GEORGE WASHINGTON (1732-1799)
(Brief Review of his Military Career)
Jean Antoine Houdon's plaster bust of George Washington, made in 1853 from the original life-cast executed by Houdon at Mount Vernon in 1785. This copy is at the American Museum of American History. Houdon made a clay bust, which he took back to France. In his French studio, Houdon made several marble and bronze busts, and a full-length statue of Washington that is in the Virginia state capitol.

George Washington is the most famous American hero, remembered as the 'father of his country' for his distinguished service as commanding general of the revolutionary army which won independence, and for his exemplary performance as the first president of the United States. His military accomplishments are not popularly appreciated for two reasons: his distinction as first president of the new nation was unique and his enduring achievement; and his military operations, as important as they were, were not based upon a series of conquests or large-scale battles. Nevertheless, Washington's military career provides a model of leadership and strategic and tactical expertise surprising for one not especially trained for, or engaged in, a full life of military campaigning.

Early Life and Military Experience.

Washington was born on 22 February 1732 in Virginia. His early years as a surveyor provided him with an understanding of terrain, and broadened his knowledge of territories outside of Virginia. When his half brother died in 1752, George inherited Mount Vernon, a sizeable estate near Alexandria, Virginia. He now had the wealth and prestige associated with being a large landowner. Mount Vernon plantation was the focus of his life, from which he was frequently separated by military duties and political responsibilities.
Washington's military experience began in the French and English struggles for domination of the upper Ohio Valley. Washington's surveying experience made him a logical choice to lead Virginian expeditions into the western territories, where he had a series of encounters with the French. In one encounter, in May 1754 near French Fort Duquesne (modern Pittsburgh), Washington's force ambushed a French detachment. Soon afterwards, Washington was forced to surrender his outnumbered force to the French and returned disarmed to Williamsburg.
Charles Wilson Peale's 1772 oil-on-canvas portrait of Washington wearing his Virginia Militia uniform. Executed from life and displayed at Mount Vernon during the subject's lifetime, the painting is now at Washington & Lee University, Lexington, Virginia.
The British sent General Braddock to Virginia to lead an expedition against the French. As an aide-de-camp, Washington marched with Braddock's army to the Monongahela River, south of Fort Duquesne. The French and their indian allies surprised the British with an attack in which Braddock was killed. Washington led the remnants of the English force in an orderly withdrawal. The Virginia governor rewarded Washington with the rank of colonel and placed him in command of the colony's troops, with the main mission of guarding the western frontier.
During the French and Indian War, Washington developed a resentment against British ruling attitudes and military administration. He observed British professionals to be ignorant of the conditions of colonial warfare and arrogant towards colonial leaders. Washington was particularly disappointed when he was refused acceptance in the British regular military service. At the end of the war, Washington resigned his militia commission and returned to Mount Vernon.

Interim Military Period as a Farmer and Virginia Politician.

Disenchantment with British rule followed Washington into civilian life. He resented commercial restrictions which promoted the bulk of profits to English merchants rather than to colonial farmers. Washington was especially upset when the British canceled colonists' claims to settlements in the Ohio Valley, where he had considerable holdings.
When elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses, Washington actively opposed the Townshend Revenue Act of 1767. With other colonial leaders he found British tax policies tyrannical and recommended a "continental congress" to watch over the interests of the colonies. He was elected as one of Virginia's seven delegates to the First Continental Congress which voted to forbid the importation of goods subject to British taxes. It authorized towns and counties to set up committees of safety to enforce its provisions. Washington spent most of his time in 1774-75 in Virginia organizing independent military companies to aid the local committees in enforcing the Continental Association.

The American War for Independence.

After the battles of Lexington and Concord, and while the New England colonial militia invested British forces in Boston, the Second Continental Congress met on 10 May 1775 in Philadelphia. Washington's appearance in military uniform at the Congress expressed support for the militia and his readiness to fight. In June, Congress authorized the creation of a Continental Army and unanimously elected Washington commander-in-chief.
Washington's appointment was motivated largely to gain the support of the powerful Virginia colony. His selection was resented by several men with equal, or even more, professional military experience. This caused some dissension which carried more than halfway through the war. In hindsight, Washington's selection was fortuitous for the rebel cause. Few of the potential contenders evidenced the special character and military leadership traits which allowed Washington to prevail in his unique mission. Not only did he have to adapt to irregular and varied military situations, but he had to pioneer in commanding an army placed specifically under civilian rule. That civilian rule was the newly created Congress -- an unproven political institution which had not fully defined its goals and policies. No less a challenge, Washington had to fight one of the world's finest professional armies.
Taking command of the forces surrounding the British in Boston in July 1775, Washington exhibited a remarkable strategic awareness for one who had only militia command experience. He initiated a campaign to gain allies, a policy to deal with Loyalists, and a directive to establish a navy. His first tactical maneuver, carried out in the winter, was the occupation of Dorchester Heights, upon which he planted artillery brought from Fort Ticonderoga. This forced the British to evacuate Boston (March 1776).
Anticipating the British, Washington proceeded to New York and fortified Brooklyn Heights to defend the approaches to New York City. The British commander, General Sir William Howe, made a flanking move which drove Washington from Long Island and forced him to retreat to Harlem Heights. Using naval transport, Howe again outflanked the Americans, forcing Washington to withdraw to White Plains. With the capture of a significant portion of the American army at Fort Washington, the British acquired an undisputed hold on New York City. Washington's army was compelled to retreat through New Jersey and to cross the Delaware River in December 1776. American spirits fell to a low ebb, as approximately 34,000 British regulars confronted Washington's army of 3,000.
At this point, Washington made a daring, and possibly his most famous tactical move. On a cold and stormy night of December 25/26, he re-crossed the Delaware in a surprise attack against the Hessian garrison of Trenton, New Jersey, and captured nearly 900 prisoners. Washington avoided entrapment by a large British force deployed to Trenton under Earl Charles Cornwallis' command. In withdrawing to Princeton, Washington was able to defeat another small British force under Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood on 2 January 1777. These American successes compelled the British to withdraw to eastern New Jersey, and revived American hopes. Washington had not only avoided a serious defeat and held his army together in the face of overwhelming odds, he had won two battlefield victories and achieved a strategic success.
Charles Wilson Peale's oil-on-canvas portrait of Washington commemorating the victory at Princeton. The painting was executed some time after the event, but the artist was often around Washington and this work illustrates the proper uniform and appropriate facial age for the American General at the height of Washington's military career. It should be noted that the three stars shown on Washington's epaulettes do not represent a lieutenant general's rank at this period. See comment on Washington's rank at the bottom of this page.
In July 1777 General Howe departed New York by sea with a large force intending to capture the Revolutionaries' capital of Philadelphia. Washington met Howe's force and was defeated at Brandywine Creek in September, and, after the British occupied Philadelphia, at Germantown, in October. But Howe failed to follow-up his victories vigorously. The American Congress relocated to York, Pennsylvania.
These tactical setbacks do not reflect favorably on Washington's military abilities unless put into a broader context. Washington was forced to fight long before his army was prepared to engage well-trained regulars in standing battles. He not only had to attempt to defend Philadelphia, he had decided to send his best troops north to stop the dangerous threat of an invasion from Canada by a British army under General Burgoyne. The broader strategic implications of Washington's actions must be recognized. By his endeavors in the fall of 1777, Washington prevented General Howe from going to the aid of Burgoyne, who was forced to surrender 5,000 British at Saratoga in October 17, 1777. Although Washington was not present at Saratoga, he was responsible for that victory because of the troops he had sent there. As he took his army into winter quarters at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78, Washington realized that he had to train a more professional force before spring.
General Sir Henry Clinton, who relieved Howe, evacuated Philadelphia in June 1778. Washington intercepted Clinton's withdrawal at Monmouth, New Jersey, before the British reached New York. American General Charles Lee bungled the attack, and only Washington's personal intervention prevented serious check. Importantly, the battle proved that the American army could stand against British regulars following the winter of training at Valley Forge.
Nevertheless, 1778 was a disappointing year for Washington. Savannah fell to the British, and the first combined operation with French forces, under the Comte d'Estaing, failed at Newport. 1779 proved also to be a frustrating year. Washington remained stalemated against the British at New York. D'Estaing failed in another allied operation at Savannah, in September and October. Washington wintered with his army at Morristown, New Jersey.
In 1780, unable to defeat Washington in the north, the British shifted their main effort to the South. They invaded North Carolina and Virginia. Charleston, South Carolina, fell to the British. Morale was waning in the Continental Army from lack of pay, and Washington was confronted with the first of several mutinies. In July a large French expeditionary force under Rochambeau arrived at Newport and placed itself under Washington's supreme command. Unfortunately, the allied force was too small to challenge the British concentration around New York.
The main focus for the year remained in the south. In August, the Americans suffered a serious defeat at Camden, South Carolina. The defeat discredited General Gates, who had continuously sought to replace Washington as overall commander, and provided Washington with the opportunity to appoint more capable leaders in the south.
1781 was the year in which the French military support, in conjunction with some minor American tactical victories in the South, proved decisive. Washington's command of the superbly-executed French-American combined and joint operations in the Yorktown campaign proved decisive. It created a military situation which was more than the British national leaders could handle. Since 1778, when France formed an alliance with the American Rebels, England was engaged in a ‘world war'. An accumulation of land and naval actions far distant from Washington's theater of operations were claiming a toll on the British empire and resources. To attempt to redress the defeat at Yorktown, England would have to risk the loss of more economically important possessions.

James Peale (younger brother of Charles Wilson Peale) painted the prominent allied land commanders and some key staff members after the 1871 Yorktown victory. Depicted along with Washington (third from viewer's left) are Lafayette (exterme viewer's left), Knox (to Washington's right), Rochambeau (to Washington's left), French officer [Chastleaux] (to Rochambeau's left), and American officer [Tilghman?] (extreme viewer's right). This is a detail of the painting owned by the Maryland Historical Society. There is possibly another like this in France.

Post Revolution.

Washington continued to play a dominant role in the post-war development of the United States. He was instrumental in leading the fledgling nation through a series of challenges and crises. As a hero, Washington was elected unanimously as the first U.S. president. His pathfinding role as the first executive leader of the new nation was as great an accomplishment as was his generalship of the revolutionary army. Again, he proved his leadership skills. His special talent was an ability to obtain cooperation from strong minded-subordinates and to project a reasonable and fair bearing. His calm, authoritative manner prevailed in post-revolutionary politics as it did in war councils. In 1796, he returned to his beloved Mount Vernon and a very public "private life." He died at Mount Vernon on 14 December 1799.
George Washington's military skills were largely derived from practical experience. He lacked familiarity with formal large-scale military operations and direct knowledge of preparing forces for many of the tactical maneuvers required in open combat. His weaknesses, however, were compensated for by his innate understanding of strategy and tactics, and willingness to seek and accept professional advice. He was also favored by an imposing stature, and, more importantly the talent to inspire a complex array of his fellow citizens -- soldiers and politicians alike.

Washington's General Rank.

The Second Continental Congress commissioned George Washington to be ‘General and Commander in Chief' of the Army of the United Colonies. No further attention was given to prescribing a distinctive insignia of rank at the time. Many in Congress perceived that the establishment of a military organization was only a temporary, but necessary evil, until the conflict was won. The simpler the senior command organization, the better. There were three levels of general rank in the Continental Army: Brigadier, Major, and Commander in Chief – in ascending order of rank and authority. In particular, it should be noted that for the duration of the 1775-1783 war there were no lieutenant generals in the Continental army -- although, reportedly, Washington unsuccessfully petitioned the Continental Congress for such a rank on at least two occasions.
Some confusion exists in that after the American Revolution, in 1798, Washington was appointed lieutenant general (then the highest possible rank) in the United States Army by President John Adams. This was part of a mobilization anticipating a possible armed conflict with France. Further confusion exists when considering that the c. 1779 painting by Charles Wilson Peale of Washington shows the General wearing three stars on both epaulettes. In the eighteenth, and subsequent centuries, three stars generally reflected the rank of a ‘lieutenant general'. However, in Washington's case, regardless of what insignia of rank he wore, he was the senior most general in the American Continental Army with the official title of 'Commander in Chief'.
See further discussion at webpage George Washington's Rank.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Carrington, Henry B. Washington the Soldier. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1899 .

Flexner, James Thomas. George Washington. 4 vols. Little, Brown, and Co., Boston, 1965-72.

Freeman, Douglas Southall. George Washington: A Biography. 7 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1948-57.

Irving, Washington. The Life of Washington. 4 vols. John Wanamaker, New York, n.d. (Provides a perspective of the subject at the time of the era).

Fitzpatrick, John C., Ed. The Diaries o f George Washington, 1748-1799. 4 vols. New York, 1925.

                        , Ed. The Writings of George Washington. 39 vols. Washington, 1931-1944.

Institut Français de Washington, Ed. Correspondence of General Washington and Comte de Grasse. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1931.

Edward G. Lengel, General George Washington: A Military Life. Random House, New York, 2005.

                        , Ed. This Glorious Struggle: George Washington's Revolutionary War Letters. Harper Collins, New York, 2007)


SUGGESTED WEBPAGE LINKS
The Library of Congress offers access to their collection of George Washington's papers, including presidential documents, letters and diaries at http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/gwhtml/gwhome.html
Beneath the heading image and title, a viewer is offered the options to: ‘Search by Keyword' or ‘Browse the Collection'. Documents are presented as jpg images, but can also be accessed as transcriptions in html format.
Historic Mount Vernon web site.
The Papers of George Washington.
A grant-funded project established in 1969 at the University of Virginia. The work is in porgress and can only be obtained by purchase of completed volumes. When completed, the project will total of 90 volumes.
Rochambeau's instructions to serve under Washington.
This page explains Washington's authority as commander of French-American forces in 1780-83.
"Washington and Rochambeau" by Dr. Lee Kennett
An authoritative and penetrating analysis of the generals by a noted scholar on the combined operations of French and American forces in 1780-1783.
"Washington as Supreme Allied Commander"
An attempt to present Washington's performance as a Supreme Allied Commander by focusing on some of the general's selected correspondence. .


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Text for this page, is taken from an article written by Albert D. McJoynt, published in the International Military and Defense Encyclopedia, editor in chief: Trevor N. Dupuy, 6 vols. published by Brassey's, McLean, Virginia, 1993. The author of the article has made some modifications for this webpage since the print publication.
Page created 1 August 2002; last revised 17 July 2013.