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George Washington

Victory, Defeat, Misery, Stalemate: the Early War Years

Called to Duty

Hope, Betrayal, Victory, Glory: the End of the of War


Washington arrived in Massachusetts in July of 1775, ready to take command of the Continental Army. Unfortunately, there was no army. He found instead a pack of unruly farmers and tradesmen who ate too much and trained too little. He doubted he could ever win a battle with them. Still worse, the soldiers had enlisted for only a six-month term; by the time Washington could have trained them, they would be going home. Though Washington believed that war was inevitable, some members of the Continental Congress held out hope for a peaceful settlement with Britain. As a result they were reluctant to give Washington's army very much money. Washington would spend the entire war trying to get money, supplies, and troops from the Congress, which at times proved a larger obstacle than the British Army.

Despite these handicaps, Washington trained his army. His first goal was to drive the British from Boston. A direct attack was out of the question, though Washington considered the idea. Finally, he was able to acquire large cannons, which he placed on a hilltop overlooking the city. Unwilling to fight against these cannons, the British withdrew. The Continental Army claimed a victory, but in reality the British left by choice; they knew that Boston was too far north to be a useful center of command. They headed for New York instead.

Washington marched his troops to New York, ready to defend the city. This was an impossible task, since, surrounded by water, New York was vulnerable to Britain's powerful navy. The British Army was also very powerful. It was commanded by General William Howe. He was not eager to kill American soldiers. He sympathized with American grievances and hope dto settle things peacefully, but he had orders from Parliament to punish the rebels. General Howe's troops landed on Long Island in late August. Washington tried to repel the invaders but was forced to retreat to Manhattan and then to White Plains, north of New York. Though it was a major defeat for the Americans, Washington's careful retreat preserved his army and outfoxed the British.

British advances forced Washington to continue retreating. He headed west to New Jersey, then crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. It was now December. His troops were tired and dispirited, and his supplies were running low. Worse still, the term of enlistment for most of his soldiers was about to expire. The war seemed about to fail. Then Washington made what may have been the most brilliant move of the entire war. At midnight, December 25, Washington and his troops silently re-crossed the icy Delaware River and surprised a regiment of Hessian mercenaries camped near Trenton. In short order his army had captured over a thousand bewildered Hessians with few casualties among the Americans. Washington's army then fought its way to Morristown, New Jersey, which had been a British stronghold. His victories forced the British to give up New Jersey altogether and return to New York.

Both armies waited out the winter. The following autumn they clashed in the Battles of Germantown and Brandywine Creek. The Americans lost both battles, but Washington's effectiveness against the British was starting to catch the attention of France. During the summer, the Marquis de Lafayette, a 17-year-old French aristocrat, arrived in America determined to help the cause. Washington made him a general, and Lafayette became like a son to Washington.

Despite its successes against the British and the prospect of French aid, the Continental Army was in bad shape. For the winter of 1777 it retreated to Valley Forge, near Philadelphia, where it endured legendary hardship. One in four troops died that winter from starvation and cold. Washington struggled constantly with the Continental Congress for more supplies, but he had little success. Not surprisingly, the soldiers were losing faith in the Congress even as they gained faith in Washington. Though they suffered, the army emerged from Valley Forge tougher and better trained than ever before. It next clashed with the British, now commanded by Sir Henry Clinton, at Monmouth Court House in New Jersey. The battle was a draw, but it proved the Americans were holding their own.


Historians, even those who are hostile to George Washington, agree that military success in the Revolutionary War would have been nearly impossible without his leadership. Yet Washington came into the war with relatively little military experience and a spotty record. His first command, in 1754, had been a fiasco. His heroics under Braddock made the best of a bad situation. Under Forbes, he had shown a poor understanding of military strategy.

Yet Washington brought from those experiences a critical skill: a willingness to learn. He began the war with a major mistake in adhering to plans, drawn up earlier, to defend New York City. After losing New York and the surrounding forts, Washington realized that his army could not fight as a traditional army. It must be mobile, adaptable, and ready to strike in surprise at any moment. Time was on the Americans' side–it was their land and eventually the British would tire of trying to occupy it. Through trial and error, Washington constantly refined his technique, striking in small skirmishes whenever the benefits outweighed the risks. In this manner he conserved his forces and continually outwitted an army twice as large as his own. He was a pioneer of modern-day guerrilla warfare.

Washington rarely enjoyed an outright victory, but his accomplishment was extraordinary. He proved to the world that a small band of civilian soldiers, brought together from a rural and backward continent, could withstand a world's superpower. He was utterly convinced that America would prevail–so convinced, in fact, that he often rode the battlefield himself, charging among his men and miraculously escaping death.

Britain was a formidable enemy. Yet Washington found an even more difficult adversary in the Continental Congress. He struggled constantly to pry funds and supplies out of the tight-fisted Congress. Most importantly, he lobbied the Congress to extend the term of enlistment beyond one year, so that he would not lose his troops as soon as he had trained them. He rarely got what he wanted, and at one point faced such resistance that a group of Congressmen led by Thomas Conway attempted to have him fired. He never lost his patience, however. Washington had complete command of the army and could easily have become a dictator, but he remained committed to the rule of law and civilian authority.

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