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George Washington as Military Leader

3. Washington’s important Revolutionary War victories

Washington knew that he could not maintain the morale of his troops or the support of the country by running. While strategic retreats allowed his army to survive, Washington needed victories. His army faced a series of defeats and embarrassments early in the war. Washington was determined to break this pattern. On Christmas night in 1776, Washington led his cold, tired, and hungry troops across the Delaware River from Pennsylvania to New Jersey. In a surprise attack on December 26, the Americans killed two dozen and captured over nine hundred Hessians hired by the British. The Americans had only two wounded with no one dead. Eight days later on January 3, 1777, Washington’s army encountered two British regiments near Princeton, New Jersey. As the experienced British soldiers moved into formation to fight, the Americans panicked. Washington rode to the front of the battle on his tall white horse. “Parade with me my brave fellows,” he called to them as he led the attack on the British lines. Washington is reported to have said, “It’s a fine fox chase, my boys,” as the British broke ranks and fled. The news of the victories at Trenton and Princeton served to boost American spirits.

At the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778, George Washington again displayed remarkable courage and won a significant victory. Marching on a British force of 10,000 with one part of his army, he encountered the other part in chaotic retreat and under hot-blooded pursuit by the enemy. Washington berated General Charles Lee who had allowed the retreat. Washington rallied his troops and led the attack against the British. Marquis de Lafayette, a French ally serving on his staff, wrote that Washington, at this dangerous moment in the war, "seemed to arrest fortune with one glance.... His presence stopped the retreat.... His graceful bearing on horseback, his calm and deportment which still retained a trace of displeasure...were all calculated to inspire the highest degree of enthusiasm.... I thought then as now that I had never beheld so superb a man." At the end of the day the British retreated to New York. More importantly, Washington had held his own against the British for the first two years of the war and ended British hopes of a quick victory.

The war would last four more years after Monmouth. The French joined the Americans in 1778 contributing troops, supplies, and a navy. The British turned their attention to the south hoping to rally the support of Americans loyal to the King. General Cornwallis moved east across Virginia in the spring of 1781. He moved to the coastal town of Yorktown on the Chesapeake Bay where he was confident the British navy could support him, but now Washington had the French navy at his disposal. The French fleet under the Admiral de Grasse drove the British fleet from the bay. Once the French fleet was in place, Washington and his army along with French troops under Rochambeau moved on Yorktown. Cornwallis held out for three weeks as he was pounded by Washington’s artillery. Cut off by the French fleet from supply or retreat by sea and surrounded by American and French troops on land, Cornwallis surrendered on October 17, 1781 bringing the Revolutionary War to an end. Despite numerous hardships and defeats, Washington had finally achieved victory.

Discussion Questions:
  1. In what war did Washington establish his military reputation?
  2. What challenges did Washington face off the battlefield during the Revolutionary War?
  3. Explain three ways that Washington’s understanding of military power was influenced by geography.
  4. Why was the use of strategic retreat important to Washington’s success?
  5. Why was Washington’s victory at Monmouth important?
  6. What factors led to the defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown?
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