A few years ago, while teaching American history in high school, I used to challenge my students with the question: "Do you think you know a lot about George Washington?" Since Washington is one of my heroes (and my students thus had heard me talk about him a fair amount), they were convinced they did. So, I would have them take out a piece of paper and write ten of Washington's specific deeds or accomplishments. I still recall how their confidence would inevitably and very quickly evaporate. Like most Americans, my students seemed unable to retain much in the way of specifics when it came to George Washington.
Several years ago, James Rees, resident director of Historic Mount Vernon, lamented this growing ignorance of America's father. "Among young people, and young adults, we find many who don't know Washington was the first president and can't say what century he lived in," said Rees. "My fourth grade textbook had 10 times as many pages on Washington as the one the same school uses now. And there is a sizable fraction of our visitors who can't tell you whose portrait is on the $1 bill."
This particular post will look at the most important facts about George Washington's military career. In a future post, we'll look at Washington's presidency.
Important Facts About General George Washington
So, what are the most important facts about George Washington's military leadership? Here are the basics:
- George Washington was a respected Virginia plantation owner, colonial politician, and French and Indian War (Seven Years' War) veteran on the eve of the American Revolution. (It is, of course, also important to know that the Seven Years' War or French & Indian War preceded the American Revolution, and helped set the stage for it.)
- Washington supported colonial rights during the buildup of tensions with Great Britain, serving in both the First Continental Congress (1774) and Second Continental Congress (1775).
- Based on John Adams' recommendation, George Washington was appointed by the Second Continental Congress to command the Continental Army and lead armed resistance against the British Empire.
- As Commander-in-Chief of the nascent and evolving Continental Army, Washington declined to be paid for his services, but kept meticulous records of his expenses during the war (which he submitted for reimbursement).
- Washington became Continental Army general at age 43. Most movies and paintings show Washington leading American troops as an old man with white hair. In fact, Washington was tough, healthy, middle-aged man at the time of the Revolutionary War.
- From 1775 until 1783, General Washington presided over the growth of a largely untrained, thoroughly ill-equipped and ill-prepared "army" into a formidable (albeit still inadequately paid and poorly supplied) fighting force.
- Washington was a brave and courageous leader, risking his life under fire numerous times.
- Washington was a creative, but inexperienced battlefield tactician. Though he made several battlefield mistakes, he nevertheless demonstrated great charisma, strong courage, dogged persistence, and a brilliant grasp of the strategic picture.
- General Washington arguably saved the American Revolution with his famous, and quite audacious, crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas Night 1776 to attack the Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey.
- The last major battle of the American Revolution was at Yorktown, Virginia (1781), where a combined French and American land force, supported by the French navy, bottled up Lord General Charles Cornwallis and his British forces. This resulted in a change-of-government in London and the beginnings of peace negotiations between Colonial America and the British Empire.
- With peace negotiations ongoing, Washington kept his poorly supplied and insufficiently paid troops in the field for nearly two full years, working diligently to ease tensions and preserve domestic peace.
- Washington flatly refused offers of any sort of dictatorship, and instead appealed to his officers at a famous speech in Newburgh to support the civilian government and stand down from any talk of insurrection.
- Britain granted American independence in 1783, and George Washington resigned his commission as Commander-in-Chief, becoming one of the only revolutionary leaders in world history to walk away from power.
George Washington's generalship and his statesmanship (in the war's final stages) are what made America possible. This is something that all Americans should appreciate and never forget.