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Washington Takes Charge

Confronting the British in Boston in 1775, Gen. George Washington honed the personal qualities that would carry the day in war and sustain the new nation in peace

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Although there was no way George Washington could have known it at the time, when Philadelphia’s Continental Congress appointed him military commander in June 1775, he was about to oversee the longest declared war in American history. He was 43 years old when he rode out of his Mount Vernon estate in May 1775. He was 51 and the most famous man in the world when he arrived back home on Christmas Eve 1783, following the American victory over Great Britain. The cause that he headed had not only smashed two British armies and destroyed the first British Empire, it had also set in motion a political movement committed to principles that were destined to topple the monarchical and aristocratic dynasties of the Old World.

The American Revolution was the central event in Washington’s life, the crucible for his development as a mature man, a prominent statesman and a national hero. And while zealous students of the Civil War might contest the claim, the movement that Washington found himself heading was also the most consequential event in American history, the crucible within which the political personality of the United States took shape. In effect, the character of the man and the character of the nation congealed and grew together during those eight fateful years. Washington was not clairvoyant about history’s next destination. But he did realize from the start that, wherever history was headed, he and America were going there together.

The siege of Boston from June 1775 to March 1776 marked Washington’s debut as commander in chief. Here, for the first time, he encountered the logistical challenges he would face during the ensuing years of the war. He met many of the men who would comprise his general staff for the duration. And here he demonstrated both the strategic instincts and the leadership skills that would sustain him, and sometimes lead him astray, until the glorious end.

The story of the siege can be told in one sentence: Washington’s makeshift army kept more than 10,000 British troops bottled up in the city for more than nine months, at which point the British sailed away to Halifax. Less a battle than a marathon staring match, the conflict exposed the anomalous political circumstance created by the Continental Congress, which was prepared to initiate war a full year before it was ready to declare American independence. Although Washington subsequently claimed that he knew by the early fall of 1775 that King George III was determined to pursue a military rather than political solution to the imperial crisis, he went along with the prevalent fiction that the British garrison in Boston contained “Ministerial Troops,” meaning that they did not represent the king’s wishes so much as those of evil and misguided ministers. And although Washington eventually expressed his frustration with the moderate faction in the Continental Congress, who were “still feeding themselves upon the dainty food of reconciliation,” as he put it in a letter to his brother John Augustine, he also recognized that the radical faction, led by John Adams, needed to exhaust all the diplomatic alternatives and patiently wait for public opinion outside New England to mobilize around the novel notion of American independence.

Events of enduring significance had occurred before Washington assumed command of 16,000 colonial militia on July 3, 1775, in Cambridge. On June 17, about 2,200 British troops made three frontal assaults on New England militia units entrenched on Breed’s Hill. Later misnamed the Battle of BunkerHill, the fight was a tactical victory for the British, but at the frightful cost of more than 1,000 casualties, nearly half the attacking force. When word of the battle reached London, several British officers observed caustically that a few more such victories and the entire British Army would be annihilated. On the American side, Bunker Hill was regarded as a great moral triumph that reinforced the lesson of Lexington and Concord: that militia volunteers fighting for a cause they freely embraced could defeat disciplined British mercenaries.

Two seductive illusions were converging here. The first was the perennial belief harbored by both sides at the start of most wars that the conflict would be short. The second, which became the central myth of American military history, was that militia volunteers fighting for principle made better soldiers than trained professionals. Washington was not completely immune to the first illusion, though his version of a quick American victory depended on the willingness of the British commander, Gen. William Howe, to commit his force in a decisive battle outside Boston, in a repeat of the Bunker Hill scenario, which would then prompt the king’s ministers to propose acceptable terms for peace. Neither Howe nor the British ministry was prepared to cooperate along these lines, and since the only acceptable peace terms on the American side—independence of Parliament’s authority— were at this stage nonnegotiable on the British side, even Washington’s narrow hope had no realistic prospects.

Washington was thoroughly immune to the second illusion about the innate superiority of militia. Based on his earlier experience as commander of the Virginia Regiment, reinforced by what he witnessed on a day-to-day basis at his Cambridge encampment, he was convinced that an army of short-term volunteers, no matter how dedicated to the cause, could not win the war. “To expect then the same service from Raw, and undisciplined Recruits as from Veteran Soldiers,” he explained in a February 1776 letter to John Hancock, “is to expect what never did, and perhaps never will happen.” His convictions on this score only deepened and hardened over the years, but from the start he believed that militia were only peripheral supplements to the hard core, which needed to be a professional army of disciplined troops who, like him, signed on for the duration. His model, in effect, was the British Army. This, of course, was richly ironic, since opposition to a standing army had been a major source of colonial protest during the prewar years. To those who insisted that a militia was more compatible with revolutionary principles, Washington was brutally frank: those principles can only flourish, he insisted, if we win the war, and that can only happen with an army of regulars.

Another significant development occurred on his way to Cambridge, an event less conspicuous than the Battle of Bunker Hill but with even more far-reaching implications. Both the New York and the Massachusetts legislatures wrote congratulatory letters addressed to “His Excellency,” which soon became his official designation for the remainder of the war. To be sure, “His Excellency” is not quite the same as “His Majesty,” but throughout the summer and fall of 1775, even as delegates to the Continental Congress struggled to sustain the fiction that George III remained a friend to American liberty, poets and balladeers were already replacing the British George with an American version of the same name.

This new semi-royal status fit in the grooves of Washington’s own personality and proved an enduring asset as important politically as his wife Martha Custis’ huge dowry had been economically. The man who was obsessed with control was now the designated sovereign of the American Revolution. The man who could not bear to have his motives or personal integrity questioned was assured that he enjoyed more trust than any American alive. The British would change commanding generals four times; Washington was forever. Certain deficiencies in his character—aloofness, a formality that virtually precluded intimacy—were now regarded as essential byproducts of his special status, indeed expressions of his inherent dignity. And the man who had bristled at the presumptive condescension of British officers and officials during his service in the French and Indian War was now in charge of the military instrument designed to obliterate all vestiges of British power in North America.

On the other hand, the political and even psychological ramifications of his public role did require some personal adjustments. In August 1775 he made several critical comments about the lack of discipline in the New England militia units under his command and described New Englanders in general as “an exceedingly dirty & nasty people.” As a mere Virginia planter such expressions of regional prejudice would have been unexceptional. But as the symbolic spokesman for what were still being called “the United Colonies,” the comments created political firestorms in the Massachusetts Legislature and the Continental Congress. When Joseph Reed, a Philadelphia lawyer who served briefly as Washington’s most trusted aide-de-camp, apprised him of the hostile reaction, Washington expressed his regrets for the indiscretion: “I will endeavor at a reformation, as I can assure you my dear Reed that I wish to walk in such a Line as will give most general Satisfaction.”

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