The first President of the United States, Washington made his name as a skilled and determined military commander during the American Revolution. Despite many setbacks he consolidated and guided his forces to victory and helped secure independence from Britain.
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Washington was the son of a wealthy landowner from Virginia, spending his boyhood at Ferry Farm in Stafford County near Fredericksburg. After his education he became a surveyor and joined the colonial militia, serving during the French and Indian War (1754-62) and the Seven Years War (1756-63), rising to the rank of colonel in command of the Virginia Regiment. During these wars he gained valuable military experience and had ample opportunity to witness the strengths and weaknesses of the British military.
Angered by discrimination against colonial military officers (he had failed to obtain a regular commission) and resentful of the British restrictions on western land expansion, Washington spent the following years focusing on a political career. From 1758 onwards he served in Virginia’s House of Burgesses, becoming a leading opponent of British rule.
Following the clash between rebel militia and British regulars at Lexington in 1775, the Continental Congress, a body representing the 13 North American Colonies, adopted the militiamen into the beginnings of a 'Continental Army'. Washington was the obvious choice as commander-in-chief and, with the help of French and Prussian instructors he eventually moulded it into a well-trained regular force.
In March 1776 Washington moved his new army to Dorchester Heights and placed his artillery in position to menace Boston. Bad weather and American privateers (state-sponsored pirates) prevented supplies from reaching the city and Major-General William Howe had to evacuate. This episode demonstrates one of the main problems faced by the British. Throughout the war they had to transport men and supplies across the Atlantic. In such circumstances the loss of control of the sea, however temporary, could have dire consequences. Washington had also tricked the British. Many of his guns were in fact dummy cannon.
Washington moved on to New York where, on 27 August 1776 the British defeated him at Brooklyn Heights, although he did succeed in withdrawing the remains of his army across the East River without them knowing. Nevertheless, his army, already suffering from desertion, was demoralized by this defeat. Pressing home their advantage, on 15 September the British occupied New York.
Pursued by General Sir Charles Cornwallis, Washington withdrew across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania in early December 1776. Many of his men had returned to their homes and disaffection with the rebel cause was spreading. He re-grouped, crossed the ice-covered Delaware with 3,000 men on Christmas night and defeated a force of Hessians (Germans in British pay) at Trenton on 26 December, taking over 1,000 prisoners. This victory gave Washington’s men a new confidence and encouraged recruitment in the Continental Army. Cornwallis marched to retake Trenton, but Washington led a flank march by night to win another victory at Princeton on 3 January 1777.
Howe then advanced on Philadelphia, defeating Washington at Brandywine Creek on 11 September 1777. The British lost 550 killed and wounded, the Americans around 1,000 killed, wounded and captured, but Washington again salvaged the bulk of his army. Congress abandoned Philadelphia to the British, but Washington re-grouped and attacked at Germantown on 4 October before being repulsed after one of his four columns lost its bearings. He then repelled the British at White Marsh in December and Howe returned to Philadelphia without having engaged Washington in a decisive battle.
Washington marched his troops to winter quarters at Valley Forge where he lacked the means to pay or clothe them. An estimated 2,500 out of 10,000 men died from disease and starvation. Washington, although undermined by opponents who wanted to replace him as commander, kept both his post and the army intact by force of personality and iron discipline. Meanwhile General Horatio Gates’ victory at Saratoga in October 1777 had boosted American confidence and helped persuade France to enter the war.
Howe's successor, General Sir Henry Clinton, evacuated Philadelphia and concentrated his forces around New York, which was now under threat from a recently arrived French naval force. Washington followed Clinton's withdrawal and won a strategic victory at Monmouth on 28 June 1778. Clinton's army escaped to New York City, but remained bottled-up there.
In 1781 Cornwallis advanced into Virginia, winning a series of minor victories, but short of supplies, he was forced to withdraw to the port of Yorktown where he hoped to obtain naval support. Cornwallis was soon besieged by Washington’s Franco-American force of 17,000 men. The arrival of a French fleet in Chesapeake Bay in September sealed his fate. With no prospect of relief, and under fire from land and sea, Cornwallis surrendered on 19 October 1781. Yorktown was not the end of the war, the British still had 30,000 troops in North America and still occupied New York and Charleston, but Washington’s victory convinced them that the war was unwinnable. In 1783 they recognised American independence.
Although often outmanoeuvred by British generals with larger armies, Washington’s greatest asset was his political leadership, which enabled him to hold together an army of secessionists from 13 different states and keep it in the field during a long protracted struggle. This was done while co-operating operationally with the French. He also picked the right men as generals and knew when to give them freedom to operate and when to discipline them.
Dr Stephen Brumwell argues that Washington was able to turn crisis into success through inspirational leadership, diplomacy and personal strength. (Excerpt from the talk given at the 'Enemy Commanders: Britain's Greatest Foes' speaker day on 14 April 2012.)
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