Washington Takes Charge

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

After the Bristish occupying army left Boston, Washington issued general orders (above) to his troops to "live in the strictest Peace and Amity with the [city's] inhabitants." He also urged the town fathers to turn over remaining British supplies and identify spies. Library of Congress

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.”

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.

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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