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George Washington as Military Leader

1. Washington’s understanding of military power

The Second Continental Congress named George Washington Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in June 1773. His selection was based largely on his reputation from the French and Indian War twenty years before. Washington was involved in some of the earliest fighting against the French and wrote about his service in a journal that was published in Virginia and London. In 1754, at the age of twenty-two, he wrote to his younger brother after an attack against the French, “I heard the bullet’s whistle and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound.” The next year, Washington was with British General Braddock when the army was ambushed and badly defeated on its way to attack Fort Duquesne.

After decades of military service, Washington would become a good field general; however, his understanding of the political and economic issues related to military power was equally important. Washington knew that his army’s success in the field was largely dependent on the support of the civilian government. He faced chronic shortages of men, weapons, and other supplies. His troops would go for long periods without pay. He never defied the will of Congress, nor did he ever use his immense popularity to appeal directly to the people. At the same time he faced the challenge of maintaining his troops’ loyalty not only to him, but also to the civilian authority and the rule of law. In Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington . Richard Brookhiser describes the dilemma Washington faced: “The enemy is not the only threat a commander faces, if he fights on behalf of a nation of laws. The army may become a law unto itself, especially if the government is capricious or incompetent” (p. 34). During the course of the Revolutionary War, Washington would have to deal with mutinies by his troops, to rebuff the suggestion by one of his officers, Lewis Nicola, that he become king, and to stop his officers at Newburgh who were planning to overthrow or abandon the civilian authorities. Washington’s ability to deal with multiple challenges off the battlefield made the eventual defeat of the British possible.

Washington also had a good understanding of the geographic factors affecting the use of military power. He was careful never to let his troops be bottled up without a way to retreat. He was also aware of his inability to protect specific locations like cities against superior British forces. In fact, even early in the Revolutionary War, Washington thought an effective defensive strategy was to maintain a series of fortifications or “posts.” He would later decide that a mobile force was less vulnerable and more effective. He also understood the important role of naval power along the Atlantic coast of the thirteen colonies. He was always careful to consider the threat of the British navy and realized the enormous importance of getting the help of the French navy. Several of theses geographic factors would combine in Washington’s decisive victory over Cornwallis at Yorktown.


2. Washington’s use of strategic retreat

Washington knew that for the Revolution to succeed the Americans only had to defend themselves against the British. The British faced the heavier burden of sending troops 3000 miles to quash the rebellion. If the British were unsuccessful and decided to go home, the Americans would have their independence. In order to fight a defensive war, Washington knew that at minimum his army had to survive. As long as he could keep a viable force in the field, there was always the chance that the British would leave or be defeated. So Washington was careful to never allow his army to be trapped where there was no retreat possible and he always recognized when to use strategic retreat in the face of overwhelming odds so his army could survive to fight another day.

Ironically, George Washington’s early military reputation was based on a retreat in the French and Indian War. British troops led by General Edward Braddock marched against Fort Duquesne on July 9, 1755. As the British passed through a clearing in the forest, they were ambushed by Indian allies of the French. Braddock refused Washington’s request to take militia into the woods to engage the Indians. Washington displayed remarkable courage in the fighting. He had two horses shot out from under him, bullets tore his coat, and his hat was shot off. Braddock was wounded and later died. Washington led the remaining British troops in retreat. Americans admired Washington’s courage and gave him credit for his willingness to engage the enemy and for leading the successful retreat. Some Americans believed that divine providence had spared Washington for important future service.

George Washington’s use of strategic retreat in the American Revolutionary War guaranteed the survival of the Continental Army. At the Battle of Long Island in August 1776, the British soundly defeated the Americans and Washington’s troops fled to the safety off a nearby fort. On the foggy night of August 29, Washington led a skillful retreat of thousands of American soldiers by boat from Long Island to Manhattan. A few months later, Washington maintained a fortified position on hills near White Plains, New York. When the British easily captured a nearby hill that was higher, Washington successfully led his troops in retreat to even higher hills near New Castle. In September 1777 at Brandywine Creek near Philadelphia, the British swept around and came up behind the Americans rear defenses. Washington himself led a successful defense of the rear that allowed most of his army to escape.

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