a resolution expressing "unshaken confidence" in Congress, and "disdain" and "abhorrence" for the proposals published earlier in the week.
Almost all successful revolutions end up devolving power onto a military strong man. New revolutionary governments are almost by nature weak and disorganized. The chaos and anarchy of overthrowing the established order could make even basic government functions difficult. Typically a single strong man or dictator assumes power in order to make everything work properly. These tend to be military leaders: Oliver Cromwell or Napoleon Bonaparte are two examples. George Washington easily could have stepped into this role. The army was totally loyal to him and had nothing but contempt for the Congress. With the army's support, no one could have prevented Washington from taking control.
Washington, however, vehemently opposed any such action. In doing so he helped to ensure the successful transition to a civilian republican government. We take that for granted today, but at the time it could have so easily gone a different way. Washington's steadfast loyalty to civilian control of the government may be one of his least mentioned qualities, but one that makes him a uniquely great leader.
Without George Washington, it is impossible to see how the Continental Army could have been guided to its ultimate success against the British Empire. It is also very easy to see how the successful Army could have moved to a military dictatorship if not for Washington's unflagging devotion to civilian control. Washington, of course, did reluctantly become President years later under the new Constitution. But he genuinely seemed to take on that role reluctantly and only because no one in the country trusted anyone but Washington with that much power. He reluctantly served a second term only because no one at any part of the legal spectrum wanted him to leave. Doing so, it was feared, would only have led to division and possibly even civil war. Finally, after his second term, Washington determined to take his leave and become a simple farmer once again.
Washington never shirked his duty and willingly gave up power as soon as he could. He viewed power as an obligation rather than a reward. This rare and valuable attitude was essential to the success of the Revolution and the creation of our Constitutional Republic.
Today we commonly see politicians who want to move beyond their Constitutional authority because they see it as the only way of reaching some desired policy goal. Washington understood the danger of such an attitude and rejected it entirely. He is truly the indispensable man.
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