People/Web Search Calendars UVA Maps A-Z Index spacer University of Virginia Home Page
Staff Contacts TV News Home View All Archives Archives by Speaker
Edward G. Lengel
Associate Editor, Papers of George Washington
"General George Washington: A Military Life
February 6, 2006

The 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 him. Well 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 century 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 this 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 editors 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 I could end each chapter with a daring cavalry charge. Something like that that could bring the reader into the next chapter, keep them reading.

Here 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 in 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 the answer 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 Indian and his near drowning in the icy Alleghany River. But there's also the tale of a young man who took a troop of ragged, surly volunteers in hand and hammered at it for years to create America's first regular, efficient military force, the Virginia Regime. Not your typical type of battlefield drama, but one of the most important events in American military history. And very dramatic.

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 large 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 of 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 a military rebellion that would have threatened the very existence of the Republic.

When I finished writing this book, I saw that I had loads of drama. There are plenty of battles in here. Tie-turning, life-threatening, 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, Washington does not always, sometimes but does not always hold up. The heroic image of Washington looks good as he marches proudly 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 face forward into the mud of mistrust, intolerance, and indecision. Washington's shortcomings sometimes brought about disaster on the battlefield as at Fort Necessity, Long Island, Brandywine, and Germantown. As a battlefield general, his record is mixed, but if you pluck him off his horse, good as he looks there, he was the best horseman of his generation. But if you pluck him off his horse and place him at his desk in headquarters, where 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 when 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 of Washington 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 these images 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 dictating to his aides. The image of the lamp glowing in the window all night long with him working and 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 toward 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 the officers. That's what resonates with the men. He doesn't say, "Men 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. Valley Forge 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 Trenton, 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 on the 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 that Sir William Howe, from New York is going to march up from the Hudson up North to meet Burgoyne and cut off New England. Sir William 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 particular Pennsylvania, New Jersey, will become so disinfected from the patriot cause that they will all turn back to Great Britain.

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 retreat.

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, but 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 when Washington 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. Where 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. Washington 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 garrison in 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 hold Philadelphia.

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 to Trenton and a victory to Princeton, but we lost Philadelphia. And he has had all these other defeats; we should get rid of him.

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 encampment 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 are running 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 get into Valley Forge and they are starting to build their huts to keep them warm and putting up their tents, the food shortage gets so bad that they only have some rotten meat basically and some flour, which is moldy. Not very much. The soldiers come out and they start calling like crows. They are very restive. We have heard a lot about soldiers in the Revolutionary War and 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 to hold off on smallpox pretty much, but you've got all types of other diseases. Fevers, everything. The hospital system at this time 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 the hospitals, 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 farmer's family.

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 wasn't really 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 worse first because first of all, transportation system on the roads, dirt roads, they all turn into mud. And when you depend on 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. So that's 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 take this 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 officers everywhere 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 have their lieutenant colonels there anymore. So it's a bad situation. But there's 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 not leave and that is George Washington. He stays there. Now, he also has Nathaniel Grant. He has Henry Knox. Nathaniel Grant becomes quartermaster general. They do a great job to help him. But Washington is the most visible. Because Washington is there everyday. He rides through camp everyday. He is not the type to hop off his horse and go back slapping with militia pride 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 really amazing.

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 the Revolution? 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 to be 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, what kind 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 that really 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 been able to maneuver very well. Stoudmann and others trained them very well, teach them how to maneuver. Teach them how to march. Teach them how to fight and to fire together; that was very important this time.

I 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 at Valley 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 Morristown, 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 war’s 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, but from a passionate belief in the ideals on which the new country had been founded.

Washington was imperfect and strictly in military terms, he doesn't merit the comparisons that have sometimes been made 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 didn't rest on him alone, he shared that burden with many others from militia privates, tradesmen, and farmers to generals, diplomats, and 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, and 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.

Maintained by Brittany Brown
Last Modified:
Copyright 2003 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia