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George Washington’s Wartime Strategy
On 19 April, 1775 the War for American Independence began on the town Common in Lexington, Massachusetts. British Troops under the immediate command of Marine Major John Pitcairn opened fire on the local militia of Lexington commanded by Captain John Parker, following an anonymous shot soon “heard round the world.” That same day militiamen from many towns around the colony hustled to Concord and fired back at the redcoats. By the end of the day, several hundred men lay dead and wounded, both British and American. Massachusetts called for 13,000 troops to join the encirclement of Boston, spurring the arrival of regiments from New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island. The Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia responded on June 15th by appointing Virginian George Washington to take command of the informal army gathered around Boston, one of the most inspired decisions in all of military history. With the Battle of Bunker Hill on the 17th of June and the more than a thousand casualties that resulted, “the die was cast.”
General Washington’s initial strategy focused on driving out the British from Boston, a city with sixteen thousand inhabitants. He found many of the New England troops under his command, ringing the city, somewhat insubordinate, slovenly and committed only to defending their own turf. One-year enlistments were ending throughout the besieging force and a steady stream of men left the war and returned home; the General set about recruiting a new army around the remnants of the men who remained faithful. General Washington also established spy networks that would become part of his overall wartime strategy to ascertain enemy intentions. Rather than just maintain a static siege, Washington also dispatched General Benedict Arnold with a thousand men to invade Canada, thus alerting the British that the empire faced war on numerous fronts.
The approximately six thousand redcoats found Boston untenable when American task force commander Henry Knox arrived from his raid on Fort Ticonderoga hauling new American artillery which, installed, frowned down upon the city from Dorchester Heights. The Americans had little time to celebrate Washington’s first strategic success, for the British army had boarded transports and moved the seat of war south to Long Island and New York City, a hotbed of loyalty to the crown.
General Charles Lee had attempted, on Washington’s orders, to fortify the New York City area, the most strategically important location for military success in a five state region. He did not realize that New York City and the Hudson River were not only indefensible but were “an open grave waiting for an occupant.” (Lengel, p. 131) General Washington marched his army to Long Island to await the enemy landings. British General Charles Howe received substantial reinforcements from a German mercenary army and more veteran regiments from the United Kingdom in preparation of what would prove to be the near annihilation of the American army.
In a series of engagements–Long Island, Haarlem Heights, Brooklyn, and Fort Lee– the outnumbered and inexperienced Americans were soundly beaten and forced to retreat into New Jersey. The Canada expedition ended in disaster. These military disasters angered and discouraged General Washington and cost him many irreplaceable men, as well as the good will of patriot civilians and Congress. Washington’s character, however, ever centered on duty, perseverance, and commitment to the cause of liberty, together kept him in the field. The problems faced by the Virginian mounted with every passing day—Congress did not have the money to pay the troops, daily desertions reduced the ranks, the quartermasters and could not keep up with the needs of the army—some farmers preferring to supply the British forces because the redcoats paid in gold. A lesser man, perhaps all other potential commanders in America, would have given up and come to terms with the former mother country. The approaching New Year of 1777 appeared bleak indeed.
Washington, however, hatched a daring plan to attack an isolated brigade of Hessian troops wintering in Trenton, New Jersey. The Americans had fallen back to Pennsylvania in defense of Philadelphia as the British settled into their billets to await the spring thaw. Providence had other plans for Colonel Johann Raal and his Germans. On Christmas Eve, 1776, the cold and hungry American army rowed across the ice-choked Delaware River and surprised the mercenary troops in Trenton. With Washington at their head, his men drove the enemy troops through the streets, capturing many and ending the usefulness of the Hessians as a fighting force. The Americans continued to Princeton and fought the outnumbered British garrison right up to the doors of the College of New Jersey. The psychological effects of Washington’s victories electrified the American people and brought hope to the Patriot cause in ways no other events could have produced. The General, with typical modesty in ignoring his own courage and leadership in the enterprise, reported to Congress that the behavior of his troops “reflects the highest honor upon them. The difficulty of passing the river in a very severe night, and their march through a storm of snow and hail, did not in the least abate their ardour. But when they came to the charge, each seemed to vie with the other in pressing forward and were I to give preference to any particular corps, I should do great injustice to the others.”
The following spring he faced the British army in open field combat at the Battle of Brandywine, again leading from the front. He escaped death from the best rifleman in the British army, when Major Patrick Ferguson had him in his sights, mere yards away, but chose not to fire because the mounted General had his back turned and Furguson thought it ungentlemanly to shoot a fellow officer in the back! Though the Americans lost the battle and Philadelphia, Washington was able to extricate his army to fight another day. A great American victory at Saratoga, New York in October, under General Gates, bolstered national morale once again while Washington gathered his forces outside Philadelphia and planned his next move.
That winter at Valley Forge, he and his men would again be put to the test of perseverance. With the survival of the Republic at stake, Washington, with his wife by his side, encouraged his men and worked tirelessly to keep up their morale in the freezing winter camps of ’77. Ever on the lookout for qualified help, he turned the training of his army over to “Baron” von Steuben, who did have experience on the Prussian General Staff but whose credentials of rank were bogus, and his only English vocabulary profane. When the spring came, the sacrifices of winter were left behind and Washington fought on, failing due to subordinate’s errors in a close engagement at Monmouth as the British moved north to New York City, and several years of ennui.
General Washington required men of good character– of honesty, skill, and loyalty– and placed them in positions that made up for his own weaknesses as well as magnify his strengths. Choosing the right men for his staff, enlisting volunteers like von Steuben, and elevating leaders he could respect and trust, like Henry Knox, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Nathaniel Greene, gave him advantages the quarrelling class-conscious British could not match. At the same time he had to deal with others who lacked in character or personal loyalty but were appointed by Congress through partisanship and political machination. They made his leadership all the more difficult, constantly straining both his patience and his perseverance, even jeopardizing his position as commander through lies and back room cabals. Through all the vicissitudes of command, Washington never lost his reliance upon God’s Providence and never lost sight of the goal of victory. With each encounter, whether won or lost, General Washington adjusted his strategy to cope with the current situation and plan for future encounters. He remained flexible and unpredictable while always keeping a faithful remnant eager for the next move.
All the issues of the first couple years of the war reemerged with some new twists prior to the final campaigns. Politics in Congress hampered promotions and elevated incompetents. One of the best generals turned traitor, Benedict Arnold. Providentially the British high command helped the American cause through pursuit of their personal diversions as well as egotistical disagreements. When a major British invasion of the South ravaged South Carolina in 1780, Washington responded by sending troops under General Gage, and after he was routed at Camden, Generals Greene and Morgan. The successful crushing American victories at King’s Mountain and The Cowpens led British General Charles Cornwallis to move into North Carolina, where several pyrrhic victories sent him reeling to Yorktown, Virginia to rest and refit. George Washington’s finest hour had arrived.
Always a master of deception and espionage, General Washington used an ingenious ruse to keep the vastly superior British army quiescent in New York City while he slipped away with the larger part of his army to trap Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. The siege of Yorktown, with the welcomed assistance of French forces, proved to be Washington’s master-stroke, destroying a major British army. Ultimate victory and formal recognition of independence became inevitable. Washington had worn down Parliament’s patience and emptied their treasury. He had kept an army in the field against daunting odds. George Washington had lost more battles than he won, but he won the right ones at the right time and the last one most of all. Usually not counted among history’s greatest strategists or tacticians, Father of his country was more importantly a winner against all odds, defeating the mightiest nation on earth with a band of citizen-soldiers who, by the end of the war, were as professional as their foes, but unlike them, returned to their domestic callings when the war came to an end.