General George Washington
Was Washington a great general? In seven years of fighting the British, from 1775 to 1782, he won only three clear-cut victories— at Trenton, Princeton, and Yorktown. In seven other encounters—Long Island, Harlem Heights, White Plains, Fort Washington, Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth—he either was defeated or at best could claim a draw.
Most contemporary Americans, even if they are unacquainted with these statistics, are inclined to see General Washington as a figurehead whose bravery and dedication inspired his soldiers to win the Revolutionary War with little reference to military skill, much less genius.
A general’s ability to inspire his men is not, of course, to be discounted, and Washington unquestionably had this gift. But the great commanders of history are rated on their ability to conceive a winning strategy and execute it. Does Washington belong in this select group?
When Washington became commander of the American army on July 3, 1775, the Americans had already fought two battles, Lexington-Concord and Bunker Hill. Their politicians drew ruinously wrong conclusions from these encounters.
At Lexington-Concord they saw proof that untrained militia could rout British regulars on a day’s notice. At Bunker Hill they thought they had found a secret weapon, the entrenching tool, that would enable them to inflict crippling casualties on the attacking British.
The minutemen who fought at Lexington and Concord were not raw amateurs. They were a well- trained rudimentary army that had been drilling and shooting at targets for nine months. At Bunker Hill, British General William Howe impulsively ordered a costly frontal assault. But there was no reason to assume he would repeat this mistake.
Nevertheless, the Continental Congress decided that the war would be swiftly settled in one big battle— in eighteenth century terms, “a general action.” There was no need for a big regular army. The British could not afford to send a large army and fleet to America. Militia could overwhelm them just as easily as regulars.
Tom Paine, author of the famous pro-independence pamphlet, Common Sense, was responsible for the illusion that the British were bankrupt. The last third of his essay, where he makes this ridiculous claim, should be called Common Nonsense.
General Washington did not question these assumptions until mid-1776, when the conflict shifted to New York. In July, General William Howe and his older brother, Admiral Lord Richard Howe, landed 32,000 men unopposed on Staten Island. They were backed by a 400 ship fleet of men-of- war and transports. Washington had only about 10,000 regular soldiers. The rest of his 23,000-man army was untrained militia.
A few weeks later General Howe shifted his army to Long Island and smashed the Americans in a battle of feint and maneuver. With the help of a providential fog, a shaken Washington was able to remove his surviving troops to Manhattan by night.
A few weeks later Howe’s men landed at Kips Bay (now Thirty-fourth Street) after a ferocious naval bombardment. The Connecticut militia guarding the shore fled without firing a shot. Again, Washington managed to extricate the bulk of his army, this time to a strong position on Harlem Heights,
During “hours allotted to sleep,” Washington rethought the strategy of the war. He told the president of Congress that henceforth the Americans should “avoid a general action or put anything to the Risk, unless compelled by a necessity into which we ought never to be drawn.” Their goal should be “to protract the war.”
Retreating to New Jersey with 2500 regulars, Washington called out the state’s 17,000 theoretically patriotic militiamen on the muster rolls. Only about 1,000 individuals showed up, almost as useless as none at all.
Massachusetts General William Heath denounced New Jerseyans as traitors and cowards. Washington took a different view. He told Heath that “the defection of the people has been as much owing to the want of an Army to look the Enemy in the face, as any other cause.” He meant a regular army, with trained soldiers, artillery and cavalry.
In this lowkeyed intuitive way, Washington made a crucial addition to the strategy that would win the American Revolution. It meshed with protracting the war, never risking a general action, and waiting until the enemy exposed a part of their larger army to insult or destruction.
Washington swiftly demonstrated his ability to implement tactics to match this new strategy. On Christmas night of 1776, he marshaled his 2,500 shivering regulars and led them across the ice-choked Delaware River to kill or capture two-thirds of the 1,500-man royal garrison at Trenton. A few days later, Washington again invaded New Jersey. The British came at him with 9,000 men. On January 2, 1777, Washington wheeled his smaller army around the enemy’s left flank by night and chewed up three regiments at Princeton, then headed for the enemy’s main base at New Brunswick. The frantic British abandoned West Jersey and marched all night to get there first. They flung themselves into defensive positions around the town—only to discover that Washington had slipped away to winter quarters behind the Watchung Mountains in Morristown. With British power in New Jersey reduced to a narrow enclave, patriotism underwent a magical revival. British commissaries and foraging parties were ambushed on the roads. Washington had rescued the state—and the country. Recruiting for a new army revived in other states, and General Howe glumly reported to London that he now saw no hope of ending the war “but by a general action.” Washington had maneuvered the British into adopting the flawed strategy with which the Americans had begun the war. Washington had already decided that an all-or-nothing battle was precisely what the British were never going to get. For the next five years he stuck to his strategy despite criticism from hotheads in Congress and in the army. When the British tried other strategies, attacking from Canada and later invading the South, Washington dispatched some of his best regulars and most reliable generals to confront them. Finally, in September 1781, he trapped Britain’s best army at Yorktown, Virginia. When the British prime minister heard the news of their surrender, he gasped: “Oh God, it is all over.” In his retirement years, Washington often attributed America’s victory to the “interposition of Providence.” But those who study the evidence -- and ignore the statistics -- are inclined to think Providence wore the shape of a tall Virginian who had the brains to conceive a way to win a war when it was on the brink of being lost—and the ability to provide the leadership that converted this new strategy into a triumph.