More than two years before, on June 15, 1775, Congress had unanimously chosen the tall, 43-year-old Virginia plantation owner and gentleman farmer “to command all the continental forces, raised or to be raised, for the defense of American liberty.” During the French and Indian War two decades earlier, he had proved himself a courageous and levelheaded officer, serving under British command and as a colonel in the Virginia militia.
Washington had immediately justified the confidence placed in him by bringing order to the hodgepodge of militia contingents he led in what was becoming America’s war of national liberation. From disarray and muddle, he created an American army and, in March 1776, orchestrated its first significant achievement, besieging the British and causing them to withdraw from Boston, the principal redcoat base in America at the time. “This was the moment,” says historian John Ferling, author of the definitive Washington biography, The First of Men, “that George Washington first captured the imagination of the American people.”
But after Boston, his army suffered a series of serious reverses, including defeat at BrooklynHeights on August 27, 1776, and the loss of New York. “At this point,” says Ferling, “Washington was on the run. He nearly got trapped two or three times. During this period the British, under the command of General Howe, could have defeated him.”
Washington’s daring strikes against the enemy at Trenton on December 26 and Princeton on January 3, 1777, in New Jersey, boosted morale, but otherwise had little lasting military importance. Then came Brandywine Creek, in Pennsylvania, on September 11, 1777, where Washington failed to stop the British from advancing on Philadelphia, the capital of the Revolution. Members of Congress, who faced execution if taken prisoner, fled the city. This fiasco was followed by the Battle of Germantown, Pennsylvania, on October 4, where the Continental army snatched defeat from the jaws of victory through blunders in the field. Washington’s four-pronged attack for taking the city proved too complex for inexperienced troops to carry out. As his soldiers maneuvered in a dense fog, they accidentally fired on one another. Given this turn of events, few in Congress observed the progress of the war without growing anxiety.
In the small Pennsylvania market town of York, about 100 miles west of Philadelphia, where Congress reconvened, there was talk that the commander in chief was indecisive and overly dependent on the advice of his senior subordinates. Congressman Thomas Burke of North Carolina decried what he called the “want of abilities in our superior officers and want of order and discipline in our army.” Pennsylvania’s new attorney general, Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant, a former congressman, charged that Washington was responsible for “such blunders as might have disgraced a soldier of three months’ standing.” In a moment of despair, John Adams, although ever fearful that a tyrant might emerge to fill the gap left by the discarded British king, pleaded in his diary while en route from Philadelphia to York, “Oh, Heaven! grant Us one great Soul! . . . One leading Mind would extricate the best Cause, from that Ruin which seems to await it.”