Like General Eisenhower 160 years later, General Washington was often criticized for not having qualities he didn’t have, when what counted was the fact that he – and nobody else – had exactly the qualities needed. Indeed, the qualities the two generals lacked, and those they had, were much alike. Neither one was a great tactician, certainly not equal to some of their subordinates. But the two men had character, and staying power, and the ability to make discordant elements work together until victory.
Washington’s war built on things he had learned 20 years earlier as a young colonial attached to the British army deployed against the French and Indians in western Pennsylvania. Not only did that early war give him the opportunity to prove his own courage to himself, it showed him what armies were like in victory and – more importantly – in discouragement, or in retreat. He observed the British military mentality from the inside, and never forgot what he had learned.
Beyond these intangibles, he learned military basics: organization, logistics, tactics, and strategy. It would be impossible to say that any one of these was more important than any other. As commanding officer of an improvised army, he was going to need to know all of it. Also, even though he never commanded more than a modern-day regiment in that early war, he formed an unfavorable opinion of militia that led him to insist on creating a professional army, as the only force that could be relied upon,
Washington was an aristocrat, not a man of the people. Between his inheritance and his fortunate marriage to a 28-year-old widow, he was one of the richest men in Virginia. In another man with another disposition and temperament, this might have become a major negative. In Washington, it was a tremendous plus. His natural reserve, his immense dignity, and his habitual self-control combined to make him a man who effortlessly inspired the respect of his men, his officers, and even the government functionaries who plagued him.
That didn’t make anything easy.
A patriot from the very beginning, he took an increasingly prominent role in resistance to Parliamentary actions, beginning with the Stamp Act and progressing until, in 1774, he was chairman of the meeting in which Virginians called for a Continental Congress to be convened, and he was one of those selected as a delegate to that first Congress, that met in Philadelphia.
When the Second Continental Congress met, after the battles of Lexington and Concord, he attended in military uniform, a not too gentle hint that he was ready to go to war. And really, who else was there? He was a known patriot; he had military experience; he was a distinguished member of the highest circles of society in what was by far the most populous colony. When the Congress created the Continental Army in June, John Adams nominated the impressive Virginian to be commander in chief. The move was partly political, of course. The New Englanders needed Southern support against the British; the army having a Virginian commander would make it less likely that Boston would be left to its own resources. But still, the question remained: Who else was there? Washington said that he was not equal to the post, and may well have felt it and meant it, but who else came even as close to being equal to it as he did? And everybody knew it. Throughout the long war, Congress, even in the days when it was most dissatisfied with the commander it did have, was never able to find another of equal promise.
His war started off with the same problems that would plague him for the whole eight years. The army around Boston was untrained and, underequipped, lacking even such essentials as an adequate supply of gunpowder. How do you fight battles without gunpowder? The answer is, you don’t. You keep the army in being and wait for better days. In 1775, the army eventually did get a barely adequate 1250 tons of powder, mostly from France, and the following Spring it finally got some artillery courtesy of captured Fort Ticonderoga. But those long months of enforced inactivity were a preview of coming attractions.
On Long Island a few months later, not yet having had experience with how the British could use sea power, he put the army in an indefensible position and nearly lost it. Then, in a daring and clever overnight operation, he saved the army – and all its equipment – and lived to fight another day. After losing another, highly expensive, battle in November, he then retreated across New Jersey until turning around on Christmas day, as we all know. And so it went for the whole war. Hold the army together, strike when it seemed possible, retreat when necessary, wait for better days.
For eight long years.
It has been said that for Washington to win the war, he had to accomplish three kinds of tasks.
1) He had to fight without losing his army, and this he did. Many times defeated, he was never required to surrender his army. That was more than two highly trained and skilled English generals were able to say for themselves.
2) A larger task, he had to organize the army, train it, find competent leaders for it, get it supplied and fed and supported, always with grossly inadequate resources.
3) A larger task yet, he had to be the revolution. He had to be, and did become, the symbol of determined resistance, the linchpin who kept them all in harness — the army, the militias, the state governments, the Congress, and eventually his French allies. To do this required all the strengths of character for which he later became famous.
All that, he did. And then he did the thing that astonished the courts of Europe. First he quelled the mutiny of his officers at Newburgh; then – the war over – on December 23, 1783, he resigned his commission as commander-in-chief, and went home. King George III, hearing of this, called Washington “the greatest character of the age,” and for once the unfortunate king got it right.