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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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Even within what he called “my family,” Washington needed to remain circumspect, because his family included staff and aides-de-camp. We know that Billy Lee, his mulatto servant, accompanied him on foot or on horseback at all times, brushed his hair and tied it in a queue every morning, but no record of their conversations has survived. We know that Martha joined him at Cambridge in January 1776, as she would at winter quarters during all subsequent campaigns, but their correspondence, which almost surely contained the fullest expression of personal opinion Washington allowed himself, for that very reason was destroyed after he died. The bulk of his correspondence during the war years, so vast in volume and officious in tone that modern-day readers risk mental paralysis, was written by his aides-de-camp. It is therefore the expression of an official, composite personality, usually speaking a platitudinous version of revolutionary rhetoric. For example, here are the General Orders for February 27, 1776, when Washington was contemplating a surprise attack on the British defenses: “It is a noble Cause we are engaged in, it is the Cause of virtue and mankind, every temporal advantage and comfort to us, and our posterity, depends upon the Vigour of our exertions; in short, Freedom or Slavery must be the result of our conduct, there can therefore be no greater Inducement to men to behave well.” The inflated rhetoric concluded with the more candid warning that anyone attempting to retreat or desert “will be instantly shot down.”

Aware of his own limited formal education, Washington selected college graduates who were “Pen-men” as aides. His most trusted lieutenants—Joseph Reed was the first, followed by Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens later in the war—became surrogate sons who enjoyed direct access to the general in after-dinner sessions, when Washington liked to encourage conversation as he ate nuts and drank a glass of Madeira. Part extended family and part court, these favored aides traded influence for total loyalty. “It is absolutely necessary therefore, for me to have persons that can think for me,” Washington explained, “as well as execute Orders.” The price for what he called his “unbounded confidence” was their equally unbounded service to his reputation. It was understood as a matter of honor that they would write no revealing memoirs after the war, and none of them did.

His other “family” was the cast of senior officers that assembled around him during the siege of Boston. Of the 28 generals who served under Washington in the war, almost half were present at Cambridge in 1775–76. Four of them— Charles Lee, Horatio Gates, Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox—provide the outline of the prevalent patterns that would shape his treatment of high-ranking subordinates.

Lee and Gates were both former officers in the British Army with greater professional experience than Washington. Lee was a colorful eccentric. The Mohawks had named him Boiling Water for his fiery temperament, which at Cambridge took the form of threats to place all deserters on a hill as targets within musket-shot of British pickets. Lee presumed a greater familiarity with Washington than other generals, addressing him as “My Dear General” rather than “His Excellency.” Lee also questioned Washington’s preferred strategy of engaging British regulars on their own terms in a European-style war, favoring guerrilla tactics and a greater reliance on militia. Gates was called Granny Gates because of his age (he was 50) and the wire-rimmed spectacles dangling from his nose. He cultivated a greater familiarity with his troops than Washington thought appropriate and, like Lee, favored a greater reliance on militia. Gates thought that Washington’s plan for an assault on the British garrison in Boston was pure madness and, given his experience, felt free to speak out for a more defensive strategy. Both men ended up colliding with Washington later in the war and becoming early exhibits of the primal principle of revolutionary-era politics: cross Washington and you risk ruination.

Greene and Knox were both inexperienced amateurs drawn to military service by their zeal for American independence. Greene was a Rhode Island Quaker who was cast out of the Society of Friends because of his support for the war. He volunteered to serve in a local militia company, the Kentish Guards, at the rank of private, but ascended to brigadier general within a year on the basis of his obvious intelligence and disciplined dedication. By the end of the war, especially during the Carolina campaigns, he demonstrated strategic and tactical brilliance; he was Washington’s choice as successor if the great man went down in battle. Knox was also a gifted amateur, a Boston bookseller well read in engineering whom Washington plucked from the ranks to head an artillery regiment. Knox demonstrated his resourcefulness in December 1775 by transporting the British cannon captured at Ticonderoga over the ice and snow on 40 sleds driven by 80 yoke of oxen to Cambridge. Like Greene, he worshiped the ground Washington walked on. Both men were subsequently showered with glory, Knox living on to become Washington’s secretary of war in the 1790s.

The pattern is reasonably clear. Washington recruited military talent wherever he could find it, and he had a knack for discovering ability in unlikely places and then allowing it to ride the same historical wave he was riding into the American pantheon. But he was extremely protective of his own authority. While he did not encourage sycophants, if dissenters ever broached their criticism out-of-doors, as both Lee and Gates ended up doing, he was usually unforgiving. One could make a plausible case, as several scholars have done, that Washington’s insistence on personal loyalty was rooted in insecurity. But the more compelling explanation is that he un derstood instinctively how power worked, and that his own quasi-monarchical status was indispensable to galvanize an extremely precarious cause.

From the very start, however, he made a point of insisting that his expansive mandate was dependent upon, and subordinate to, the will of the American citizenry as represented in the Continental Congress. His letters to John Hancock, the first president of the Congress, always took the form of requests rather than demands. And he established the same posture of official deference toward the New England governors and provincial governments that supplied troops for his army. Washington did not use the term “civilian control,” but he was scrupulous about acknowledging that his own authority derived from the elected representatives in the Congress. If there were two institutions that embodied the emerging nation—the Continental Army and the Continental Congress—he insisted that the former was subordinate to the latter.

A delegation from the Continental Congress that included Benjamin Franklin met with Washington and his staff in Cambridge in October 1775 to approve troop requests for an army of 20,372 men. But strictly speaking, the Continental Army did not exist until the start of the new year; until then, Washington was commanding a collection of provincial militia units whose enlistments ran out in December 1775. The endorsement of Washington’s troop requests by the Continental Congress was deceptively encouraging, since compliance depended upon approval by the respective state governments, which insisted that all recruits be volunteers and serve limited terms of no more than one year. But in reality, the vaunted principles of state sovereignty, volunteerism and limited enlistments produced a military turnstile that bedeviled Washington throughout the war. Instead of a hard core of experienced veterans, the Continental Army became a constantly fluctuating stream of amateurs, coming and going like tourists.

In this first year of the war, when the revolutionary fires burned their brightest, Washington presumed that he would enjoy a surplus of recruits. In October 1775 a council of war voted unanimously “to reject all slaves & by a great Majority to reject Negroes altogether.” The following month Washington ordered that “Neither Negroes, Boys unable to bear arms, nor old men unfit to endure the fatigues of the campaign, are to be enlisted.” But within a few months, as it became clear that there would not be enough new recruits to fill the ranks, he was forced to change his mind: “It has been represented to me,” he wrote Hancock, “that the free negroes who have Served in this Army, are very much dissatisfied at being discarded—and it is to be apprehended that they may Seek employ in the ministerial Army—I have presumed to depart from the Resolution respecting them, & have given licence for them being enlisted; if this is disapproved of by Congress, I will put a stop to it.” In this backhanded fashion Washington established the precedent for a racially integrated Continental Army, except for a few isolated incidents the only occasion in American military history when blacks and whites served alongside one another in the same unit until the Korean War.

The siege of boston also afforded the first extended glimpse at Washington’s cast of mind as a military strategist. His motives for supporting American independence were always more elemental than refined. Essentially, he saw the conflict as a struggle for power in which the colonists, if victorious, destroyed British presumptions of superiority and won control over half a continent for themselves. While it would be somewhat excessive to say that his central military goal was an equally elemental urge to smash the British Army in one decisive battle, there was a tendency to regard each engagement as a personal challenge to his own honor and reputation. At Cambridge, once it became clear that General Howe was unwilling to come out from behind his Boston redoubts and face him in open battle, it took the form of several risky offensive schemes to dislodge the British regulars. On three occasions, in September 1775, then again in January and February 1776, Washington proposed frontal assaults against the British defenses, arguing that “a Stroke, well aim’d at this critical juncture, might put a final end to the War.” (In one of the plans, he envisioned a night attack across the ice with advanced units wearing ice skates.) His staff rejected each proposal on the grounds that the Continental Army lacked both the size and the discipline to conduct such an attack with sufficient prospects for success. Eventually, Washington accepted a more limited tactical scheme to occupy Dorchester Heights, which placed Howe’s garrison within range of American artillery, thereby forcing Howe’s decision to evacuate or see his army slowly destroyed. But throughout the siege Washington kept looking for a more direct and conclusive battle, suggesting that he himself was ready for a major engagement even if his army was not.

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