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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His most aggressive proposal, which was adopted, called for a separate campaign against Quebec. Once it was clear that Howe did not intend to oblige him by coming out of Boston, Washington decided to detach 1,200 troops from Cambridge and send them up the Kennebec River into Canada under the command of a young colonel named Benedict Arnold. Washington’s thinking reflected his memories of the French and Indian War, in which Canadian forts had been the strategic keys to victory, as well as his belief that the stakes in the current war included the entire eastern half of North America. As he put it to Arnold, “I need not mention to you the great importance of this place & the consequent possession of all Canada in the Scale of American affairs—to whomsoever It belongs, in there [sic] favour probably, will the Balance turn.”

However conventional his thinking about Quebec’s strategic significance, Washington’s commitment to a Canadian campaign was recklessly bold. Arnold’s force had to tra verse 350 miles of the most difficult terrain in New England during the outset of the winter snows. Within a month the troops were eating their horses, dogs and moccasins, dying by the scores from exposure and disease. After a truly heroic effort, Arnold and his troop linked up with a force commanded by Gen. Richard Montgomery as planned and made a desperate night assault on Quebec in a blinding snowstorm on December 31, 1775. The result was a catastrophic defeat, both Arnold and Montgomery falling in the first minutes of the battle. (Arnold suffered a serious leg wound but survived, while Montgomery had his face shot off and died on the spot.) If Canada was the key, the British now held it more firmly than before. The Quebec debacle was a decisive blow, but not the kind Washington had intended.

Finally, the Cambridge chapter revealed another Washington trait that has not received sufficient attention in the existent scholarship because it is only indirectly connected to military strategy. Historians have long known that more than two-thirds of the American casualties in the war were the result of disease. But only recently—and this is rather remarkable— have they recognized that the American Revolution occurred within a virulent smallpox epidemic of continental scope that claimed about 100,000 lives. Washington first encountered the epidemic outside Boston, where he learned that between 10 and 30 funerals were occurring each day because of the disease. British troops, though hardly impervious to the smallpox virus, tended to possess greater immunity because they came from English, Scottish and Irish regions, where the disease had existed for generations, allowing resistance to build up within families over time. Many soldiers in the Continental Army, on the other hand, tended to come from previously unexposed farms and villages, so they were extremely vulnerable. At any point in time, between onefourth and one-fifth of Washington’s army at Cambridge was unfit for duty, the majority down with smallpox.

Washington, of course, was immune to smallpox because of his exposure to it as a youth on a trip to Barbados (his one and only foreign excursion) in 1751. (Subsequent admirers claimed that he was immune to everything.) Equally important, he understood the ravaging implications of a smallpox epidemic within the congested conditions of his encampment, and he quarantined the patients in a hospital at Roxbury. When the British began their evacuation of Boston in March 1776, he ordered that only troops with pockmarked faces be allowed into the city. And although many educated Americans opposed inoculation, believing that it actually spread the disease, Washington strongly supported it. It would take two years before inoculation became mandatory for all troops serving in the Continental Army, but the policy began to be implemented in the first year of the war. When historians debate Washington’s most consequential decisions as commander in chief, they almost always argue about specific battles. A compelling case can be made that his swift response to the smallpox epidemic and to a policy of inoculation was the most important strategic decision of his military career.

After lingering in Boston Harbor for over a week, the British fleet sailed away on March 17, 1776. The American press reported the retreat as a crushing blow to the British Army. The Continental Congress ordered a gold medallion cast in Washington’s honor. Harvard College awarded him an honorary degree. And John Hancock predicted that he had earned “a conspicuous Place in the Temple of Fame, which Shall inform Posterity, that under your Directions, an undisciplined Band of Husbandmen, in the Course of a few Months became Soldiers,” defeating “an Army of Veterans, commanded by the most experienced Generals.”

As uplifting as this appraisal may have been, subsequent events would soon show that it was overly optimistic. Washington was not, by any standard, a military genius. He lost more battles than he won; indeed, he lost more battles than any victorious general in modern history. Moreover, his defeats were frequently a function of his own overconfident personality, especially during the early stages of the war, when he escaped to fight another day only because the British generals opposing him seemed choked with the kind of caution that, given his resources, Washington should have adopted as his own strategy.

But in addition to being fortunate in his adversaries, Washington was blessed with the personal qualities that counted most in a protracted war. He was composed, indefatigable and able to learn from his mistakes. He was convinced that he was on the side of destiny—or, in more arrogant moments, sure that destiny was on his side. Even his critics acknowledged that he could not be bribed, corrupted or compromised. Based on his bravery during several battles, he apparently believed he could not be killed. Despite all his mistakes, events seemed to align themselves with his own instincts. He began the war in July 1775 at the siege of Boston determined to deliver a decisive blow against more disciplined and battle-tested British regulars. He would end it in October 1781 at the siege of Yorktown doing precisely that.


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