Frederick the Great of Prussia, who knew a thing or two about generalship, judged that the Christmas campaign of 1776-1777 by the American Continental Army, marked by the battles of Trenton and Princeton, was “the most brilliant of any recorded in the annals of military achievements.”
The military reputation of the commander of that army, George Washington, has fared rather less well among modern historians and strategic analysts. Over the past few decades, Washington’s general reputation has been on the rise. He is typically praised for his political acumen (whether of the low or high sort) and for his strength of character (whether that character was genuine or merely an act). When it comes to the battlefield, however, Washington is often treated as something of a bungler, careless of terrain, slow to learn, wedded to a European style of warfare inappropriate to North America, and excessively fond of complex maneuvers that his amateur army could not be expected to pull off.
The scholarly terrain is not entirely bleak for the general. David Hackett Fischer’s splendid Washington’s Crossing (2004) shows the commander in chief in a very different, and progressive, light, while Mackubin T. Owens explains—and defends—Washington’s overall strategy in “General Washington and the Military Strategy of the Revolution” (chapter three of Patriot Sage, edited by Gary L. Gregg II and Matthew Spalding .)
Retired Army Lieutenant General Dave R. Palmer, former Superintendent of West Point, has devoted years of study and writing to debunking the myth of the lucky General. His latest assessment, George Washington’s Military Genius focuses on what might be called Washington’s skill at high-level, or grand, strategy. Palmer passes over some of Washington’s less-than-finest hours on the battlefield, particularly the operations in New York in September-October 1776, and the failed attempt to defend Philadelphia the following year. Washington, to be sure, felt compelled to fight in those instances because of overriding political circumstances, even though he commanded inferior forces and the Royal Navy controlled the seas. That said, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that on those occasions at least he was outgeneraled by rather ordinary British officers, for many of the reasons his critics have cited.
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A perfect battlefield record is not necessarily the standard by which to judge a commander’s military performance, however. As Barry Strauss points out in his new book, Masters of Command: Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, and the Genius of Leadership, even history’s acknowledged Great Captains suffered major battlefield reverses and committed head-scratching blunders. They were distinguished not only by their brilliance but also by their resilience, their ability to adapt to circumstances and to press on regardless of the odds. And the gods of fortune smiled on them. By these criteria, Washington does not fare badly at all.
If we look at Palmer’s account, and supplement it with those of Fischer and Owens (and not neglecting John Marshall’s oft-maligned biography), we can identify certain obvious yet profound points about Washington’s generalship. They are so obvious we often miss their profundity.
Washington’s higher-level strategy aimed to achieve two interrelated objectives—not only American independence but also its territorial expansion. Washington’s pursuit of national independence is self-evident, as it were, but the second is often overlooked or simply dismissed as that of greedy American land-grabbing (with Washington serving as Speculator-in-Chief). But it was more than that. As Palmer notes, “the grand strategy of the Revolutionary War” was “a United States unencumbered by European control and preeminent on the North American continent.”
Washington shared this continentalist viewpoint with other major founders, particularly Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, who upheld the “large American” case on the diplomatic front in Europe. Washington saw the newly-formed United States as the successor to the entire British Empire in North America. We might say that Washington wanted to consolidate the victory of Anglo-America in the French and Indian War, the fruits of which the Ministry in London had seemed to want to deny to the colonists.
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Put simply, Washington sought a strategically defensible perimeter for the United States by controlling, directly or indirectly, the continent’s key geographic features, economic assets, and strategic chokepoints—the Great Warpath from Canada, the fishing grounds in the North Atlantic, the Mississippi River and its mouth, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. The Western territories were especially crucial. These lands, to be sure, were valuable for settlers and for the financial stability of the new regime, but Washington understood that some great power was going to control the hinterlands of North America; or the great powers would fight over their control; or they would become nominally independent in alliance with a European power. Washington wanted the United States to be the single great power controlling the hinterlands, precluding the other alternatives, both of which boded ill for American security.
The Indians on the frontier had always been a threat to Anglo-America in their own right, but primarily through their alliance with European powers. Washington sought to gain as much critical territory as possible during the war, when the United States had armies in the field and when diplomacy might gain European—not merely British—acceptance of expansive boundaries. The more territory that the United States controlled at the end of the war, the greater the leverage it would have in the diplomatic endgame. The American armies, to be sure, were operating on the ragged edge simply dealing with the main British force, but Washington understood that some expense now, in blood and treasure, would be much less than that required to maintain extensive frontier defenses against the Indians indefinitely, or for future military offensives that would be both costly and run the risk of war with the Indian’s European patrons. If the United States was to deal fairly with the natives in the long run this type of strategic solution made the most sense.
The imperative for secure and expansive borders explains Washington’s persistent support for campaigns against the British-held territories in Canada, including the French-speaking portion (and to offer those territories membership in the American Union). Washington also approved expeditions into Indian country whenever he thought them feasible.
The second obvious but profound point about Washington’s generalship: he was required to adapt his military aims and tactical approaches to the rapidly changing circumstances of the war, and to resolve tensions between various competing means and ends. This was far easier said than done.
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When Washington first took command of the Continental Army after the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775 he was confronted with enormous opportunities and enormous risks. British troops were, at the time, relatively few in number—the bulk of them were confined in Boston—and the royal governments were weak, giving the patriot movement a priceless opportunity to consolidate its strategic position. On the other hand, the Continental Army, such as it was, and colonial militia forces were barely worthy of their names, largely untrained and poorly equipped. The Continental Congress had yet to decide the ultimate purpose for which it proposed to use force against the British authorities: was it to gain leverage over the Ministry in London so as to negotiate reconciliation on American terms (colonial autonomy under the Crown)? Or was it to win independence? The official position of Congress was still to seek reconciliation, which implied that American resistance should be measured and coupled with political initiatives to reassure London of continued colonial loyalty.
A growing number of Americans—Washington at some point included (historians debate exactly when)—believed that the Rubicon had been crossed and that independence was the only solution to assure the liberties of Americans. These radical patriots could not afford to alienate their more moderate colleagues but neither could they allow military circumstances to drift.
Washington’s initial strategy had to take into account all these calculations. He wanted to maximize his strategic gains before Britain could respond. He needed to convince the colonial moderates and the undecided that victory was possible—and indeed necessary, because it was impossible to calibrate the resort to force in such a way that Britain would welcome the American patriots back into the fold. Washington, who was naturally aggressive anyway, said he was prepared to “run all risques.” He took the offensive to the extent of his limited powers. He would have assaulted the British in Boston if he could (he was dissuaded by his councils of war) and managed to maneuver them out of the city. He supported a multiple-front attack on Canada. He searched for ways to attack British forces in Florida, the West Indies, and the Western lands.
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The war changed fundamentally in mid-1776, with the American Declaration of Independence and the decision by London to prosecute the war with a massive commitment of ground and naval forces. Washington was again confronted with conflicting pressures, but of a different sort. He could not expect to win a decisive, stand-up fight with the numerically superior main British Army (and its German mercenaries), especially where British sea power could be brought to bear. For political reasons, however, he could not allow the British simply to have their way without an effective show of resistance. Thus his failed attempts to defend New York and, later, Philadelphia.
Washington was understandably a little slow to acknowledge that the Continental Army, or any American force, could not win a decisive battle against the British unless special circumstances obtained, as they did at Saratoga in 1777. He certainly could not expect to win with high confidence. The balance of risk had shifted and with it Washington’s short-term strategic goal, which now became that of preserving the Continental Army and prolonging the war.
There were two main reasons for this, one strategic, the other political. As long as the Continental Army remained in being and in the field, the British had to maintain an equivalent or greater concentrated force, with the associated logistical demands and the stresses that this placed on the British treasury (and on the American supporters of the Crown). The British could not march about the country with impunity; they had to play by the rules of 18th-century warfare. They could occupy a city like New York or Philadelphia, or some limited territory, but their writ could not run effectively outside of those places. And America was a very, very big place. By forcing the main British force to concentrate in one location, Washington created opportunities for subordinate commanders to meet lesser British contingents on more favorable terms in other theaters. On the political side of things, the destruction of the Continental Army would surely have demoralized the patriots and probably signaled the end of the Revolution, because Washington and the army had come to embody the Revolution and the nation as a whole.
Washington’s audacity and boldness now had to bow to tenacity and shrewdness, as Palmer puts it. The general described this new approach in a letter to Congress on September 8, 1776: “on our side the war should be defensive. It has even been called a war of posts. That we should on all occasions avoid a general action, or put anything to the risque, unless compelled by a necessity into which we ought never to be drawn,…we should protract the war if possible.”
Washington’s strategy is often characterized as “Fabian,” after the Roman commander Quintus Fabius Maximus, who sought to avoid direct battle with Hannibal while wearing down the Carthaginians through harassment and destruction of their means of supply. Washington’s adaptation of Fabian strategy reflected two subtle differences. He could not follow a scorched-earth policy and hope to maintain the support of his new countrymen. Although Washington would never willingly put the Continental Army at risk, he was prepared to fight a major engagement, especially if he could isolate part of the enemy’s force. But he would do so in such a way that a tactical setback for the Americans would not turn into a strategic defeat. Washington always left the main body of his force with a way out. No commander plans to lose a battle. But to increase the odds of winning a battle, and especially a decisive battle, a commander must be prepared to run correspondingly higher risks of losing. Washington calculated those risks finely and, for now, chose the conservative side of things.
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Washington is most closely associated in the historical mind with this Fabian strategy, but his strategic adaptation did not stop there. The war of posts meant a war of attrition with Britain, and it was far from clear that the Americans could win such a war against the world’s greatest economic power. The key to American victory was to expand the geopolitical chessboard by gaining the support of France and perhaps other European powers, and by drawing them into the war. This not only meant that the Americans would have access to European military supplies, money, and advisors, which evened up the battlefield in North America. It meant that Britain would have to fight a global war for the survival of her entire Empire, not merely a limited conflict to prevent American independence. London’s political-military calculations had to shift accordingly, which gave Washington strategic room for maneuver that the war of posts had not provided.
He realized that the entry of France into the war in 1778 made victory possible but by no means certain. Although the United States would reap the material advantages of the French alliance, it would also take on the potential liabilities of being the junior partner to a great continental power (and Anglo-America’s historic enemy, to boot). The clock was ticking. Congress was running out of money. Public weariness with the war grew and with it the temptation to let the French do all of the fighting. But the longer the war dragged on and the more the French did, the less leverage the United States would have over all the belligerents, not just the British. Spain had joined the war but refused to ally with or recognize the new nation. Based on historical precedents, the United States had to fear a European-brokered peace that would partition North America among the competing powers, with perhaps only a rump nation left as a consolation prize to the Americans.
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Although Washington did not neglect the security of the Continental Army, he now saw the necessity and opportunity to take greater risks, to seize the strategic initiative. He importuned the French to deploy a significant naval force in North American waters to challenge the supremacy of the Royal Navy. That would allow a combined American-French ground force to isolate and defeat a major element of the British Army. If the British could be driven out of most or all the North American mainland, and certainly out of the 13 states, the United States would be positioned strongly to gain universal diplomatic recognition and to secure desirable borders.
Washington could not bring about this happy combination of events until 1781 because of the lack of American resources and difficulties in convincing the French Navy to cooperate as he wished. Despite his aggressive desperation, he was not indiscriminate in his campaign planning. For example, he objected when Congress suggested a joint Franco-American expedition against Quebec, designed to take advantage of the affinities between the French and the local peoples. For the record, Washington pointed out the logistical difficulties for the Americans to undertake such a campaign. Privately he acknowledged that he did not want to bring about a situation where the French interests in Canada might revive after the war’s end.
Washington thought there was one obvious target of opportunity for a decisive campaign: New York City, which had been the major British operational base since the Continental Army had been ejected in 1776. Historians have typically rolled their collective eyes over Washington’s obsession with New York, noting that it would have been a difficult and possibly impossible nut to crack even with French naval support. It was only at the last minute, so the story goes, that Washington was reluctantly persuaded by his French counterpart, Comte de Rochambeau, to march expeditiously to Yorktown, to link up with Admiral De Grasse’s fleet and trap Cornwallis.
Palmer argues, however, that Washington’s apparent monomania about an assault on New York may have pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes. Washington’s plans and preparations to attack the city in 1781 were not kept secret, nor could they have been. The rapid movement of American and French forces southward, on the other hand, had to be kept secret if they were to beat British reinforcements to the spot in Virginia. So Washington went to great lengths to convince everyone concerned of his single-minded determination to seize Manhattan. He clearly intended to attack somewhere in 1781 but he kept his options open as to where. The high rate of speed with which the combined American and French armies moved southward in the summer of 1781 suggest something less than a blind fixation by Washington on New York.
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In the first three phases of the war, Washington approached strategy in an audacious, cautious, and decisive manner, respectively, as circumstances dictated. The fourth and final phase, after Yorktown, was perhaps the most trying for him and most dangerous for his long-term objectives. The strategic watchword became that of steadfastness. He had to keep the Continental Army in being even though major combat operations in North America had ended. The global war was still being waged and if the Americans simply dissolved their military forces, the British might seize upon the opportunity. They still held New York City, after all, as a base of operations. The existence of the Continental Army also provided negotiating leverage for the American diplomatic delegation in Europe.
On the other hand, to many Americans, the Continental Army, sitting in its barracks in Newburgh, New York, without a clear military duty, represented a mortal threat to the rights and liberties of the people. This viewpoint was not merely an unimaginative reflection of Old Whig anxieties about standing armies. Washington’s soldiers, particularly the officers, had been promised rewards for their years of service, in the form of honors, back pay, pensions, and land. Congress, divided and bankrupt, alternatively balked and temporized when dealing with these commitments. Certain senior officers and government officials thought that they might use the Continental Army to threaten Congress unless the troops’ demands were met, and that the pressure exerted by the Army could bring about essential governmental reforms, such as the ability of the central government to tax citizens and states directly. Some malcontents thought that Congressional reform was a chimera; that only direct military rule could save the nation. It did not take much imagination to figure out who they thought the dictator ought to be.
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Washington, once again, was called on to balance conflicting strategic and political imperatives of the highest order. He would not become a party to the conspiracy and place the American experiment in jeopardy but neither would he surrender his painfully-won moral authority over his Band of Brothers.
Washington worked behind the scenes to defuse the crisis, tacitly accepting that the cause of the whole nation and of republican government overruled that of strict individual justice. He left to posterity his famous Newburgh Address to a meeting of officers in 1783. At one point he stopped to put on his reading glasses—which he never wore in public—to quote from a letter, offering apologies to the assembled for the delay because “I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” He also issued a Circular to the Governors of the Thirteen States—his “first Farewell Address”—which set out his broad political vision for the country, which had guided his military strategy all along. (W. B. Allen offers some careful reflections on the Newburgh Address in chapter 2 of his George Washington: America’s First Progressive . This general story of the civil-military crisis is well told in William Fowler’s new popular history, An American Crisis: George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years After Yorktown, 1781-1783 .)
George Washington’s war was certainly not a perfect one. The nation achieved many but not all of its territorial objectives; President Washington and his successors found themselves struggling with the left-over issues of boundaries, commercial rights, and secure lines of communication for decades to come. On the field of battle, Washington lost more than he won. He devised no innovative tactics or revolutionary operational concepts that influenced military affairs for centuries to come. But the crux of the matter is this: for Washington, war was indeed the continuation of policy by other means, and he made that difficult relationship stick in a way that few if any Great Captains have succeeded in doing.