The first president’s contribution to the struggle for American independence.

Combining a determination to destroy the status quo with exceptional tactical skill, General George Washington transformed an insurgency into the first triumph of a new country.

Washington’s Triumphal Entry into New York City on 25 November 1783. Detail from a lithograph by EP & L Restein. Credit: Library of Congress

General George Washington was one of a small number of dominant historical figures who combined military and political leadership in the context of revolution. Others include Julius Caesar, Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte, Leon Trotsky, and Fidel Castro.

What characterises this sub-class of military leaders? Washington’s career suggests some answers.

Whether drawn from the top rank of society (like Caesar and Washington) or from an intermediate rank (Cromwell, Bonaparte, Trotsky, Castro), they were destroyers of the status quo.

General George Washington at Trenton, 1777, detail from a painting by John Trumbull

Washington belonged to a rich, landed, slave owning family, and he was on the conservative wing of the American revolutionary movement. But unlike so many of his class – prevaricators if they were not actively pro-British – he was absolutely steadfast in his commitment to national independence and was willing to wage revolutionary war to the bitter end.

This unflinching resolve to overturn the ancien régime was combined with exceptional flair and flexibility in military matters. Though he had fought as a militia officer alongside the British, he was the embodiment of a distinctive 18th-century ‘American way of war’, based on personal freedom, individual initiative, adaptation to the landscape, maximum use of cover and harassing fire, and recourse to deception, surprise, and ambush.

This, though, was blended with drill and discipline, the combination of the two approaches evident in the complementary roles played by the regulars of the Continental Army alongside state militias and local guerrilla bands throughout the war.

A revolutionary people’s war meant creating a new army and devising new tactics, but at the same time drawing on the experience and tradition of established ‘horse and musket’ armies. Washington achieved this masterfully, turning an unprepared, poorly equipped collection of recruits into an effective fighting force. Against the odds, he held this army together long enough to secure independence for the American colonies.

Washington at Valley Forge, where he held his ragged, demoralised army together through the harshest of winters in 1777/1778. Merely to endure is always a victory for a people’s army.

Notable, too, is his sensitivity to the battlefield superiority of his opponents. The British were usually able to dominate the ground on which they fought. Their problem was an inability to translate momentary tactical supremacy into enduring strategic depth.

For the Americans, this meant avoidance of battle against the odds. So long as revolutionary forces were kept in being, the British could not win. To crush the insurgency, they had to destroy its armed detachments. Recruiting and supplying such detachments, even without committing them to battle, represented a strategic gain for the rebels.

But Washington also had the capacity to strike devastating blows – not by constructing elaborate plans, but by improvising when an opportunity arose. His two most brilliant campaigns – the winter campaign of 1776/1777 on the Delaware, and his autumn campaign of 1781 against Yorktown – are clear examples of this.

At the latter, he defeated the world’s most professional army, whose generals were far from the incompetent upper-class stereotypes of popular myth. In a conflict where supply by sea was a critical factor, he also faced a foe who possessed clear naval superiority for much of the time.

America’s victory in the War of Independence was a tribute to his strength of personality, adaptability, and unwavering commitment to the cause he served.

Perhaps the most famous painting of Washington: Washington Crossing the Delaware by German-American artist Emanuel Leutze in 1851. It was executed in the Romantic-heroic style typical of much 19th-century military art. Washington’s bold military strike – wholly unexpected in winter – did much to restore the morale of America’s revolutionary forces after their defeat at New York in the autumn of 1776.

Yet this was, it must be said, a cause with its share of contradictions. The leader who was passionately dedicated to American freedom was also a Virginia landowner whose economic fortunes rested on slave labour.

One wartime story neatly illustrates this irony. While away on campaign, Washington had left his Mount Vernon property in the care of his cousin, who was obliged at one point to negotiate with a British warship anchored close by on the Potomac River. To save the undefended plantation from destruction, he bought the marauders off with supplies from the estate.

Washington was furious, writing that he would rather have seen his possessions burnt than give aid to the enemy. He also resented the fact that a number of his slaves took advantage of the ship’s arrival to escape, instantly gaining their liberty when they arrived on board.

With this complex legacy in mind, how are we to judge Washington as a military commander? How deserving is he of his place alongside Caesar and Bonaparte?

This is an extract from a 14-page special feature on Washington and Yorktown, published in the January 2020 issue of Military History Matters

In our special this month, Graham Goodlad surveys Washington’s military career, while MHM Editor Neil Faulkner offers analysis of the Siege of Yorktown, the site of the final British defeat.

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