In August 1776, the Continental Army was routed in its first test on Long Island in part because Washington failed to properly reconnoiter and he attempted to defend too large an area for the size of his army. To some extent, Washington’s nearly fatal inability to make rapid decisions resulted in the November losses of Fort Washington on Manhattan Island and Fort Lee in New Jersey, defeats that cost the colonists more than one-quarter of the army’s soldiers and precious weaponry and military stores. Washington did not take the blame for what had gone wrong. Instead, he advised Congress of his “want of confidence in the Generality of the Troops.”
In the fall of 1777, when Gen. William Howe invaded Pennsylvania, Washington committed his entire army in an attempt to prevent the loss of Philadelphia. During the Battle of Brandywine, in September, he once again froze with indecision. For nearly two hours information poured into headquarters that the British were attempting a flanking maneuver—a move that would, if successful, entrap much of the Continental Army—and Washington failed to respond. At day’s end, a British sergeant accurately perceived that Washington had “escaped a total overthrow, that must have been the consequence of an hours more daylight.”
Later, Washington was painfully slow to grasp the significance of the war in the Southern states. For the most part, he committed troops to that theater only when Congress ordered him to do so. By then, it was too late to prevent the surrender of Charleston in May 1780 and the subsequent losses among American troops in the South. Washington also failed to see the potential of a campaign against the British in Virginia in 1780 and 1781, prompting Comte de Rochambeau, commander of the French Army in America, to write despairingly that the American general “did not conceive the affair of the south to be such urgency.” Indeed, Rochambeau, who took action without Washington’s knowledge, conceived the Virginia campaign that resulted in the war’s decisive encounter, the siege of Yorktown in the autumn of 1781.
Much of the war’s decision-making was hidden from the public. Not even Congress was aware that the French, not Washington, had formulated the strategy that led to America’s triumph. During Washington’s presidency, the American pamphleteer Thomas Paine, then living in France, revealed much of what had occurred. In 1796 Paine published a “Letter to George Washington,” in which he claimed that most of General Washington’s supposed achievements were “fraudulent.” “You slept away your time in the field” after 1778, Paine charged, arguing that Gens. Horatio Gates and Greene were more responsible for America’s victory than Washington.
There was some truth to Paine’s acid comments, but his indictment failed to recognize that one can be a great military leader without being a gifted tactician or strategist. Washington’s character, judgment, industry and meticulous habits, as well as his political and diplomatic skills, set him apart from others. In the final analysis, he was the proper choice to serve as commander of the Continental Army.
VII. Great Britain Could Never Have Won The War
Once the revolutionary war was lost, some in Britain argued that it had been unwinnable. For generals and admirals who were defending their reputations, and for patriots who found it painful to acknowledge defeat, the concept of foreordained failure was alluring. Nothing could have been done, or so the argument went, to have altered the outcome. Lord North was condemned, not for having lost the war, but for having led his country into a conflict in which victory was impossible.
In reality, Britain might well have won the war. The battle for New York in 1776 gave England an excellent opportunity for a decisive victory. France had not yet allied with the Americans. Washington and most of his lieutenants were rank amateurs. Continental Army soldiers could not have been more untried. On Long Island, in New York City and in upper Manhattan, on Harlem Heights, Gen. William Howe trapped much of the American Army and might have administered a fatal blow. Cornered in the hills of Harlem, even Washington admitted that if Howe attacked, the Continental Army would be “cut off” and faced with the choice of fighting its way out “under every disadvantage” or being starved into submission. But the excessively cautious Howe was slow to act, ultimately allowing Washington to slip away.