The life and military career of George Washington proves that we can learn both from victory and defeat, and that perseverance and steadfastness in the face of the enemy wins the day. A man who always stood up for what was right and just, and against what was oppressive and unjustified, Washington was not only a great man but also an able military leader in the War for American Independence.
George Washington had a military career that spanned over forty years of service. As the commander in chief of the Continental Army (1775-1783), Washington led the Americans to a victory over the British in what is now termed the American Revolutionary War. Having been born into a well connected Virginia family that owned plantations and slaves, Washington lost both his elder brother and father before he was eleven years old. Nevertheless, his connections to the family of William Fairfax, wherein his half brother Lawrence had married, led him to be personally selected to lead a regiment of soldiers in what is now termed the French and Indian War. Having first been appointed as surveyor of land for Culpepper County, his brother’s investment and involvement in the Ohio Company, Washington came to the attention of the newly appointed lieutenant general of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddle. Washington’s brother Lawrence was also commander of the Virginia militia. The French and British were both laying claim to Ohio County, and in 1783 Dinwiddle sent Washington, now a Major, to deliver a letter to the French informing them of British interests and asking them to leave. This he did, and in the process also made friends with the Indian Chief ‘Half King’ Tanacharison. Together they planned to overthrow the French. In fact Washington tried to ambush the French despite being inexperienced and outnumbered- he was only 17 at the time. However one of the French commanders Jumonville was killed by Tanacharison or one of his tribe in this attack, and the French lost no time in blaming Washington and capturing him and his party of followers. However he was later allowed to go with his troops back to Virginia. Historians contend that this nevertheless showed Washington’s bravery, impetuousness and initiative. The final impact of this episode was that it fueled tensions between both the French and British military powers and led to the Seven Years War (1754-1758).
In 1755 Washington was appointed senior aide to the British General Braddock on the expedition to reclaim Ohio county and other territories. However they were ambushed by the French and some Indian allies, and had to retreat. Washington on this occasion had to assume overall command after Braddock was mortally wounded at the Battle of Monongahela, and dutifully led an orderly retreat. His exemplary command even in the face of defeat led Governor Dinwiddle to promote Washington to the rank of Colonel in the Virginia regiment and Commander of all forces raised by the British in defense of the colonies. Washington was thus given command of the first full time American regiment of regular servicemen of 1000 troops. He was given the responsibility to defend Virginia against all opposing forces- and to act aggressively or defensively as he thought best. Washington was a strict disciplinarian and a tough commander- he led aggressive campaigns against the Indians that resulted in a loss of a third of his men in 20 battles waged in just 10 months. Nevertheless, his campaigns meant that Virginia could relax in relative comfort compared to the other counties. Historians unanimously agree that this was among Washington’s most unqualified successes.
An episode in 1758 had disastrous consequences. While participating in the Forbes expedition to capture Fort Duquesne, there was a friendly fire incident in which Washington and another unit mistakenly took each other to be the French; the mishap left 14 men dead and another 26 wounded. Though eventually the French abandoned the fort giving the British strategic control of the Ohio Valley- however Washington was thoroughly embarrassed and retired from the Virginia Regiment in December 1758. He would not return to the battlefield till 17 years later, at the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War in 1775.
Although Washington spent the years 1759-1775 in recouping his personal and business interests, he had by then gained valuable military experience, closely observing British tactics and understanding the strengths and weaknesses in their command and operational structure. All this would help him immensely while fighting the American War for Independence.
Washington’s letters and conversations with his troops and military advisers indicate that he was a man of courage and tenacity, demonstrating tactical command in even the most difficult situations. However he was more suited to engaging the enemy in out of bound frontier areas compared to the urban cities of Boston, Trenton, Philadelphia and New York. Washington has often been suspected of using the Fabian tactics of drawing in the enemy by quick short attacks and then retreating- much like guerilla warfare. It could be that the situation warranted such actions- especially in the light of the fact that the American forces were usually outnumbered and could easily be outclassed by a superior more experienced force like the British if engaged in a long face to face battle. He was forced to use Fabian tactics at Trenton and Yorktown due to the harsh winter, lack of reenlistment and deserting forces. Washington believed in courage, initiative, discipline and training and had a great distaste of militia and impromptu forces. His successes against the British at Boston in 1776, Saratoga in 1777 and Yorktown in 1781 came from having the British trapped far away from their supply lines and with much greater American troop strength. After he had recouped his troops in mid-1777, Washington could afford to launch more full scale attacks on British forces. Washington also led the efforts to provide wanted rations, ammunitions and rewards for his troops, rallying for support through political and administrative means. Washington’s command and stature ensured that the American freedom fighters would never settle for anything else that independence from the yoke of the British. The American effort for independence was also strengthened through Congress enhancing both rewards and punishments for those staying on or deserting the ranks of Washington’s army.
Even the British press was forced to admit to Washington’s exemplary personal character and prowess as a military commander. This was highly embarrassing to the opposing military forces that looked upon his leadership as a possible ruination of their plans in the American colonies.
It is said that Washington’s desire to lead the American armies against the British was prompted by his appearance in Congress in military uniform at the Second Continental Congress convention in 1775. He was nominated by John Adams of Washington and formally given the title of Commander in Chief and Major General, with Congress creating the Continental Army on 14 June 1775. After taking command, Washington’s first tasks lay in recruiting, organizing and training the troops. He was assisted in this venture by a Prussian General, Baron Friedrich von Steuben. Ultimately he found assistants of some ability in Alexander Hamilton and Nathaniel Greene. He always took a personal interest in his army and their needs. By and by, as the war and the struggle for independence persisted, Washington emerged not only as a leader and strategist but also as the organizer of military efforts and campaigns- in cooperation with Congress. It can be said that he plotted the long term strategy of the war till its eventual success. Eventually the efforts for American Independence from the British were also supported by the French. It is small wonder then that he was unanimously elected as First President of the United States of America on 30 April 1789. He had pressed for the ratification of the Constitution by the original 13 states and had supported the effort for independence right from the days of the Stamp Act of 1765, the Townshend Acts of 1767 and the Intolerable Acts of 1774, which he and many others regarded as a direct infringement of their rights and privileges.
After it was clear that the British forces had left-they signed the Treaty of Paris in September 1783 as a written agreement to that effect, Washington disbanded his forces in December 1784-he bid farewell to them on December 4 in his last speech as a military commander followed by resigning from his post as Commander in Chief on December 23. This solid and quick relinquishment of so high a position was unheard of in British aristocratic circles and even prompted King George III to label Washington as ‘one of the greatest men of the age’.
No doubt, Washington’s greatest victory was in undertaking to challenge Generals Burgoyne and Howe at the Battle of Long Island in New York in 1777. Burgoyne was supposed to meet Howe at Albany but preferred to take the Southern Route to Philadelphia instead of up the Hudson River. This proved a major tactical error for the British, and enabled Washington to engage a much lesser force when he attacked Burgoyne in Saratoga, New York. The surrender of Burgoyne prompted France to enter the war and it chose to aid American efforts against the British. So here Washington accomplished a military as well as diplomatic victory, speeding efforts toward the eventual end of the hostilities. The surrender of Lord Cornwallis on 19 October 1781 marked the end of British hostilities in the North American sub continent.
George Washington was an able leader, administrator and military strategist- possibly one of the best men of his age. He was elected President unanimously for two terms with 100 percent of the vote-the only President to achieve this rating- and politely declined the serving of a third term himself. He also initially declined to accept a salary of $25,000 for this office, preferring to serve without compensation in the public interest. Even after his death, he is only one of two persons to be named General of the Armies of the United States, the USA’s highest military honor, 175 years after his passing. Endnotes
- Anderson, Fred (2005). The War that Made America. Viking Press.
- Chernow, R. (1990). Washington: A Life. The Penguin Press.
- Ellis, Joseph J. (2004). His Excellency: George Washington. Knopf Publishers.
- Ferling, John E. (2010). First of Men: A Life of George Washington. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Lengel, Edward G. (2005). General George Washington: A Military Life. New York: Random House.
- Morelock, Jerry, D. (2002). “Washington as Strategist”. Compound Warfare. DIANE Publishing.