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George Washington As A Military Leader

George Washington As A Military Leader

George Washington was born on his father’s estate in Westmoreland County,

Virginia, on February 22, 1732. He was the eldest son of a well-to-do Virginia farmer,

Augustine Washington, by his second wife, Mary Ball. The Washington family was

descended from two brothers, John and Lawrence Washington, who emigrated from

England to Virginia in 1657. The family’s rise to modest wealth in three generations was

the result of steady application to farming, land buying, and development of local

Young George seems to have received most of his schooling from his father and,

after the father’s death in 1743, from his elder half-brother Lawrence. The boy had a liking

for mathematics, and he applied it to acquiring a knowledge of surveying, which was a

skill greatly in demand in a country where people were seeking new lands in the West. For

the Virginians of that time the West meant chiefly the upper Ohio River valley.

Throughout his life, George Washington maintained a keen interest in the development of

these western lands, and from time to time he acquired properties there.

George grew up to be a tall, strong young man, who excelled in outdoor pursuits,

liked music and theatrical performances, and was a trifle awkward with girls but fond of

dancing. His driving force was the ambition to gain wealth and eminence and to do well

George Washington was the first president of the United States and one of the

most important leaders in United States history. His role in gaining independence for the

American colonies and later in unifying them under the new U.S. federal government

cannot be overestimated. Laboring against great difficulties, he created the Continental

Army, which fought and won the American Revolution out of what was little more than an

armed mob. After an eight-year struggle, his design for victory brought final defeat to the

British at Yorktown, Virginia, and forced Great Britain to grant independence to its

With victory won, Washington was the most revered man in the United States. A

lesser person might have used this power to establish a military dictatorship or to become

king. Washington sternly suppressed all such attempts on his behalf by his officers and

continued to obey the weak and divided Continental Congress. However, he never ceased

to work for the union of the states under a strong central government. He was a leading

influence in persuading the states to participate in the Constitutional Convention, over

which he presided, and he used his immense prestige to help gain ratification of its

product, the Constitution of the United States.

During the summer of 1752, Virginia was alarmed by reports that a French

expedition from Canada was establishing posts on the headwaters of the Ohio River and

seeking to make treaties with the Native American peoples. Governor Dinwiddie received

orders from Britain to demand an immediate French withdrawal, and Major Washington

promptly volunteered to carry the governor’s message to the French commander. His

ambition at this time was to secure royal preference for a commission in the regular British

army, and this expedition promised to bring him to the king’s attention.

Washington took with him a skillful and experienced frontiersman, Christopher

Gist, together with an interpreter and four other men. Reaching the forks of the Ohio, he

found that the French had withdrawn northward for the winter. After inconclusive

negotiations with the Native Americans living there, who were members of the Iroquois

Confederacy, he pressed on and finally delivered Dinwiddie’s message to the French

commander at Fort Le Boeuf, not far from Lake Erie. The answer was polite but firm: The

French were there to stay. Returning, Washington reached Williamsburg, the capital of

Virginia, to deliver this word to the governor in mid-January 1754, having made a hard

wilderness journey of more than 1600 km. in less than three months. With his report he

submitted a map of his route and a strong recommendation that an English fort be erected

at the forks of the Ohio as quickly as possible, before the French returned to that strategic

This was Washington’s first experience with the difficulties of raising troops while

lacking equipment, clothing, and funds. Apparently he thought his efforts worthy of some

recognition and successfully applied for a lieutenant colonel’s commission. He left

Alexandria, Virginia, early in April with about 150 poorly equipped and half-trained

Before he had advanced very far, Washington received news that the French had

driven Trent’s men back from the Ohio forks. He did not turn back, but pushed on to

establish an advanced position from which, when reinforced, he hoped to turn the tables.

He set part of his men to work building a log stockade, which he named Fort Necessity.

On May 27, 1754, he surprised a French force in the woods and routed it after a short

battle. The French commander, Ensign Joseph Coulon, Sieur de Jumonville, was killed in

the clash, and Washington took prisoners back to Fort Necessity. He had won his first

The French, on hearing of Jumonville’s death, sent out a larger force. Unfortunately for

Washington, these troops reached Fort Necessity before he had received either the men or

the supplies he expected from Virginia. On July 3 the fort was attacked by the French and

some Iroquois who had allied with them, beginning what would be called the French and

Indian War (1754-1763). The fort did not have the soldiers or arms to hold out. However,

the French offered surrender terms that were not humiliating: The Virginians were to

abandon the fort and withdraw to their own settlements, leaving two hostages for good

faith. Washington’s papers and journal were taken, and he was to sign a surrender

document. Washington accepted the terms on July 4 after the surrender document was

translated for him and did not appear to contain any offensive statements.

The western frontier of Virginia was now dangerously exposed, and in August

1755, Governor Dinwiddie appointed Washington commander in chief of all the colony’s

troops, with the rank of colonel. For the next three years, Washington struggled with the

bitter and endless problems of frontier defense. He never had enough resources to

establish more than a patchwork of security, but he acquired valuable experience in the

conduct of war with the logistical and political problems peculiar to American conditions.

In the fall of 1758 he had the satisfaction of commanding a Virginia regiment under British

General John Forbes, who recovered Fort Duquesne from the French and renamed it Fort

With Virginia’s strategic objective attained, Colonel Washington resigned his

commission and turned his attention to the quieter life of a Virginia planter. In January

1759 he married Martha Dandridge Custis, a charming and wealthy young widow.

On June 15, 1775, the Continental Congress unanimously elected George

Washington as general and commander in chief of its army. He was chosen for two basic

reasons. First, he was respected for his military abilities, his selflessness, and his strong

commitment to colonial freedom. Secondly, Washington was a Virginian, and it was

hoped that his appointment would bind the Southern colonies more closely to the rebellion

in New England. Congressman John Adams of Massachusetts was the moving spirit in

securing the command for Washington. He realized that, although the war had begun in

Massachusetts, success could come only if all 13 colonies were united in their protest and

On June 25, 1775, Washington set out for Massachusetts, and on July 3, he halted

his horse under an elm on the common in Cambridge, drew his sword, and formally took

command of the Continental Army. In his general order of the following day,

Washington’s emphasis was on unity: "... it is to be hoped that all distinction 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, on this great and trying occasion, the most essential service

to the common cause in which we are all engaged." To this high ideal of unity in a

common cause, Washington remained unswervingly loyal through many trials and

disappointments. Indeed, he was to become the living symbol of a national unity that at

times seemed to have little actual substance.

Washington found his army in high spirits due to the heavy losses inflicted on the

British troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17. He was pleased at what had been

done toward entrenching the semicircular American front, but he was appalled at the

disorganization and lack of discipline among his soldiers and the officers’ ignorance of

their duties. Also, he soon realized that the term of service of most of his men was soon to

expire, producing for him the double task of trying to train one army while raising another

Washington began at once to impress these difficulties on Congress, pointing to

the need for longer terms of enlistment. He asked for better pay, which alone could induce

men to enlist for the necessary term. Almost immediately he came up against Congress’s

fear that a standing army would bring with it the peril of a military dictatorship. The

legislators only gradually understood that the immediate peril of political dictatorship by

the king’s ministers was much more real than a possible future threat of a military dictator.

However, Washington did the best he could with the available means. He took stern

measures to restore discipline. Insubordination and desertion were punished by flogging

with the cat-o’-nine-tails. A few deserters, especially those who repeated the offense, were

hanged. The worst problem of supply was the shortage of gunpowder. It hampered all of

Washington’s plans for months, and appeals to neighboring colonies brought little help.

During the last two months of 1776, Washington was in constant retreat. He

stationed a force under Major General Heath near West Point, New York, to guard the

vital entrance to the highlands of New York state. He then withdrew across the Hudson

into New Jersey and moved slowly southwestward to the Delaware River at Trenton.

There he collected all available boats and crossed the river into Pennsylvania on December

8, just as the advance guard of the pursuing British column entered the town.

This was the darkest hour of the new American republic. Howe proclaimed complete

victory. Congress shared his view and fled south from Philadelphia to Baltimore.

Washington, with only a remnant of his army, some 3000 men, seemed already defeated

On December 25, despite a raging storm, Washington led his small army of 2500

across the ice-clogged Delaware. The surprise was complete. The Hessians’ scattered

attempts at resistance collapsed in minutes, and the garrison at the next post fled in haste

on receiving the news. Washington was able to recross the Delaware with his prisoners

and booty without interference. But he considered Trenton only a beginning because he

now received fresh troops that doubled the size of his forces. These were Pennsylvania

militiamen who had been induced to extend their enlistments after Washington pledged his

own money to cover their pay. On December 29, with 5000 men, he again crossed the

On October 5, Washington made a surprise attack on the British at Germantown,

west of Philadelphia, and gained initial successes that could not be maintained because of

fog, confusing orders, and stout British resistance. But Washington’s boldness in

launching this attack so soon after his defeat at Brandywine Creek produced a favorable

effect both at home and in France. The news of Brandywine and Germantown reached

Paris in December and gave the French government ministers enough confidence in

Washington to recommend to King Louis XVI that he sign a treaty of alliance with the

United States. Soon afterward came news that Burgoyne had surrendered at the Battle of

Saratoga, and the French king’s lingering doubts were overcome.

Washington’s judgment, patience, and soldierly fortitude had established the

military foundation on which U.S. independence was to be erected. However, his duties as

commander in chief were not yet ended. Although hostilities had virtually ceased by April

1782, Washington knew that the British king, George III, had yielded to the wishes of the

House of Commons reluctantly. He was most anxious that there should be no visible

relaxation of American vigilance while the peace negotiations dragged along their weary

course. "There is nothing," he wrote, "which will so soon produce a speedy and honorable

peace, as a state of preparedness for war."

Washington rejected, with anger and abhorrence, a suggestion, which had some

support in the army, of establishing a monarchy with himself as king. In March 1783, with

Congress still dawdling, anonymous letters appeared calling a meeting of officers.

Washington promptly broke this up by calling a meeting on his own authority. He begged

the officers to do nothing "that would tarnish the reputation of an army which is

celebrated throughout Europe for its fortitude and patriotism." His appeal averted what

Peace was officially proclaimed on April 19, 1783, but not until November 25, as

the last British boats put off to the ships, did Washington’s troops enter New York City.

On December 4, Washington took leave of his principal officers at Fraunces Tavern and

departed at last for home and the peace and quiet of a planter’s life. He stopped at

Annapolis, Maryland, where Congress was temporarily meeting, to take his leave of the

civilian power he had always so meticulously obeyed and to surrender his commission as

commander in chief. He reached Mount Vernon on Christmas Eve of 1783. There he

hoped ardently, as he wrote in a letter at the time, to remain "a private citizen, under the

shadow of my own vine and my own figtree [and] move gently down the stream of life,

Early on the morning of December 14, 1799, Washington awoke with an inflamed

throat. His condition rapidly worsened. He was further weakened by medical treatment

that included frequent blood-letting. He faced death calmly, as "the debt which we all must

In the national mourning that followed, many tributes were paid to Washington.

President Adams called him "the most illustrious and beloved person which this country

ever produced." Adams later added: "His example is now complete, and it will teach

wisdom and virtue to magistrates, citizens, and men, not only in the present age but in

future generations as long as our history shall be read."


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