Saturday, April 05, 2008

Was George Washington a Great General?

How would you rank George Washington as a general? He lost more battles than he won, and he had an occasional habit of leaving his flanks unprotected. He also could be temperamental at times.

But could anyone else other than George Washington have pulled off an American victory in the Revolutionary War?

No, says Edward Lengel, author of General George Washington, a military biography of America's first general (and later first President).

Lengel argues that Washington may have been only a mediocre battlefield tactician. Indeed, his battlefield record is "mixed." But, says Lengel in the lecture linked below, as an administrator, political general, and moral leader, George Washington was unmatched.

What Lengel points out is that there's more to generalship than battlefield tactics. Generals like Napoleon Bonaparte, Robert E. Lee, Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, and George S. Patton may have been wizards on the battlefield, but that's not all there is to being a general. And this was especially true for the Continental Army in the American Revolution.

This is why Michael Lee Lanning, author of The Military 100, ranks George Washington as the most influential military commander in all of world history! Lanning admits that Washington's high ranking isn't due to battlefield brilliance, but rather to overall generalship - and the indispensable role that Washington played in winning America's independence.

For my own part, I think General Washington's battlefield tactics are sometimes UNDER-rated. It's true that Washington left his flanks unguarded at times, and that he periodically failed to properly reconnoiter the field. However, when pressed to the wall, Washington's brilliance came out.

For one thing, Washington was a masterful escape artist - as was seen in Long Island and just after Trenton (and before Princeton). He was the "Houdini" of the Revolution! For another, Washington was spectacular in sewing seeds of deception in his enemy - through espionage (he was America's first spymaster) or through clever maneuvering. And finally, Washington was audacious when he needed to be - such as at Trenton.

Most importantly (and even those critical of Washington's generalship concede this), George Washington was the most determined leader of the American cause. It's hard to imagine a more desirable concept for the leader of an army that was perpetually outnumbered, ill-equipped, inadequately trained, and poorly paid -- and up against the mightiest empire in the world.

The United States of America is here today, because of General George Washington.


Brad said...

I first have to say that I completely disagree with Michael Lee Lanning's ranking of Washington as, "the most influential military leader in all of world history." There are simply too many great MILITARY leaders in the history of this world that surpass Washington's ability as a general. Whit that said, however, I agree with you when you state that Washington is often underrated. My honest feeling (putting all objectivity aside) is that Washington was blessed from on high to win the war. I just can't see any other explanation for America's victory over Britain. It should not have happened. I realize this is unpopular in the historical community, so take it for what it's worth. Washington's brilliance was not in killing or fighting, but in LEADERSHIP! He had what we today call PRESENCE. If we could stand next to him today, I believe we would get that vibe very strong.

As far as the greatest MILITARY leaders, I have to say that Washington should not even be in the top 10. Again, this is strictly from the perspective of WARFARE. Here are my Top 10military minds of all-time:

10.)William the Conqueror
09.)Gehngas Kahn
06.)Julius Caesar
05.)Joshua (from the Bible)
01.)Alexander the Great

*I know some people might be upset that I have not put an American leader on this list, howeve, I believe it is because great MILITARY minds are often evil tyrants (not in all cases). Great American generals (like Washington, Eisenhower, Grant, etc.) never fought to conquer. America's greatness has NEVER been because of war.

Brian Tubbs said...

Brad, you should put your ranking in the form of an article and try to get it published somewhere. It would be very interesting to read.

I think Lanning's ranking of Washington is based on the premise that the United States is the most influential NATION in world history. That's my take on it, having read the book.

For what it's worth, I agree with your comment that Washington was blessed from on high. Washington HIMSELF said this on a few occasions, citing "Providence" as having cared for him and protected him. I think he was right. How else can you explain how he literally cheated death so often in his life?

Hercules Mulligan said...

IMHO, Washington, though not the most brilliant, the most "successfull," the most victorious, general the world has known, was yet the greatest general. His virtue, his character, his perseverance, and his God-fearing humility through it all is why he was greater than Alexander, or Napoleon, or anyone else.

Good post, and good question.

Chris Cummins said...

Don't underestimate the absolute imperative for personal victory faced by all the men who signed the Declaration of Indpendence and Washington. If they didn't see it through it meant death, imprisonment and ruin for their families.

Burning all the bridges behind you will motivate the hell out of you.

Anonymous said...

'Burning all the bridges behind you will motivate the hell out of you.'Great line Chris.

Anonymous said...

18th century logistics and French intervention won the American revolution. These were only aided by men like Washington, who via the cult of personality, managed to keep the revolution unified.

God or gods had nothing to do with it. Furthermore, I think it patently ridiculous that one would name a biblical figure, for whom no historical evidence exists other than the bible, as one of the greatest generals of all time.

Anonymous said...

An attempt at rating generals from different periods in history is pointless. And if you don't have George Patton on your list you don't know what your talking about. A meaningful analysis of military leadership and combat acumen cannot be achieved without an in-depth knowledge of resources, logistics, training, military infrastructure, chain of command, national apparatus history, battlefield location/conditions and many others. A decent but simplistic analogy is to say whichever football QB won the most games in their career is necessarily the best QB, with no regard to coaching, recruiting, defense rating, level of competition, etc. Maybe one QB had a much better team to play on? In George Washington's case he had very little to work with and it is truly amazing he was able to keep things together and ultimately win the war. Yes there was help from France, but only at the end. The truth is, many so called "great" generals would not have won any battles had they had to field armies that were as deficient in equipment/supplies, training, experience, support and troop strength as what Washington had to work with. Yet he pulled it off. There may not be another general in history that could have pulled it off- that's how great of a feat it was. So when someone says that George Washington wasn't that good of a general because he lost more battles than he won, just remember, they don't know what they're talking about.