George Washington: The Below-Average, Retreating, Victorious General
Washington: The Man
George Washington is a highly revered and respected historical figure in American society, known as the great leader and general who freed the American colonies from British control by winning the Revolutionary War. Yet, historians agree that Washington was not in any way a spectacular general; moreover, some say that he was a poor military leader. So then, if Washington was a mediocre general leading a ragtag band of untrained and undisciplined farmers against one of Europe’s most well trained, massive, magnificent armies, how did he manage to drive the British from American shores? The answer is simple: as a general, Washington prevailed over the British army not through sheer power or strength of arms, but he won the Revolutionary war through his leadership skills, his ability to hold his army together, and being able to “bounce back” to fight another day. In other words, George Washington lost his battles but won the war.
Whipping the Army Into Shape
The war seemed to be going well for the colonial cause when Washington took command on July 3, 1775 by a unanimous vote of the Continental Congress. Four hundred forty-one out of 1,500 Americans had been killed or wounded at Bunker Hill, while 1, 154 out of 2,200 British had been killed or wounded. British General Clinton wrote “…a dear victory bought victory; another such would have ruined us.”
Washington, however, knew that if the Colonials were to have any chance to succeed again, major changes needed to be made to the army. He began to prepare the undisciplined farmer rabble to make a stand against the most powerful and well-equipped army on the planet. When Washington took command, he was authorized by Congress to do whatever was necessary to get the army in shape. There were many problems.
Being farmers and used to doing what they pleased the men were wholly undisciplined. Many officers were as unruly as the men. The living quarters were terribly smelly and unclean. Regiment sizes varied so much that it would cause confusion in battle. Supplies were a big problem too; there were simply not enough of them. Some were clothed in rags and had no shoes. Some did not even have weapons, and there was only enough gunpowder for nine shots per soldier.
Washington didn’t complain about all these problems; he simply focused on the task of solving them. Gunpowder was stocked up, disorderly officers were replaced with orderly ones, and rules were established that soldiers had to obey, complete with punishments for failing to do so. Discipline, health, and morale improved. Yet, there was one problem that Washington could never really solve: desertion. Unlike most European nations’ soldiers (including Britain), the American soldiers did not make a career out of war. Thus, all too often, Washington had to compensate for hundreds of men simply walking away, and he could never rely on his army to have consistent strength. Washington’s army was greatly inferior to those of the British.
A Bostonian Victory
After Washington made the necessary changes to his army, he decided to take back Boston from the British. To do that though, he needed artillery, so he sent General Benedict Arnold to go up to Canada to Fort Ticonderoga, which had about 120 cannons. Arnold came back with 55 cannons, which was still enough to attack Boston.
Washington decided to fortify the hills surrounding Boston, and, in order to keep from being killed from the cannon barrage, the British would charge out to attack. While they were attacking, American soldiers would land in Boston by boat and take the city, leaving the British cut off from their base. Washington fortified the hills secretly at night, and on March 2, 1776, everything was ready. Though the British attempted to attack the hills, a storm blew up and prevented them from doing so. On March 17, 1776, the British and the Tories sailed out of Boston. It was one of the few times that Washington had won.
New York Blues
After freeing Boston from the British, Washington had no solid idea where the British would strike next. However, he was pretty sure that the next attack would at the city of New York, which was the best seaport in the colonies and would make an excellent base of operations for the British. Thus convinced, Washington headed up to New York, and by April 13 he had arrived. His suspicions proved correct on June 25, as the first three vessels of the British fleet arrived. Twelve days later, almost 300 British ships had arrived. The British plan was to attack the American fortifications in Brooklyn Heights, a hilly region of Long Island backing up to the East River from New York City.
The British numbered more than thirty thousand troops, while Washington only had nineteen thousand men. The battle did not go well. Washington had put General Israel Putnam to take command of the area where the British were attacking. Unfortunately, this was a poor decision, as Putnam was not familiar with the countryside and made the mistake of not scouting out the nearby roads thoroughly. This left one important road, the Jamaica Road, which led around behind the American position, unguarded. The British soon exploited this error to their advantage, attacking on Aug. 22, 1776.
The Americans were attacked from both the front and the back and scattered in panic. The entire American line dissolved, and men ran to retreat toward the forts Washington had hastily constructed up at Brooklyn Heights, leaving 200 men killed or wounded and almost 1000 prisoners to the British. If the British had kept on going, they probably could have destroyed the entire American force on Long Island, but instead they started to dig trenches.
Meanwhile, Washington knew he had been outgeneraled. He needed to act quickly if his army was to be saved. Fortunately, Washington had had the foresight to order hundreds of boats to stand by the river in case of an emergency such as this. Now, he used them. All through the nights of August 29 and 30, the American troops were ferried off Long Island across the river to New York City. The British did not realize that they had been outwitted until morning, after George Washington had saved his army. Washington had bounced back from an almost certain defeat and possibly the end of the war.
Washington, knowing he and his army were still in mortal danger, reassembled his troops in New York, as there were too many places where the British could land and trap them. To add to Washington’s worries, men were steadily fading away from his army as their enlistment time was up.
Washington decided to leave New York. Unfortunately, on Sept. 15, before he could get all his supplies together to go, the British attacked, forcing them to leave much of their ammunition, cannons, and other supplies behind. They moved northward to a hilly area called Harlem Heights, with New York City in British hands.
On Sept. 16, a small force of 150 men was sent by Washington to attempt to find out what the British were planning. The Americans ran into several hundred British light infantry and Scottish troops, who were some of the best soldiers in the British Army. The Americans pulled back to avoid being surrounded, exchanging shots. Washington, meanwhile, heard the shots and had reinforcements sent to the Americans, ordering a counterattack. Slowly, the reinforced Colonial troops began to try to cut the British off from their main army. Realizing what was happening; the British retreated, and soon began to receive reinforcements too. Washington, not wanting to become involved in a major battle, pulled back to Harlem Heights. The British had lost 270 men, killed and wounded, while the American losses numbered 120. The battle of Harlem Heights, although it was a small victory, was a victory nonetheless and proved that the American troops could beat the British in open battle, not just behind fortifications. This boosted morale greatly, and is an example of Washington’s ability to hold his army together through small victories.
On Nov. 1, The British attacked again, but Washington and his army had already moved north to a stronger position. After going north, Washington split his army into 4,000 and 6,000 segments; he left the 6,000 men under the command of Major General Charles Lee, taking the 4,000 men to Newark, New Jersey. General Charles Cornwallis went after Washington, who had once again slipped away, taking his men into Pennsylvania across the Delaware River.
Meanwhile, Americans were starting to fear that the Revolution was a lost cause, as Washington had been pushed out of New York and lost two important forts along with many supplies. Washington knew that the revolution needed a victory soon, or support for it may very well whither away. He decided to attack one of the small forces Cornwallis had placed by the Delaware River in New Jersey.
Did you know that Washington was such a poor general?
Trenton's Tiny Triumph
That small force was stationed at Trenton, where the British had put German Colonel Johann Rall in command with his 3 Hessian regiments. Washington learned from his spies that Rall was a drunkard who held the Colonial army in contempt, so he believed that the Hessians could be taken by surprise. Keeping in mind that the Germans would probably drink heavily to celebrate Christmas, the attack was scheduled for the day after Christmas, Dec. 26, 1776. With only 2400 men and 18 cannons, Washington attacked Trenton. It was a phenomenal success: half-drunk and totally surprised, the Hessians didn’t put up much of a fight, and only 2 Americans were killed with another 3 wounded. Forty Hessians were killed and 918 were taken prisoner. It was a spectacular and encouraging victory for the Americans, but a small one in the grand scheme of things. It is an example of how Washington kept his army’s moral up through winning small battles.
The War Drags On
Several days later, news of the British loss at Trenton arrived to the British at New York, and shortly thereafter General Cornwallis left New York, intent on putting a stop to ‘the old fox’ once and for all. On Jan 2, 1777, Cornwallis and his army set out to Trenton. Though it was only an 11-mile march, they didn’t reach Trenton until dark, as American riflemen slowed them down; sniping from behind cover at them as they marched. Once the British reached Trenton, Cornwallis ordered his men to set up camp, believing Washington was trapped for sure this time. In the morning he planned to bag the old fox.
Once again, the British were wrong. Much like the Americans in New York, they had not checked all the side roads in the area, so Washington took his army up a side road to Princeton while the British snoozed that night. To fool the British sentries, a few hundred men stayed behind a while to keep the campfires going and let themselves be seen by the sentries. Eventually, they too slipped away.
Yet, Washington‘s winning streak would not continue. On Sept. 11, 1777 (Time Line: The American Revolution), at the Battle of Brandywine, Washington was soundly defeated by the British, who outflanked him. However, it was not a total disaster; Washington retreated with the bulk of his army, which was not demoralized, believing that the defeat was more due to unfamiliarity with the area than to a lack of fighting ability.
Washington took up winter quarters in Valley Forge for the winter of 1777-1778 (Martin 287). “Winter at Valley Forge was a period of great suffering for the Continental Army. Washington and the French General Marquis de Lafayette led their discouraged troops through several months of hardships, including bitter cold, inadequate shelter, and shortages of food and clothing” (Ashworth, Carroll 100). It was “The winter that changed the colonial army” (McGowen 89), and it was a testament to Washington’s ability to hold his army together. “A regular army historian has observed: ‘During that terrible winter, nearly 3,000 men died from starvation, exposure or disease. It is amazing that the army held together at all. That is did can be attributed only to the amazing influence of Washington’s strength of character, will and determination. This austere man was truly loved by his devoted officers and men.’” – (North 126). Washington truly was the core of the American Revolution.
Did you learn anything new?
The war continued until1783, but truly ended in 1781, when Washington, with the aid of his French allies, trapped the British at Yorktown. While Washington marched his army toward Yorktown to trap the British by land, his French allies sailed to the Chesapeake Bay to trap them by sea. Thus having no way to get supplies and surrounded by about 18,000 American and French troops, the British surrendered on October 19, 1781. Although fighting continued in some areas for two or so years, this marked the end of Britain’s control of the American colonies (Martin, p. 289). America had won the Revolutionary War.
George Washington was a strictly average general with a barely acceptable army at best. Many times, his army was nearly destroyed. Often, Washington's victory was in his ability to retreat; one might argue that that was his best quality. However, through his ability to bounce back, persevere and keep his army together, Washington managed to win the Revolutionary war. In his own way, he was the right man for the job.
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Critically reviewed by Ashworth, Mary, and Carroll, John. “Washington, George” The World Book Encyclopedia, 1988
Martin, James “Revolutionary War” The World Book Encyclopedia, 1988
McGowen, Tom, The Revolutionary War and George Washington’s Army In American History (City, USA: Enslow Publishers, 2004)
Time Line: The American Revolution_4/17/11 (date accessed) http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/gwhtml/1776.html The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress
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