Washington, George

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Washington, George

WASHINGTON, GEORGE. (1732–1799). Commander in chief of the Continental army, first president of the United States. Virginia. Born on 11 February 1732, George Washington was the first child of Augustine Washington (1694–1743) by his second wife, Mary Ball (c. 1708–1789), who then lived on the family plantation near Pope's Creek, by the Potomac River, in Westmoreland County, Virginia. On the death of Augustine Washington in 1743, the family estate passed to George's elder half-brother, Lawrence (c. 1718–1752). Lawrence settled at Mount Vernon, Virginia, an estate that was named for the British admiral under whom Lawrence had served in a British expedition against Carthagena (now in Colombia) in 1740.

Washington was taught by private tutors at home until he was fifteen, excelling at mathematics, which would serve him well as a surveyor. His education prepared him for the role of a Virginia gentleman, and he worked to meet the standards of civility and conduct that such a station would imply. This striving for acceptance was a lifelong feature of his character, evolving from a quest for economic advantage in his youth to a prickliness about his reputation as an adult. As a young man, Washington learned how to face adversity, take corrective action, and emerge chastened and more determined.

In 1748, Lawrence Washington's connections gained George an appointment as surveyor of the Northern Neck Proprietary, a huge area of land claimed by Lord Thomas Fairfax. In 1751 Lawrence, whose already delicate health had been ruined at Carthagena, went to Barbados in the West Indies to seek relief from what was probably tuberculosis. His brother George accompanied him on this trip. When Lawrence died on 26 June 1752, his will made George executor of his estate and residuary heir of Mount Vernon. George's feet were now firmly planted among the aristocrats of Virginia.


French claims to the Ohio River Valley worried many Virginians, who viewed those lands as prime territory for their own speculation and settlement. On 28 August 1753, the British government ordered Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie to investigate the French incursions and, if necessary, "to drive them off by force of arms" (Abbot, Washington Papers, Colonial, 1, p. 57). Washington volunteered to warn the French to abandon their new posts. He left Fort Le Bouef on 31 October 1753 on the first mission of his military career. With a small party guided by the frontiersman Christopher Gist, Washington delivered his message to the French and returned to Williamsburg with the scornful reply.

Appointed lieutenant colonel at the age of twenty-two, Washington was given command of the force Dinwiddie ordered to expel the French from their western posts. Washington reached the Great Meadows (present day Union Town, Pennsylvania) on 24 May 1754, and began construction of Fort Necessity. Learning of the approach of French troops, Washington led a mixed force of forty Virginians and a dozen Native American allies to ambush the French on the morning of 28 May. His troops killed thirteen Frenchmen, including their commander, Ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonville. He was apprised by scouts that seven hundred more Frenchmen and Indians were advancing toward him, led by Jumonville's elder brother. Washington retreated to the Great Meadows, where his four hundred men were surrounded on 1 July. Because Fort Necessity was incomplete and badly sited, Washington signed a surrender written in French (which he did not speak) admitting culpability for Jumonville's "assassination." The surrender, and its imputation of dishonorable conduct in Jumonville's death, was a bitter humiliation that Washington never forgot.

Washington's defeat was the opening engagement in what became known as the Seven Years' or French and Indian War. Even before receiving news of the debacle at Fort Necessity, the British government decided to remove the French from the western frontier, appointing Major General Edward Braddock as commander in chief for North America. Braddock arrived in Virginia in February 1755 with two regiments that were to form the core of an expedition to oust the French from the Forks of the Ohio River, where the Allegheny and the Monongahela meet to form the Ohio. Washington was with Braddock on 9 July when nearly nine hundred French and Indian fighters surprised Braddock's army ten miles east of Fort Duquesne. Washington, who had been ill with a fever, distinguished himself in the intense combat that killed or wounded two-thirds of the Anglo-American force. He helped carry the mortally wounded Braddock away from the battle, and led the shattered army in its humiliating retreat.

Appointed colonel of the Virginia Regiment on 14 August 1755, Washington devoted the next two years to coping with the problems of commanding seven hundred soldiers strung out along a 350-mile frontier. He gained valuable, if frustrating, experience in dealing with obtuse officers, recalcitrant soldiers, intractable logistical problems, and demanding civilian superiors. He also confronted the elitism of the British high command. In February 1756 Washington went to Boston to meet with William Shirley, the Royal governor of Massachusetts and Braddock's successor as commander in chief. At this meeting, Washington proposed making the Virginia Regiment—and its commander—part of the regular British army. Shirley rejected the idea out of hand. The failure of these efforts to gain imperial preferment convinced Washington that his future lay with Virginia rather than with the wider empire.

When William Pitt became prime minister of Britain in 1757, he included in his grand plans for 1758 an expedition to reduce Fort Duquesne and so avenge Braddock's defeat. Pitt named Brigadier General John Forbes to lead the campaign, and Forbes shrewdly persuaded Washington to remain in service, thereby retaining his unparalleled expertise in frontier warfare. Serving under Forbes gave Washington an important opportunity to work with and observe a British professional officer, one more capable than Braddock. Forbes moved slowly but inexorably forward with his five thousand provincials and seventeen hundred regulars. With their position in the Ohio valley collapsing, and Forbes just twelve miles away by 23 November—Washington's First Virginia Regiment led the advance guard—the French evacuated and blew up Fort Duquesne. With the frontier now secure and land speculation beckoning, Washington resigned his commission in December 1758, and on 6 January 1759 married the wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis (1732–1802). The twenty-six-year-old Virginian emerged from his first period of military service with a reputation as a brave, ambitious, and hard-driving officer. In terms of the breadth of his experience and the length of his service, Washington was, at that point, the foremost colonial American soldier.


Washington, his wife, and his two step-children settled down at Mount Vernon. With Martha's property added to his own inheritance, he was now one of the richest planters in Virginia, though, like most wealthy planters, he carried an enormous debt. Washington spent sixteen years (1759–1775) focused on his personal economy. He decided on what to grow in which fields (he moved in 1765–1766 from cultivating tobacco to growing wheat), managed his largely slave labor force (216 workers and their families in February 1786, and 317 by July 1799), marketed his crops, kept his accounts, speculated in western lands, and renovated his mansion. As a member of the elite he also served in the House of Burgesses, gaining the respect of his peers, though not rising to leadership positions in the colony.

Washington viewed the Stamp Act of 1765 as bad economic policy, but played no significant role in the opposition to this or other British legislation until 1769. Then he promoted the non-importation association designed to force repeal of the Townshend Acts. When the Royal governor, Norborne Berkeley, baron de Botetourt, dissolved the House of Burgesses on 9 May 1769, Washington was among the members who reconvened at Williamsburg's Raleigh Tavern. He was named to the committee that, on the next day, presented George Mason's non-importation plan for adoption by the extra-legally assembled burgesses. Siding with the radicals, Washington opposed making petitions to the king and parliament, not only because they would be scorned, but because he did not believe in begging for rights. His response in June 1774 to "the oppressive and arbitrary act of Parliament for stopping up the port" of Boston, reflects his mature judgment:

the ministry may rely on it that Americans will never be taxed without their own consent, that the cause of Boston … now is and ever will be considered as the cause of America (not that we approve their conduct in destroying the tea), and that we shall not suffer ourselves to be sacrificed by piecemeal (ibid., 10, pp. 95-96).

His letters show that he comprehended the political course the Patriots were taking and recognized that the course led to war with Britain.

The next step in Washington's carefully considered support for American rights came in August 1774, when he accepted the Virginia Convention's appointment as delegate to the first Continental Congress, where his participation was not remarkable. He urged that military preparations get under way, personally drilled volunteers, and sat on the Virginia Convention's committee "to prepare a plan for embodying, arming and disciplining" men who would be able "immediately" to put the colony "into a posture of defence" (ibid., p. 309). On 25 March, the Convention elected him as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, where he was conspicuous as the only member habitually to attend sessions dressed in a military uniform. With no recorded dissent, the delegates decided to adopt a European-style military organization, one that derived from the colonies' own military experience, as the principal vehicle for the armed defense of their rights. On 15 June 1775, on the motion of John Adams of Massachusetts, Washington was unanimously selected by Congress as commander in chief of this force, newly styled the Continental Army, which, at that point, comprised only the recently raised regiments of the four New England colonies.

The choice of Washington for this unprecedented position was both shrewd and nearly inevitable. A prominent member of the ruling class in the most powerful and important colony, Washington was clearly an ardent defender of colonial rights and possessed more military experience than anyone else in Congress. Washington brought many skills, some not yet evident, to his new responsibility. Perhaps the most important of these was his thoroughgoing belief in the subordination of the military to civilian control. The irony in Washington's position was that he was being called upon to establish and command an Americanized version of the standing army that was regarded as the principal threat to American liberty.


Commissioned on 19 June 1775, Washington departed for Cambridge four days later. He reached New York City on 25 June, and there began two streams of communication that he would faithfully continue, and that would consume an enormous amount of his time and energy, for the rest of the war. He wrote the first in a long series of letters to Congress to explain the situations he encountered, the steps he had taken, and the actions he thought Congress should take. Congress and its principal military officer were breaking new ground with every decision they made, and they had to communicate, and negotiate, about nearly everything. Washington believed that he owed his colleagues in Congress, and the political leaders at state and local levels with whom he also regularly corresponded, his best advice about how to manage the armed resistance to Britain, its policies, and supporters. So far as operational necessity allowed, he left the final decision up to civilian policy makers.

The second line of correspondence was equally important. He began to correspond with the commander of the New York Department, Major General Philip Schuyler, who led the only American forces then in the field, apart from the main army around Boston. Washington did this, in part, to exercise the oversight he believed was required of a commander in chief. However, he also sought to keep himself apprised of developments in other theaters that could affect the overall war effort and his own direction of the main American army. His instructions to Schuyler to obey the orders of Congress "with as much precision and exactness as possible" (ibid., p. 37) reflected the fact that time and distance would not allow him to exercise close control over forces elsewhere.

Washington arrived at Cambridge on 2 July 1775, and took formal command the next day of the New England troops besieging Boston. He faced two immediate and ongoing problems, one administrative and organizational, the other operational. His principal challenge was to prepare American recruits to face in battle, and to defeat, the soldiers of an army that was better trained, better equipped, and more responsive to its officers than was his own force. By temperament and experience a believer in social hierarchy, Washington also knew that military success would hinge on how well he and his officers could command soldiers who were unused to military discipline. To set a good example of the care and attention he expected from his officers, Washington immediately began the practice of riding around the army each morning. He was thereby able to observe and be observed by his troops. Since he was an excellent horseman, the display presented by the tall, powerfully built, and well-accoutered general riding by in firm control of a strong horse must have had a positive effect on the army.

Administrative minutiae consumed much of Washington's time. He put in place the new people and procedures established by Congress to feed, pay, and supply the soldiers. He paid particular attention to imposing order, discipline, and central control on an army created just eleven weeks earlier. He had to know the state of the army—especially how many men were fit for duty—and to ensure that the soldiers had enough food, shelter, and equipment (clothing, arms, and gunpowder) so that they were a viable force. Tasks that were routine in the British army had to be explained to American soldiers, none perhaps more essential than the proper management of latrines. In his first set of general orders (4 July), he included an exhortation to unity: "it is hoped that all distinctions of colonies will be laid aside, so that one and the same spirit may animate the whole, and the only contest be, who shall render … the most essential service to the great and common cause in which we are all engaged" (ibid., p. 54).

As the military leader of a coalition, Washington had to exercise tact in dealing with governments, officers, and soldiers alike. In public and to Congress he told the truth, but remained upbeat. On 10 July, he told John Hancock that he took "a sincere pleasure in observing that there are materials for a good army, a great number of able-bodied men [who are] active [and] zealous in the cause and of unquestionable courage" (ibid., p. 91). In private, to his cousin and business manager Lund Washington, he was less sanguine. On 20 August he observed of the Massachusetts troops: "their officers generally speaking are the most indifferent kind of people I ever saw…. I daresay the men would fight very well (if properly officered), although they are an exceeding dirty and nasty people" (ibid., pp. 335-336). When the Connecticut regiments, whose enlistments expired on 1 December, chose to leave camp and march home, an enraged Washington could do nothing to stop them.

Washington's second major problem was deciding what to do with the army, which reached a peak strength of nearly 19,000 officers and men fit for duty in August 1775, once he was satisfied it was ready to fight. He had to find the best use of the military means at hand to reverse British oppression before the cost of the army—the strain it placed on the lines of authority in society as much as the expense of raising, paying, feeding, and equipping it—proved more than the colonies could bear.

Washington, who was deliberative and cautious most of the time, also possessed a streak of aggressiveness that was fueled by an ever-growing anxiety about the expense of, and social dangers posed by, keeping soldiers idle under arms for long periods. These considerations found expression in his continuing desire to use the army for offensive action that was sometimes fantastically over-ambitious. On 8 September, with winter on the horizon and, more importantly, the enlistments of the bulk of his army set to expire by 1 January, Washington asked his generals—all New Englanders—if an assault on the British in Boston by boat was advisable. Unsurprisingly, they decided the project was "not expedient." Then, after going through the trauma and anxiety of seeing the 1775 army dissolve away and being forced to raise the 1776 army in the face of the enemy, he proposed on 16 February 1776 to attack Boston across the ice of Back Bay. Again, his generals vetoed the idea, and Washington admitted that "perhaps the irksomeness of my situation led me to undertake more than could be warranted by prudence" (ibid., 3, p. 370). The arrival of Colonel Henry Knox with heavy artillery from Fort Ticonderoga allowed Washington to speed the British evacuation from Boston without having to risk his authority by ordering an assault his men might have refused to undertake.

In his first campaign as commander in chief, Washington faced nearly all the issues that would plague him for the next eight years. He had to keep Congress informed about the military situation and seek its sanction for measures he knew were important but about which his former colleagues often held different views. He also had to maintain good relations with local leaders while keeping his eye on the central issue—building and maintaining an army that could defeat the British. This often meant denying requests to disperse soldiers from his army for local defense. If he wanted to undertake a particular course of action, he knew he had to seek the advice of his subordinates, the men who would know best whether or not the soldiers might obey his orders. To his credit, Washington listened carefully to his generals and often deferred to their arguments. Because the army had not been enlisted for the duration of the war—Americans could not have been persuaded in 1775 to enlist in what was in effect a standing army—he had to manage the dissolution of one army and the raising of its successor, knowing that the British might at any moment take advantage of the opportunity to cripple his force. Nearly every decision he made established new traditions, sometimes on the remnants of prior colonial experience, but in circumstances made new and more dangerous by the need for larger numbers of troops. He gained vivid experience in the reality of something he already well understood: commanding an army in America was as much a political process as a military one. His actions cannot therefore be evaluated exclusively, or even primarily, from a military point of view.


After the British evacuated Boston in March 1776, Washington moved his army toward New York City, the most obvious place where the enemy would strike next. The decision to defend New York City was made for political reasons because, militarily, the area was so laced by rivers and estuaries that it was nearly indefensible with land forces. Without naval forces capable of contesting control of the water with the Royal navy, Washington convinced himself that shore batteries could so command the water passages around Manhattan Island and the western quarter of Long Island that fending off the British forces might be possible. With an army composed of half-trained Continentals and untrained militia, and, most importantly, an officer corps—up to and including Washington—that was utterly inexperienced in maneuver warfare, the Americans stood on the defensive.

By early July 1776, Washington had over 12,000 men in the area. Continentals from New England, New York, Maryland, and Delaware formed the core of the army, their numbers augmented by militia and flying camp units that continued to come in even as the Howe brothers (William and Richard) massed the largest expeditionary force Britain had ever sent overseas to take back the city and begin the reconquest of America. Washington made a mistake by dividing his forces, sending part of his army to oppose William Howe on Long Island in August. An unsettled command structure, faulty reconnaissance, and widespread inexperience in making and interpreting decisions amid the chaos of battle deprived the American army of any chance of success. With the concurrence of a council of war composed of his surviving generals, Washington decided on 29 August to evacuate Long Island. He was very lucky to get his army back to Manhattan, an accomplishment made possible only by an extraordinary effort by men determined to escape the trap and General William Howe's failure to pursue the Americans vigorously. Howe hesitated, offering the carrot of a political solution in tandem with the stick of a military beating. Washington always deferred Howe's overtures to Congress.

Washington then prepared to defend Manhattan Island, a decision again based on political rather than military logic. When the British landed at Kips Bay on 15 September, all of Washington's personal efforts to stem the flight of several Connecticut state regiments defending the landing beach were for naught. The American army was saved once more by Howe's deliberate pace. Although American rangers bloodied the nose of the British pursuit at Harlem Heights the next day, by the end of the month Washington's army was being consistently pushed around and beaten by a British army far superior at maneuver warfare.

On 25 September, while staying at Colonel Roger Morris's house on Harlem Heights, Washington made his case to John Hancock, then president of Congress, for the kind of army he needed to defeat the British. Written under the pressure of impending defeat, the arguments are among his most candid remarks about the character of his officers and soldiers, and the paramount importance of proper leadership. With the enlistment of his troops set to expire at year's end, Washington wrote:

We are now as it were, upon the eve of another dissolution of our army. The remembrance of the difficulties which happened upon that occasion last year,… satisfy me, beyond the possibility of a doubt, that unless some speedy and effectual measures are adopted by Congress, our cause will be lost.

The bounties and pay offered by Congress convinced him that only a "triffling" number would reenlist. The core issue before Congress, Washington argued, was retaining experienced soldiers and officers. Doing so required that Congress recognize that the members of the army are motivated, like most others, by self-interest.

The few, therefore, who act upon principles of disinterestedness, are, comparatively speaking, no more than a drop in the ocean. It becomes evidently clear then, that as this contest is not likely to be the work of a day, as the war must be carried on systematically, and to do it, you must have good officers, there are, in my judgment, no other possible means to obtain them but by establishing your army upon a permanent footing, and giving your officers good pay … nothing but a good bounty can obtain them [the soldiers] upon a permanent establishment, and for no shorter period than the continuance of the war ought they to be engaged, as facts incontestably prove, that the difficulty and the cost of enlistment, increase with time.

He went on to argue that Congress must act on these recommendations despite the cost. "[H]owever high the mens' pay may appear, it is barely sufficient in the present scarcity and dearness of all kinds of goods, to keep them in cloths, much less afford support to their families" (Twohig, Washington Papers, 6, pp. 394-396).

Washington asserted that, if pay and bounties were raised to attract the right sort of officers and men, he would soon have an army capable of beating British regulars. Because he believed a long-service, and therefore well-trained, standing army was absolutely necessary, he downplayed the fear that such a force might destroy civil liberties, which was the great bugbear of Whig political philosophy: "The jealousies of a standing army, and the evils to be apprehended from one, are remote, and in my judgment, situated and circumstanced as we are, not at all to be dreaded; but the consequence of wanting one … is certain, and inevitable ruin" (ibid., p. 397). Washington accepted responsibility for his inability to defeat the British, but felt success was impossible "unless there is a thorough change in our military system" (ibid., p. 400).

Washington's analysis was accurate on nearly every point, but Congress never followed his advice so completely that he could build the army he wanted. One of his greatest military attributes was a willingness and ability to create a viable military force from the materials his civilian superiors and American society gave him. His other great military attribute was an indomitable spirit. On one key point, however Washington was wrong. Although prospects looked dim, and got worse, the cause was not lost, in large part because Washington himself refused to give up.

As Howe continued to outflank the Americans and force their retreat, Washington concluded by mid-October that his position on the north end of Manhattan Island was untenable. He withdrew north to Westchester County, but decided, on Nathanael Greene's advice, to leave a strong garrison behind at Fort Washington. It was a decision based more on pride than military reality, and it cost the Americans dearly. Howe decided after the battle at White Plains (28 October) not to chase the Americans further north. Instead, he turned back south and, on 16 November, took the fort, along with its stockpile of weapons and ammunition. Washington's reputation sank to a new low as he led his army west over the Hudson and across northern New Jersey.

The flight of the American army was precipitous and, as militia went home and detachments left to cover other possible British targets, the main army was reduced on 22 December to less than 6,100 effective men. Washington did not panic. He sent parties ahead to gather up all the boats on the Delaware River. He thought that "the design of General Howe is to possess himself of Philadelphia this winter, if possible" (ibid., p. 381). As he told Hancock on 20 December, "in truth, I do not see what is to prevent him, as ten days more will put an end to the existence of our army" (ibid., p. 382). He understood that Howe's larger objective was to keep pressure on the Continentals in order to prevent recruitment for the following year. "If every nerve is not strained to recruit the new army with all possible expedition, I think the game is pretty near up" (ibid., p. 370).

Because of the gravity of the military situation, Washington asked Congress for an extraordinary grant of power. Speed in decision-making was essential: if "every matter that in its nature is self evident, is to be referred to Congress, … so much time must necessarily elapse as to defeat the end in view." He understood that "It may be said that this is an application for powers, that are too dangerous to be entrusted. I can only add, that desperate diseases require desperate remedies" (ibid., p. 382). On 27 December, Congress granted, for a term of six months, Washington's request for extraordinary powers to sustain the army under his command. By that time, Washington had already acted with the remnant of the 1776 army to rescue the American cause from the brink of extinction. It must have given him enormous satisfaction to know that, on the same day that Congress acted, he had dispatched to Hancock his account of the success at Trenton on Christmas Day.

Washington's decisions to attack the British outpost at Trenton on 25-26 December 1776, and to follow up that success with a spoiling attack on the British pursuit at Princeton on 3 January 1777, were his most important of the war. Few commanders could have achieved offensive maneuvers of this type in the dead of winter, with demoralized, starved, and ill supplied troops. The riposte had military value—it pushed in the British outpost line and saved Philadelphia—but its transcendent impact was on the psychology of the war. The British army under Howe pushed aside the American forces defending New York City, reestablished British control over important areas, and began a cascade of defections from the rebel cause. But Howe was too enamored of positional warfare, so he failed to realize that his true target ought to have been the destruction of Washington's army. When Washington demonstrated in convincing fashion at Trenton and Princeton that the American army was still alive and dangerous, he won for the American cause the opportunity to continue the fight into 1777.


The 1776 campaign had been so disruptive that it took Washington and his officers well into the new year to organize a new army. The disasters of 1776 persuaded Congress that Washington was right to advocate longer enlistments. It therefore authorized recruiting soldiers for three years of service, or for the duration of the war. Many veterans re-enlisted, but it took until mid-year for them to recuperate physically and be joined by sufficient new recruits to make a respectable army. Fortunately for Washington, the British also needed several months to ready their forces.

Skirmishing in northern New Jersey had convinced Howe that an overland campaign against Philadelphia would be too costly, so he decided to transport his army by sea to attack the American capital. Recognizing that Howe was his most dangerous opponent, but not knowing exactly where or when he would strike, Washington gambled by sending some of his best troops to reinforce the northern army, which faced John Burgoyne's troops who were advancing south from Montreal. With that help, and an abundance of militia flowing in from New England and New York, the northern army stopped Burgoyne's advance and forced him to surrender at Saratoga on 17 October 1777. Meanwhile, in early August, the British fleet carrying Howe's army had already been spotted at the mouth of the Delaware River. Although it put out to sea and disappeared, by the time it reappeared in the Chesapeake and began disembarking the invasion force on 22 August, Washington had his hands full directing the defense of Philadelphia.

As had been the case with New York City in 1776, Washington had to defend Philadelphia for political reasons, although the city's setting afforded the Americans a greater chance for success in 1777. By threatening the American capital, Howe sought both to discredit the rebel government and to pin Washington's army to its defense, thus affording the British forces an opportunity to destroy it. When Washington took up a position behind Brandywine Creek, thirty miles west of the city, he was fully aware that Howe might seek to outflank him, as he had done so often in 1776. The fog of war made British movements difficult to confirm, and, despite hard fighting and improved tactical control, the ensuing battle (11 September) once again showed the immaturity of the Continental Army's command structure and its lack of battle management skills. The army escaped the British pincers, but could not prevent the enemy from occupying Philadelphia on 23 September.

Washington still thought he might be able to force Howe out by holding several forts on the Delaware below the city, thus preventing the British from readily supplying the city by water. To help distract the British from concentrating on reducing the forts, Washington launched on 4 October an overly complicated, four-pronged attack on British defenses five miles north of the city, at Germantown. Chronic difficulties in command were exacerbated by a literal fog that covered the battlefield. Washington accepted Henry Knox's advice that the Americans reduce a British fortified post at the Chew House (in Germantown) before advancing further, a decision which slowed the momentum of the American advance and contributed significantly to the failure of the attack. The American forts on the Delaware held out until the third week of November, but could not prevail against the full weight of British land and sea power.


Having failed to hold the capital, Washington set about containing the military damage to the cause. After considering several potential encampments at a greater distance from Philadelphia, he chose a position at Valley Forge, twenty-five miles west of the city. From here he could closely observe the British and respond quickly to any foray into the countryside. The army went into winter quarters on 11 December 1777, very late in the season, and suffered enormously from a logistics crisis that had been building for several months. Valley Forge became the archetype of Revolutionary War winter encampments, although the suffering endured in 1776–1777 and 1780–1781 was probably more intense and widespread.

Washington's unceasing efforts to remedy the supply problems did much to cement his reputation with the army. Concentrating the troops further dislocated the logistics system, but gave Washington an opportunity for training that he and the army had not had in 1775–1776 or 1776–1777. Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben arrived in camp on 24 February 1778, and began the process of standardizing the training and regularizing the drill of the army. His efforts helped veteran officers and men better understand what was expected of them on the battlefield, and gave Washington for the first time a reason to expect that his orders might be carried out in a similar way across the army. Steuben's efforts as inspector general also helped to give the commander in chief more uniform tactical combat units, thus potentially increasing the flexibility of the army on the battlefield.

At the same time that the army was maturing, Washington faced the most notorious, if perhaps not the most serious, attempt to unseat him. In the autumn of 1777, Brigadier General Thomas Conway, a French volunteer of Irish descent and no discernable ability, became the vehicle for discontent with the state of the war. Conway was a public critic of Washington's leadership, and the efforts of some Congressional delegates to promote him to major general over the heads of the other brigadiers sparked in Washington the suspicion of a conspiracy directed against him. Washington was insistent as any of his subordinates that proper respect be paid to seniority, and more sensitive, in private, about his reputation than most of them. Therefore, the news of Conway's ascendancy provoked Washington to write a sharp letter to Richard Henry Lee on 16 October. Calling Conway an officer whose merit "exists more in his own imagination than in reality," he told Lee that "I have been a slave to the service. I have undergone more than most men are aware of, to harmonize so many discordant parts, but it will be impossible for me to be of any further service if such insuperable difficulties [as Conway's promotion] are thrown in my way" (ibid., 11, pp. 529-530). Conway was not the only man proposed to replace Washington at the head of the army. Some delegates to Congress supported Horatio Gates, the victor over Burgoyne. In effect, he forced Congress to choose between him and someone else (Gates may have been the candidate of some delegates), a response that, coming in the wake of the defeat at Germantown, reflected his own uncertainty and frustration about the loss of Philadelphia. The fact that he continued to try to root out conspirators into February 1778 (long after Conway's resignation showed the depth of his anger at being under-appreciated).


The newly refurbished Continental Army, 12,000 men now healthy and well-supplied, left Valley Forge on 18 June 1778, in pursuit of the British army retreating overland from Philadelphia to New York City. Washington saw an opportunity to land a hard blow on his nemesis, the British army, and he dispatched a strong advance guard, five thousand men under Charles Lee, to harass the British and bring them to bay before they reached the safety of their fleet at Sandy Hook.

Lee, to whom Washington had not given more than general instructions, found his force overextended when the British rear guard turned to fight at Monmouth Court House on 27 June. As the American advance guard retreated, under pressure but in good order on a day when the temperature soared to 110 degrees, Washington came up with the main army and encountered Lee, who could not give a coherent account of the whereabouts of his troops. Some observers remembered that Washington, who was extremely anxious about losing an unprecedented opportunity to hurt the British army, lost his temper and berated Lee. If so, he quickly recovered his self-control and spent the rest of the day stemming the retreat and establishing a defensive position. He was unceasingly active and repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire, reaching a pinnacle of effective battle management of the best army America had yet fielded. When the British rear guard broke off the encounter, having successfully covered the retreat of the army, Washington's men were so spent that they could not offer pursuit.

Monmouth Court House was the last battlefield on which Washington would exercise overall field command. The character of the war was changing—news of the French alliance had been received and celebrated on 6 May, before the army left Valley Forge—and Washington's role would also change. His contributions to this point had been crucial. More than any other individual, he had turned the army kicked out of New York City in 1776 into a competent fighting force, achieving his goal of creating a force able to match the British army. By building and preserving the army, he had, in effect, kept the Americans from losing the war. But Britain was not yet ready to concede the political independence of its colonies, even though its failure to suppress the rebellion had blossomed into another world war against its ancient enemy, France.

Having managed not to lose the war militarily, Washington now faced the equally formidable task of applying military power to induce Britain to recognize American independence. Washington's new task was two-fold: keeping the Continental army in a state of readiness, while learning to cooperate with new allies—Spain and, most particularly, France—to achieve victory. French land forces were only potentially significant, but Washington understood that French naval power was crucial to transforming the outcome of the conflict from 'not losing' to 'winning.'


Washington's immediate challenge after 1778 was to hold the army together. As the British shifted the main theater of operations to the south, Washington's army continued to hold a wide perimeter around British-occupied New York City. Lacking the means to assault the British defenses, Washington was reduced to fighting what he called a "war of posts," a term that described on-going, small-scale fighting between detachments of the main armies. The Americans had, of course, engaged in this sort of partisan war since 1775, but now supporting it became the principal activity of the main army.

Historians have applied the adjective "Fabian" to much of Washington's strategy, because his efforts to avoid allowing the British to trap his army into fighting at a disadvantage echoed what Quintus Fabius Maximus had done to preserve Rome against the Carthaginian army under Hannibal Barca during the second Punic war (218-202 b.c.). In doing so, they have underestimated the extent to which Washington wanted to act aggressively to end a financially ruinous and socially disruptive war as quickly as possible. They overlook the fact that this "Fabian" style was imposed upon him by Britain's efforts to end the war quickly and by the manifest deficiencies of his army to meet and defeat that challenge. When, after Valley Forge, Washington at last had an army capable of beating the British in battle, he found that the enemy had shifted the battleground and refused to fight the war for which he was now better prepared.

Holding an army together required more than the endless paperwork that consumed much of Washington's time and energy. Washington knew that the fighting skills of an idle army would erode almost as fast as its discontent would grow. He kept his troops busy drilling, skirmishing, and building encampments. He drew together in the summer of 1779 an elite force of light infantry that stormed the British outpost of Stony Point on 16 July, and sent another force to raid Paulus Hook on 19 August. The bulk of the campaigning that summer was done away from the main army by Continental troops that Washington sent in May under John Sullivan to ravage the British-allied Iroquois Confederacy. The expedition reduced the danger to American settlers along the frontier in New York and Pennsylvania, but it held no prospect of ending the stalemate with Britain.

With the enlistments of many of his soldiers set to expire starting on 1 January 1780, Washington faced yet again the prospect of re-creating the Continental Army, the third time he had to undertake that unsettling job since 1775. By the early fall of 1780, more than 12,000 men who had enlisted for three years of service would complete their obligation, leaving Washington with a nominal strength of only the 15,000 men who had enlisted for the duration of the war. Although he had been a consistent and persistent advocate of longer enlistments, he now saw that annual enlistments, with the states' drafting their quota of soldiers if necessary, was "the surest and most certain if not the only means left us, of maintaining the army on a proper and respectable ground" (Fitzpatrick, Washington Writings, 17, p. 127). It was a policy he had first advocated as a stop-gap in February 1778, but now it became the centerpiece of his efforts to keep an army in the field during the war's fifth year. Despite considerable grumbling among New England troops about when, exactly, their enlistments expired—the discontent reached mutiny among some Massachusetts troops on 1 January 1780 and affected Connecticut troops on 25 May—he managed to re-create a smaller army around a core of veterans.

As Washington watched events in the south unfold disastrously during the summer of 1780, he could take comfort in the fact that a French expeditionary force was making its way to America. Its commander, the comte de Rochambeau, arrived at Newport, Rhode Island, on 10 July, and Washington went to Hartford to meet with him on 22 September to press his plan to attack New York City. For this plan, the support of French naval power was crucial. He candidly told Rochambeau that his army was on the eve of another reorganization, and that without a decision from a dithering Congress on how to augment the army, he would have only six thousand men available after 1 January 1781, too few for the contemplated attack. He asked if the French could augment their land forces to fifteen thousand men, and thus bear the brunt of the fighting. His plans remained in abeyance when he left Hartford to return to the Hudson Highlands and rode into the worst nightmare of the war.

No event shocked Washington and the rebel cause more than the treason of Benedict Arnold and his attempt to turn over the key post of West Point to the British. The loss of West Point would have forced Washington to retreat north from the Highlands and impeded east-west communication and transportation across the Hudson River. But without a strong follow-up by the British—an impossibility given their commitments further south—these military consequences could have been mitigated and endured. Washington called Arnold's conduct "so villainously perfidious, that there are no terms that can describe the baseness of his heart" (ibid., 20, p. 213). Arnold's treason was so serious because it highlighted how fragile the Patriot cause might be, raising the specter that it might collapse from within. Washington, as usual, put the best public face that he could on the events. He congratulated the army, saying that its ability had caused the British to despair "of carrying their point by force" and forced them into "practicing every base art to effect by bribery and corruption what they cannot accomplish in a manly way" (ibid., p. 95). To Rochambeau, he struck a more worldly pose: "traitors are the growth of every country and in a revolution of the present nature, it is more to be wondered at, that the catalogue is so small than that there have been found a few" (ibid., p. 97).

The fall and winter of 1780–1781 was the nadir of the American military effort. There was no settled plan on how to use French help, treason had been detected but was still hanging in the air, and, early in January, the largest mutinies ever to erupt in the Continental Army, broke out among Pennsylvania troops at Morristown, New Jersey, spreading to New Jersey soldiers stationed at Pompton three weeks later. The same point Washington made about Arnold's treason could be applied to the army. Given the string of continuing deprivation, recent idleness, doubts about the terms of their enlistment, and endless unfulfilled promises of support from Congress and the states, it is a wonder that the soldiers did not mutiny more often than they did. Washington, who was fully aware of the state of the army, knew he had to move carefully to restore discipline without spreading the discontent and turning the army into a dangerous mob of armed men. He could not leave his headquarters at New Windsor, New York, until he was assured that the West Point garrison, which had shown "some symptoms of a similar intention," would not also mutiny (ibid., 21, p. 65). Washington left it to Anthony Wayne, the commander of the Pennsylvania Division, and other influential officers to quell the mutiny. To Wayne, he observed (8 January) that "such measures founded in justice, and a proper degree of generosity, as will have a tendency to conciliate" the men would be most appropriate, a concise statement of what it took to be a leader of American soldiers, then and now (ibid., p. 71).

In his general orders of January 1781, Washington exhorted the army to endure in the face of adversity. His words summarize his views about the course of the war to that point:

We began the contest for liberty and independence ill provided with the means of war, relying on our own patriotism to supply the deficiency. We expected to encounter many wants and distresses, and we should neither shrink from them when they happen nor fly in the face of law and government to procure redress…. [I]t is our duty to bear present evils with fortitude, looking forward to the period when our country will have it more in its power to reward our services (Fitzpatrick, Washington Writings, 21, p. 159).

Americans' self-image of the virtue of their actions was at stake. In public, Washington blamed the British for appealing to the weaknesses of the average American soldier, blaming them for the recent mutinies. In private, however, he admitted that the men had been driven to extremes by the neglect of the civilian authorities. They were not traitors—he early laid to rest the suspicion that they might join the enemy—but men with legitimate grievances. Far more than his pious words, it was the reputation that Washington, and many of his officers, had earned as paternal advocates of their men that prevented the mutinies from so crippling the army that the British might have had an opportunity at the eleventh hour to crush the rebellion.

Instead, it was Washington who, as the war entered its sixth year, had the chance to win the victory. On 22 May 1781, he met with Rochambeau at Wethersfield, Connecticut, to push his plan to attack the British garrison at New York City, which had been weakened when it sent detachments to the southern theater. To Washington, New York City was the best target for a joint Franco-American operation. By early August, however, and after having probed its outer defenses, he reluctantly acknowledged that it was still too strongly held. At a conference with Rochambeau at Dobb's Ferry on 19 July, he proposed sending a joint force to oppose British operations in Virginia, thus putting aside his earlier objections to campaigning so far from New York City and in a climate less healthy for his troops.

On 14 August, Washington learned that the French West Indies fleet, sailing under the comte de Grasse, was headed to the Chesapeake. Then, in a decision that ranks second in importance and audacity only to the attack on Trenton in 1776, and which together marks him as the most audacious gambler in the history of American arms, Washington decided to shift the theater of war from the Hudson to the Chesapeake. Although previous joint ventures with the French—at Newport and Savannah—had failed, he realized that he had to take advantage of when and where the French chose to employ their naval power if he were to have any chance of breaking the military stalemate. With great secrecy about its final destination, the allied army—the French expeditionary corps and the best of the reorganized American army—began moving west across the Hudson and then southward on 18 August. Organizing that transit was a masterstroke of military logistics, the most impressive achievement of its kind to that date. The arriving troops tipped the balance against the British field army under Earl Cornwallis, but it was the draw earned by the French fleet at the Battle of the Chesapeake Capes on 5 September that ensured the success of Washington's gamble.


The surrender of Cornwallis's army at Yorktown on 19 October 1781 ultimately made Britain's political leaders realize they did not have the resources to re-conquer their North American colonies by force of arms. It was not, however, the end of war. Washington wanted to continue the successful Franco-American partnership into the following year. To this end, he wrote to de Grasse on 28 October proposing a rendezvous with the fleet in the Chesapeake in 1782, when a decision would be made to move against either New York City or Charleston, South Carolina. De Grasse was understandably non-committal. Nevertheless, as the Continental troops made their way north to the Hudson for the winter, Washington's hopes for such an alliance were high, raised no doubt by his first visits to Mount Vernon since the war began (9-12 September on the march south, 13-20 November on the way north). He wintered at Philadelphia, but had returned to the Highlands by the time he received news that George Rodney's destruction of the French fleet at the Saintes (near Martinique) in early April had scuttled his plans for 1782.

Holding the army together while the political and diplomatic process wound its way to a final peace treaty was Washington's main preoccupation after Yorktown. The army's continued existence signified American willingness to continue military operations if necessary. Instead of a year of victory, however, 1782 turned into a year of frustration, with no significant military activity to relieve the main army's idleness.

The men endured, but by early 1783, some officers had had enough of Congress's failure to carry through on its promise of pay and rewards. A dissident group circulated two petitions, the gist of which was a threat to use force to make Congress comply. The Newburgh Addresses, named for the location of the headquarters of the army, constituted the most serious challenge to Washington's leadership since the "Conway Cabal" in 1777. They also represented the most dangerous attempt during the Revolution by military officers to dominate the civilian leadership, a circumstance that gave credence to those who thought the Continental Army a dangerous standing army. Washington put a quick and effective end to these efforts at a meeting of his officers on 15 March.

Four days later, on 19 March 1783, Washington received news that the preliminary articles of peace had been signed in Paris on 20 January. Ever cautious, he kept a much reduced Continental Army together over the summer, its strength eroded by his liberal use of furloughs to send men home and reduce the expense to the public of maintaining them. On 8 June he sent to the states a circular letter that distilled the lessons he had learned during his command of the Continental Army, an intrusion into the nexus between civilian and military that all his recipients did not appreciate. The most important point, "essential to the well being, I may even venture to say, to the existence of the United States as an independent power" was "an indissoluable union of the states under one federal head" (ibid., 26, p. 487). Washington thus staked out a position as a strong nationalist, an unsurprising position considering his experience in command of the army.

Washington disbanded the last major units of the Continental Army on 3 November, keeping under arms less than a thousand men, whose principal service was to reclaim and occupy New York City on 25 November. It was an emotional month for Washington, returning in triumph to the scene of his earlier defeat. On 4 December, the day the last British ship sailed from the harbor, he bid farewell to his officers at Fraunces Tavern. On this occasion he was, for once, rendered speechless by the depth of his feelings for the men he had led since July 1775. On 23 December he returned his commission as commander in chief to Congress, then meeting in the Maryland State House in Annapolis, and returned to Mount Vernon.


Washington's stature and reputation meant that he continued to be involved in public affairs, even as he set about restoring his plantations after an absence of more than eight years. Always interested in western lands, he was involved in shaping the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. More aware than anyone else of the perils of a weak central government, he supported efforts to strengthen the federal union that culminated in the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention of 1787, over which he presided.

After the Constitution was ratified, Washington was the unanimous choice for president, taking office on 30 April 1789 in New York City. He was re-elected in 1792, and in 1796 he refused to stand for a third term. During his presidency, he supported the financial plans of Alexander Hamilton to stabilize the new nation's currency and credit, maintained United States' neutrality during the European war that broke out in 1793, upheld federal authority to impose an excise tax during the Whiskey Insurrection in 1794, and endorsed Jay's Treaty by which the British finally evacuated posts in the Northwest Territory in 1795. In addition, he appointed Anthony Wayne to command the Legion of the United States, which defeated the Indians at the battle of Fallen Timbers on 20 August 1794, thus opening the Northwest Territory to unrestricted white settlement.

Washington's two terms as president were not without controversy, nor did his great reputation protect him from personal criticism. Rejecting the need for party politics in a republic, he attempted to balance one faction against the other in his cabinet, and concluded his presidency with his "Farewell Address" warning against foreign entanglements. In 1798, President John Adams named Washington as commander in chief of the provisional army that was raised for the expected war with France. Washington's will, dated 9 July 1799, provided, after the death of his wife, for the manumission and financial support of his slaves. He died on 14 December 1799 at Mount Vernon, where he was buried.

Standing well over six feet tall, strongly built, and weighing about 210 pounds, Washington was an imposing physical presence. Except for bad teeth and bouts of debilitating gastrointestinal tuberculosis during the Seven Years' War, he enjoyed remarkably vigorous health until his final illness (a throat infection of some sort). He and Martha, who had spent every possible moment of the war with her husband, had no children, probably because tuberculosis had made Washington infertile. He regarded her two surviving children with her first husband as his own. Prior to her own death, on 22 May 1802, Martha destroyed all but three of the letters George had sent to her.


Washington's military abilities have earned few accolades from historians. Mark Boatner, for example, in the first edition of this encyclopedia, said he had "character and fortitude but a lack of real genius," and regarded Washington's performance at Trenton and Princeton as "his only flash of strategic genius." In terms of battles won, number of troops under his personal direction, or depth of military thinking, Washington does not rank among history's great military leaders. But, although he served under arms longer than anyone else in his generation, he did not consider himself to be a professional soldier, and he cannot be judged by the standards that subsequent generations developed to evaluate success in that field. Rather, he was the quintessential American soldier, a person for whom military service was a central part of his definition of what it meant to be a citizen in his society. In terms of what he accomplished in using force of arms to protect and defend that society, he ranks as the most adroit manipulator of armed force in American history.

Interested in military glory from an early age, Washington managed to survive and—more importantly—to learn from his experiences in the Seven Years' War. In the fifteen years thereafter, he matured and crafted the public face by which we know him best. He channeled his ambitions into paths that were socially acceptable in Virginia society, and won what he always craved—the admiration of his peers. He remained vain and sensitive to criticism of his character and motives, and seems to have adopted a reserved manner to shield himself from insult. With the characteristics of his personality fully in place, Washington in 1775 was a middle-aged man of wealth and stature who believed the society he knew and loved was under attack, and who also believed that it was his obligation as a member of that society to devote his skills and energy to its preservation.

The value of Washington's contribution to winning the war for American Independence and establishing the new nation cannot be overstated. Nearly everything he did as commander in chief of the Continental Army established precedents for the principal American military force fighting the British. His extraordinary talents as a military administrator helped to sustain the army physically, and his abilities as spokesman for its interests helped to sustain its morale. Two dimensions of his character were especially vital to his success. First, he refused to give up the struggle, even in the darkest days of the war. Second, he never wavered from the principle of civilian control of the military, even to the point of straining the war effort almost to the breaking point. In the end, he accomplished what he had set out to do. He compelled Britain by force of arms to acknowledge the political independence of its former colonies, without sending those colonies into a spiral of political chaos and social disorder. Remarkably, circumstances gave Washington the opportunity to repeat this performance as president of the new United States. He well merited the oft-quoted words of Henry Lee in his funeral oration before members of Congress: "first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen."

SEE ALSO Braddock, Edward; Conway Cabal; Forbes's Expedition to Fort Duquesne; French Alliance; French and Indian War; Mason, George; Stamp Act; Townshend Acts; Valley Forge Winter Quarters, Pennsylvania.


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                                revised by Harold E. Selesky

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