The True George Washington: Soldier

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff


Bravery in Battle

"My inclinations," wrote Washington at twenty-three, "are strongly bent to arms," and the tendency was a natural one, coming not merely from his Indian-fighting great-grandfather, but from his elder brother Lawrence, who had held a king's commission in the Carthagena expedition, and was one of the few officers who gained repute in that ill-fated attempt. At Mount Vernon George must have heard much of fighting as a lad, and when the ill health of Lawrence compelled resignation of command of the district militia, the younger brother succeeded to the adjutancy. This quickly led to the command of the first Virginia regiment when the French and Indian War was brewing. Twice Washington resigned in disgust during the course of the war, but each time his natural bent, or "glowing zeal," as he phrased it, drew him back into the service. The moment the news of Lexington reached Virginia he took the lead in organizing an armed force, and in the Virginia Convention of 1775, according to Lynch, he "made the most eloquent speech ... that ever was made. Says he, 'I will raise one thousand men, enlist them at my own expense, and march myself at their head for the relief of Boston.'" At fifty-three, in speaking of war, Washington said, "my first wish is to see this plague to mankind banished from off the earth;" but during his whole life, when there was fighting to be done, he was among those who volunteered for the service.

The personal courage of the man was very great. Jefferson, indeed, said "he was incapable of fear, meeting personal dangers with the calmest unconcern." Before he had ever been in action, he noted of a certain position that it was "a charming field for an encounter," and his first engagement he described as follows: "I fortunately escaped without any wound, for the right wing, where I stood, was exposed to and received all the enemy's fire, and it was the part where the man was killed, and the rest wounded. I heard the bullets whistle, and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound." In his second battle, though he knew that he was "to be attacked and by unequal numbers," he promised beforehand to "withstand" them "if there are five to one," adding, "I doubt not, but if you hear I am beaten, but you will, at the same [time,] hear that we have done our duty, in fighting as long [as] there was a possibility of hope," and in this he was as good as his word. When sickness detained him in the Braddock march, he halted only on condition that he should receive timely notice of when the fighting was to begin, and in that engagement he exposed himself so that "I had four bullets through my coat, and two horses shot under me, yet escaped unhurt, altho' death was levelling my companions on every side of me!" Not content with such an experience, in the second march on Fort Duquesne he "prayed" the interest of a friend to have his regiment part of the "light troops" that were to push forward in advance of the main army.

The same carelessness of personal danger was shown all through the Revolution. At the battle of Brooklyn, on New York Island, at Trenton, Germantown, and Monmouth, he exposed himself to the enemy's fire, and at the siege of Yorktown an eyewitness relates that "during the assault, the British kept up an incessant firing of cannon and musketry from their whole line. His Excellency General Washington, Generals Lincoln and Knox with their aids, having dismounted, were standing in an exposed situation waiting the result. Colonel Cobb, one of General Washington's aids, solicitous for his safety, said to his Excellency, 'Sir, you are too much exposed here, had you not better step back a little?' 'Colonel Cobb,' replied his Excellency, 'if you are afraid, you have liberty to step back.'" It is no cause for wonder that an officer wrote, "our army love their General very much, but they have one thing against him, which is the little care he takes of himself in any action. His personal bravery, and the desire he has of animating his troops by example, make him fearless of danger. This occasions us much uneasiness."

This fearlessness was equally shown by his hatred and, indeed, non-comprehension of cowardice. In his first battle, upon the French surrendering, he wrote to the governor, "if the whole Detach't of the French behave with no more Resolution than this chosen Party did, I flatter myself we shall have no g't trouble in driving them to the d?-." At Braddock's defeat, though the regiment he had commanded "behaved like men and died like soldiers," he could hardly find words to express his contempt for the conduct of the British "cowardly regulars," writing of their "dastardly behavior" when they "broke and ran as sheep before hounds," and raging over being "most scandalously" and "shamefully beaten." When the British first landed on New York Island, and two New England brigades ran away from "a small party of the enemy," numbering about fifty, without firing a shot, he completely lost his self-control at their "dastardly behavior," and riding in among them, it is related, he laid his cane over the officers' backs, "damned them for cowardly rascals," and, drawing his sword, struck the soldiers right and left with the flat of it, while snapping his pistols at them. Greene states that the fugitives "left his Excellency on the ground within eighty yards of the enemy, so vexed at the infamous conduct of the troops, that he sought death rather than life," and Gordon adds that the General was only saved from his "hazardous position" by his aides, who "caught the bridle of his horse and gave him a different direction." At Monmouth an aide stated that when he met a man running away he was "exasperated ... and threatened the man ... he would have him whipped," and General Scott says that on finding Lee retreating, "he swore like an angel from heaven." Wherever in his letters he alludes to cowardice it is nearly always coupled with the adjectives "infamous," "scandalous," or others equally indicative of loss of temper.

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