idea hit me three years ago to write a military biography of
Washington. One that would present a new perspective on the
man. I wanted to get a sense of who Washington was as opposed
to this kind of notion of Washington as a cardboard figure;
I wanted to get a notion of him that was more realistic based
on what I had seen in his papers. Yet two things intimidated
me. One was the old academic bugbear, which was how could I,
a nineteenth century British historian by training, write a
book about George Washington in eighteenth century America?
My friend and mentor, former Washington Papers editor-in-chief
and U.Va. professor Emeritus Bill Abbot, who is one of the
finest men and greatest intellects I have ever met. He is
just a wonderful man if any of you ever knew him or know
Bill Abbot put that fear of mine to rest. My vantage point
as an outsider he told me might actually prove an advantage.
For it would allow me to bypass the little controversies
and teacup tempus that parallels Washington, an eighteenth
American specialist and allow me to get right to the heart
of who Washington was.
Then my other fear was writing for a trade publisher like
Random House, which published this book. When I began writing
book, my editors who included the legendary Bob Lumas, who
has edited the likes of John Tolkien, Robert Massey, the
late great Shelby Foote among others, Bob Lumas and my other
pressed me to make Washington come alive and to tell a good
story. That was the emphasis; make this a good story. It
would be best they said and he specifically said this, if
end each chapter with a daring cavalry charge. Something
like that that could bring the reader into the next chapter,
again was the old story, the old Victorian era Washington who
spends most of his time leading men boldly into battle
or outfoxing British. And leaves the boring stuff like feeding
and clothing the Army to the poor droning staff officers
who are made for that kind of thing. How could I tell a story
which Washington, unlike Zorro the magnificent slashed his
initials on enemies backs with a pen rather than a sword?
Would people accept that kind of image of Washington? Well
appears to be yes. So far. And the reason I think is that
there are many kinds of drama.
There’s the old-fashioned kind. The kind that my editors
were looking for which was indeed there. For Washington did
have his death-defying exploits. He had his moments when he
risked his life in battle. Those moments when he made stirring
speeches and he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and
sometimes he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory too.
That's beside the point. Yet there were other kinds of drama
too and they also make great stories.
In the period of the French and Indian War, there's the
saga of Washington's wintertime flight across the wilderness,
with Christopher Gist of his near assassination by an
his near drowning in the icy Alleghany River. But there's
also the tale of a young man who took a troop of ragged,
in hand and hammered at it for years to create America's
first regular, efficient military force, the Virginia
your typical type of battlefield drama, but one of the
important events in American military history. And very
In the Revolutionary War, we have of course Trenton, Princeton,
Yorktown and a host of other traumatic events in the traditionally
heroic mold. We also have though, a man who repeated his
success with the Virginia Regime on a seemingly and possibly
scale. A man who created an Army from scratch. Who preserved
it through defeat after defeat and not only preserved it,
but made it stronger after every defeat. He saved thousands
lives through his willingness to work incessantly when others
gave up and went home. And so thoroughly one that through
the devotion of his soldiers, he was able to prevent
rebellion that would have threatened the very existence of
When I finished writing this book, I saw that I had loads
of drama. There are plenty of battles in here. Tie-turning,
and gut-testing drama to be sure, but it's drama of a different
kind. Often from that that appears in bold river crossings
or daring cavalry charges. 'Cause the truth is that in
the traditional definition of greatness and heroism,
does not always, sometimes but does not always hold up.
The heroic image of Washington looks good as he marches
onward past Fort Duncan in 1758. Trenton and Princeton
in '76-'77 and in Yorktown in '81.
However he looks less impressive in between often when
he sometimes scrambles, saunters carelessly or pitches
the mud of mistrust, intolerance, and indecision. Washington's
shortcomings sometimes brought about disaster on the
battlefield as at Fort Necessity, Long Island, Brandywine,
As a battlefield general, his record is mixed, but if
you pluck him off his horse, good as he looks there,
horseman of his generation. But if you pluck him off
his horse and place him at his desk in headquarters,
few of us
rarely see him, that's where he really glows.
I was asked awhile ago what's the best image of Washington
at Valley Forge, which I am going to talk about at some length
here. A lot of you had seen the painting of Washington kneeling
in the snow and praying at Valley Forge. And there are a
host of other paintings. That painting made us to remember
I was a kid, it was made into a stamp, a Christmas stamp
that we used all the time. And that was kind of the image
at Valley Forge that had been passed down through this kind
of semi-heroic image of Washington beseeching providence
or beseeching God to help the soldiers. You see always
of the suffering soldiers.
But I think the best image of Washington at Valley Forge
is really him sitting at his desk in his headquarters
to his aides. The image of the lamp glowing in the window
all night long with him working and working and working
until indeed he begins to lose his eyesight. His eyesight
gets very bad and that's the genesis of this famous moment
the end of the war, the Newburgh Conspiracy where Washington
has just ordered a pair of spectacles, which he never worn
before in his life. And he puts them on and says gentlemen
if I have grown gray in the service of my country, I have
also grown blind.
He is pointing very specifically to what he did in there
in his headquarters and what he did for them in his headquarters
sitting there at his desk. And that's what resonates with
officers. That's what resonates with the men. He doesn't
I boldly have led you on the battlefields of Princeton or at
Yorktown. Or remember how I jumped between the lines and you
thought I was going to be killed." One of his aides covered
up his eyes because he thought Washington was going to be blown
into bits before his eyes. Washington does not harpen back
that. He harpens back to his moments sitting there at Valley
Forge and at other places and working for them in office to
keep them alive. To give them food. To give them clothing.
To give them equipment. To keep them well-organized. To train
them. To do everything else and that's what resonates. That's
what they remember.
As a battlefield general, he was competent, but mediocre.
As an administrator, as a manager, as a politician, as
a man of
dedication and vision, as, in short, a national leader, he
was indispensable to the young nation and a man without equal
for his times. In the limited time I have available, I want
to focus, as I alluded to a moment ago, to one moment that
I think encapsulates Washington's best qualities.
Valley Forge is...let me give you the background to it first.
This is often viewed and often remembered as a winter encampment.
We think about the winter of 1778 and we think about the
cold and the snow and the misery and everything else.
lasted from just after Christmas 1777 until June 18, 1778.
The bulk of it was actually in the springtime and moving
on toward summer.
The background to Valley Forge is the Philadelphia Campaign
of 1777. Now briefly in 1777, the British launched an assault,
a campaign to take Philadelphia, which is the most important
city in America at that time. The British had already occupied
New York. They had Boston earlier on and left it. They occupied
New York in 1776. Beat Washington out. Pursued him across
New Jersey. Washington crossed the Delaware and attacked
Princeton; drove the British out of New Jersey and then Washington
moves up north in Jersey and has his winter training encampment
there for the remainder of the winter of 1777.
In the summer of 1777, the British Commander in Chief of
the Army in North America, Sir William Howe, decides
that he is
going to make a break with British strategy up until that
time. British strategy up until that time had been focused
Hudson River. It had been focused on the idea of launching
an assault down the Hudson River from the North and launching
an assault from the South from New York to the North. Thereby
cutting off New England; beheading the colonies. New England
is the most rebellious and intractable part of the colonies.
You cut off New England and then you can roll up the rest
of the colonies. It's actually a pretty good strategy.
Well Burgoyne goes to Canada. Sir John Burgoyne. We've heard
about him, Johnny Burgoyne. And launches the campaign from
Canada towards Albany, New York that ends all as we know
in the Battle of Saratoga. Well the initial idea was
William Howe, from New York is going to march up from the
Hudson up North to meet Burgoyne and cut off New England.
Howe decides he is going to do something different. He decides
he is going to go capture Philadelphia instead. He has this
idea that if he captures Philadelphia, that loyalist sentiment
will become so strong throughout the colonies that people
will realize the war is lost. The middle colonies, in
Pennsylvania, New Jersey, will become so disinfected from
the patriot cause that they will all turn back to Great
So what Sir William Howe does is he sails a fleet off Sandy
Hook, New Jersey down through, around the capes of Delaware,
and up through the Chesapeake Bay and lands at the head of
Chesapeake Bay at a place in 1777. And he marches his army
North. Washington who is trying to protect Philadelphia comes
down and tries to prevent Howe from taking that city. Well
Washington is defeated at Brandywine, which I can't get into
here, I don't have time, September 11, ‘77. He is defeated
very badly. Washington does a very poor job at that battle.
He commits the unpardonable sin even though he's defending
his home ground, he knows his home ground less well than does
the enemy who is coming upon that field for the first time.
Washington had all kinds of time to learn about the geography,
but he doesn't. So his enemy knows how to get around his flank.
They get around his flank. They defeat him. Send him back fortunately
his army isn't destroyed. So Washington's army is sent into
Then in a further humiliation, there is a period of maneuver
where Washington is again trying to cut off the British from
Philadelphia. The problem is Washington has to defend two
places. I wish I had a map here. He has to defend Philadelphia,
he also has to defend Redding, Pennsylvania where my family
incidentally came from. Which was the biggest supply depot
for the Army at that time. Well Howe makes a faint toward
Redding. Washington moves over to defend Redding and
does that, Howe moves over and takes Philadelphia.
September 26, ‘77, Philadelphia is occupied. It's a humiliating
moment. Washington is caught flat-footed. He can’t do
anything about it. Congress has to flee Philadelphia and go
off to York, Pennsylvania. It's really a terrible moment.
Well Washington has this talent as he has shown numerous
times throughout the war of turning things suddenly around.
you think he has just been defeated. He is just not going
to be able to come back and he suddenly comes back and attacks
like he did at Trenton. Well Trenton was a great victory.
thinks he is going to do the same thing here and he launches
an attack at Germantown October 4, ‘77. And he gets beaten
very badly. His plan of attack is much too complicated for
his men to figure out. There are many other reasons - some
bad luck, some poor command. In the end, the Americans are
defeated and driven back.
So Washington has one final chance to try to get the British
out of Philadelphia. He tries to starve them out. So he tries
to hold onto a number of forts on the Delaware River. The
British need to re-supply Philadelphia by sea. They are
Philadelphia by sea and up the Delaware River so Washington
tries to hold onto the forts on the Delaware. Well the forts
are reduced. Fort Mifflin, Redbank, and eventually they are
driven out. They are unable to hold onto them and the British
So his Army has been defeated over and over and over again.
It is a long record of defeat. Now by contrast, to ratio
Gates, with an unaccredited performance from Benedict
Arnold who really
won the battle of Saratoga, wins Saratoga in early October
'77. Washington at that time does not look that great. There
is quite a bit of dissention in the Army and outside of the
Army. There was no conspiracy to get rid of Washington, but
there was a lot of discontent with his leadership. A lot
of people were thinking well this guy had a lucky victory
and a victory to Princeton, but we lost Philadelphia. And
he has had all these other defeats; we should get rid
So his soldiers have also gone through all of this. If you
are a soldier and you have gone through all of these defeats,
it's hard to keep your confidence up. So what happens to
them now is that you are just coming into the winter
and they have gone through this terrible campaign and they
are hoping that they get a chance to relax. That maybe they
will get to have an encampment in York or in some other town
where they will actually be able to get into warm lodgings
and have real beds or at least real barracks. They will be
out of the cold. They will have at least a reasonable degree
of comfort. Instead Washington leads them out here into this
middle-of-the-nowhere place called Valley Forge. That which
is literally in the middle of nowhere. It is out in the countryside.
Out in woods. It is a small village around there, but basically
there is nothing there.
And at the same time that they are going out here, there
are no barracks, no nothing, they find their supplies
out. Now they are still wearing their summer uniforms, most
of them. They uniforms are in tatters. Their shoes are falling
apart if they are even lucky enough to have shoes. Worse
of all, they are running out of food. Shortly after they
Valley Forge and they are starting to build their huts to
keep them warm and putting up their tents, the food shortage
so bad that they only have some rotten meat basically and
some flour, which is moldy. Not very much. The soldiers
and they start calling like crows. They are very restive.
We have heard a lot about soldiers in the Revolutionary
how heroic they were and they were a feisty bunch and they
would let you know if they weren't happy. And they weren't
happy. They were miserable. And the clothing, the provision,
the food crisis only gets worse.
Now on top of this, illness begins to spread through the
Army. You've got typhus, smallpox, which Washington was able
off on smallpox pretty much, but you've got all types of
other diseases. Fevers, everything. The hospital system at
is horrible. In fact, it would have been better in some ways
if there had been no hospital system because if you are a
soldier and you get sick in Valley Forge and you go into
you are more likely to die than if you don't go into the
hospitals. The luckiest soldiers who get sick, they get taken
in by a
Now one thing about Valley Forge is it wasn't in particular
cold. Again, this is another part of an image of the snow
three feet deep, and everybody's freezing in depth. It
like that. In fact, Valley Forge would have been better if
it had been colder. The problem was Valley Forge that winter
was unusually warm actually. At that time it was very wet.
So there was a lot of sleet. A lot of cold rain. A lot of
misty fog and slush and stuff like that, which made things
first because first of all, transportation system on the
roads, dirt roads, they all turn into mud. And when you
wheeled transport, wheeled transport gets stuck in the mud,
but even more so, what all this mud does is that it turns
the rivers into torrents. The rivers swell/ In those
days, to cross
a river, there were very few bridges. Bridges were the exception
rather than the rule. In most part, you had to cross at ferries.
Those become, they are no longer operational in this weather
so you are not getting food and you are not getting clothing.
And there is a lot of corruption. There is a lot of incompetence.
There are a lot of people in positions in the Army and in
the administration that don't know what they are doing.
the situation and it's a horrible one.
Now if you are a soldier and you put yourself in the position
of a soldier at Valley Forge, what's really going to make
you decide I have had enough, I am going to go home is
if you see
your officers going home. If you see your officers going
home, see your officers and your generals saying we can't
anymore, we are tired of this, we are going home, then you
are pretty much going to say I am out of here too. Unfortunately,
that starts happening. When I was editing at the Washington
Papers for this period, you see suddenly at the winter at
Valley Forge just a blizzard of letters coming in from
from lieutenant colonel up to brigadier general. Just saying
your Excellency, we've been fighting since 1775, 1776. Our
families are having a hard time. We haven't been able to
provide for them. I have suffered these wounds. I am
sick. I am running
out of money. Etcetera, etcetera. Excuse after excuse. Please
give me a furlough. Please give me leave to go home and incidentally
if you don't do that, I am going to resign. So Washington
doesn't have any choice on the most part. He has to just
to let them
go home. Sometimes he refuses and they resign.
The officer core of his Army is just devastated during Valley
Forge and you have regimes that are left in control of
majors, captains that don't have their colonels, don't
lieutenant colonels there anymore. So it's a bad situation.
one man who stays there all the time. He doesn't go home.
His wife comes up to stay with him, but he himself does
and that is George Washington. He stays there. Now, he
also has Nathaniel Grant. He has Henry Knox. Nathaniel
quartermaster general. They do a great job to help him.
But Washington is the most visible. Because Washington
everyday. He rides through camp everyday. He is not the
type to hop off his horse and go back slapping with militia
and say, "How you doing Joe? How you feeling these days?" He
doesn't do that, but he goes and he issues instructions about
how exactly they need to build their huts. How exactly they
need to keep the camp clean. How they make shift with a small
amount of clothing. He involves himself in every detail and
the amazing thing about Valley Forge is that Washington not
only shepherds the Army through Valley Forge and keeps it together,
but he brings it out stronger than it ever was before and that's
If you consider all these things I have just told you about
how hard Valley Forge was, how was it that the Army came
out and could be stronger than it was at any time in
There are a couple of things. First of all, Washington launches
a grand reorganization of the Army. He brings in a committee
from Congress who consults with him near Valley Forge and
they talk about every aspect of the Army and how it needs
completely reorganized from the top down. They discuss everything
from what kind of wagon drivers we need to have, what kind
of wagons we need to have, what kind of clothing/uniforms
the troops are going to wear, to what kind of muskets,
of weaponry we are going to have, how big the brigades, regimes
are going to be, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. He completely
reorganizes the Army. He brings in people like Stoudmann
who drill and train the troops. Bring them from an Army
did not know how to march very well in the field. This is
one of the causes of their defeats of '77; they had not
to maneuver very well. Stoudmann and others trained them
very well, teach them how to maneuver. Teach them how
Teach them how to fight and to fire together; that was very
important this time.
think that at Valley Forge, Washington's being there had taught
his men to really love him. Not just to follow him.
Not just to respect him as a leader. They had already
learned that, but really to love him. I think they got that
Forge and I think that's why Valley Forge kind of encapsulates
all those things that made Washington great. He had tremendous
dedication. He was known in the Army; he showed greater
concern for the private soldier, not just at Valley Forge or
but everyday of the war. No detail was too small for
his attention if it affected the troops comfort.
The same dedication inspired his patriotism. In the
darkest moments when everything seemed lost, he never doubted
the cause for which he fought. Washington's dedication
to his country didn't emerge from hatred of the British,
a passionate belief in the ideals on which the new country
had been founded.
was imperfect and strictly in military terms, he doesn't merit
the comparisons that have sometimes
between him and Generals like Frederick the Great, Napoleon
and Robert E. Lee. Yet he remains a remarkable man. One
of those figures whose acts determine the course of history.
James Thomas Flexner called him the indispensable man. Nobody
else united the military, political, and personal skills
that made Washington unique. True the country's future
on him alone, he shared that burden with many others from
militia privates, tradesmen, and farmers to generals,
statesmen. But without George Washington, there could have
been, and I will go right out on a limb and say it, there
could have been no victory in the Revolutionary War,
no United States.
As a soldier he was erratic, but competent. As a man, he
was impulsive, vindictive, brave, hardworking, intelligent,
virtuous. And as a leader he was great. I think it is right
to regard him for all his flaws as the savior of this country.