The True George Washington: Soldier: Strategy

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff


Strikingly at variance with these personal qualities of courage and hot blood is the "Fabian" policy for which he is so generally credited, and a study of his military career goes far to dispel the conception that Washington was the cautious commander that he is usually pictured.

In the first campaign, though near a vastly superior French force, Washington precipitated the conflict by attacking and capturing an advance party, though the delay of a few days would have brought him large reinforcements. As a consequence he was very quickly surrounded, and after a day's fighting was compelled to surrender. In what light his conduct was viewed at the time is shown in two letters, Dr. William Smith writing, "the British cause,... has received a fatal Blow by the entire defeat of Washington, whom I cannot but accuse of Foolhardiness to have ventured so near a vigilant enemy without being certain of their numbers, or waiting for Junction of some hundreds of our best Forces, who are within a few Days' March of him," and Ann Willing echoed this by saying, "the melancholy news has just arrived of the loss of sixty men belonging to Col. Washington's Company, who were killed on the spot, and of the Colonel and Half-King being taken prisoners, all owing to the obstinacy of Washington, who would not wait for the arrival of reinforcements."

Hardly less venturesome was he in the Braddock campaign, for "the General (before they met in council,) asked my opinion concerning the expedition. I urged it, in the warmest terms I was able, to push forward, if we even did it with a small but chosen band, with such artillery and light stores as were absolutely necessary; leaving the heavy artillery, baggage, &c. with the rear division of the army, to follow by slow and easy marches, which they might do safely, while we were advanced in front." How far the defeat of that force was due to the division thus urged it is not possible to say, but it undoubtedly made the French bolder and the English more subject to panic.

The same spirit was manifested in the Revolution. During the siege of Boston he wrote to Reed, "I proposed [an assault] in council; but behold, though we had been waiting all the year for this favorable event the enterprise was thought too dangerous. Perhaps it was; perhaps the irksomeness of my situation led me to undertake more than could be warranted by prudence. I did not think so, and I am sure yet, that the enterprise, if it had been undertaken with resolution, must have succeeded." He added that "the enclosed council of war:... being almost unanimous, I must suppose it to be right; although, from a thorough conviction of the necessity of attempting something against the ministerial troops before a reinforcement should arrive, and while we were favored with the ice, I was not only ready but willing, and desirous of making the assault," and a little later he said that had he but foreseen certain contingencies "all the generals upon earth should not have convinced me of the propriety of delaying an attack upon Boston."

In the defence of New York there was no chance to attack, but even when our lines at Brooklyn had been broken and the best brigades in the army captured, Washington hurried troops across the river, and intended to contest the ground, ordering a retreat only when it was voted in the affirmative by a council of war. At Harlem plains he was the attacking party.

How with a handful of troops he turned the tide of defeat by attacking at Trenton and Princeton is too well known to need recital. At Germantown, too, though having but a few days before suffered defeat, he attacked and well-nigh won a brilliant victory, because the British officers did not dream that his vanquished army could possibly take the initiative. When the foe settled down into winter quarters in Philadelphia Laurens wrote, "our Commander-in-chief wishing ardently to gratify the public expectation by making an attack upon the enemy ... went yesterday to view the works." On submitting the project to a council, however, they stood eleven to four against the attempt.

The most marked instance of Washington's un-Fabian preferences, and proof of the old saying that "councils of war never fight," is furnished in the occurrences connected with the battle of Monmouth. When the British began their retreat across New Jersey, according to Hamilton "the General unluckily called a council of war, the result of which would have done honor to the most honorable society of mid-wives and to them only. The purport was, that we should keep at a comfortable distance from the enemy, and keep up a vain parade of annoying them by detachment ... The General, on mature reconsideration of what had been resolved on, determined to pursue a different line of conduct at all hazards." Concerning this decision Pickering wrote,?

"His great caution in respect to the enemy, acquired him the name of the American Fabius. From this governing policy he is said to have departed, when" at Monmouth he "indulged the most anxious desire to close with his antagonist in general action. Opposed to his wishes was the advice of his general officers. To this he for a time yielded; but as soon as he discovered that the enemy had reached Monmouth Court House, not more than twelve miles from the heights of Middletown, he determined that he should not escape without a blow."

Pickering considered this a "departure" from Washington's "usual practice and policy," and cites Wadsworth, who said, in reference to the battle of Monmouth, that the General appeared, on that occasion, "to act from the impulses of his own mind."

Thrice during the next three years plans for an attack on the enemy's lines at New York were matured, one of which had to be abandoned because the British had timely notice of it by the treachery of an American general, a second because the other generals disapproved the attempt, and, on the authority of Humphreys, "the accidental intervention of some vessels prevented [another] attempt, which was more than once resumed afterwards. Notwithstanding this favorite project was not ultimately effected, it was evidently not less bold in conception or feasible in accomplishment, than that attempted so successfully at Trenton, or than that which was brought to so glorious an issue in the successful siege of Yorktown."

As this rsum indicates, the most noticeable trait of Washington's military career was a tendency to surrender his own opinions and wishes to those over whom he had been placed, and this resulted in a general agreement not merely that he was disposed to avoid action, but that he lacked decision. Thus his own aide, Reed, in obvious contrast to Washington, praised Lee because "you have decision, a quality often wanted in minds otherwise valuable," continuing, "Oh! General, an indecisive mind is one of the greatest misfortunes that can befall an army; how often have I lamented it this campaign," and Lee in reply alluded to "that fatal indecision of mind." Pickering relates meeting General Greene and saying to him, "'I had once conceived an exalted opinion of General Washington's military talents; but since I have been with the army, I have seen nothing to increase that opinion.' Greene answered, 'Why, the General does want decision: for my part, I decide in a moment.' I used the word 'increase,' though I meant 'support,' but did not dare speak it." Wayne exclaimed "if our worthy general will but follow his own good judgment without listening too much to some counsel!" Edward Thornton, probably repeating the prevailing public estimate of the time rather than his own conclusion, said, "a certain degree of indecision, however, a want of vigor and energy, may be observed in some of his actions, and are indeed the obvious result of too refined caution."

Undoubtedly this leaning on others and the want of decision were not merely due to a constitutional mistrust of his own ability, but also in a measure to real lack of knowledge. The French and Indian War, being almost wholly "bush-fighting," was not of a kind to teach strategic warfare, and in his speech accepting the command Washington requested that "it may be remembered by every gentleman in the room, that I this day declare with the utmost sincerity I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with." Indeed, he very well described himself and his generals when he wrote of one officer, "his wants are common to us all?the want of experience to move upon a large scale, for the limited and contracted knowledge, which any of us have in military matters, stands in very little stead." There can be no question that in most of the "field" engagements of the Revolution Washington was out-generalled by the British, and Jefferson made a just distinction when he spoke of his having often "failed in the field, and rarely against an enemy in station, as at Boston and York."

The lack of great military genius in the commander-in-chief has led British writers to ascribe the results of the war to the want of ability in their own generals, their view being well summed up by a writer in 1778, who said, "in short, I am of the opinion ... that any other General in the world than General Howe would have beaten General Washington; and any other General in the world than General Washington would have beaten General Howe."

This is, in effect, to overlook the true nature of the contest, for it was their very victories that defeated the British. They conquered New Jersey, to meet defeat; they captured Philadelphia, only to find it a danger; they established posts in North Carolina, only to abandon them; they overran Virginia, to lay down their arms at Yorktown. As Washington early in the war divined, the Revolution was "a war of posts," and he urged the danger of "dividing and subdividing our Force too much [so that] we shall have no one post sufficiently guarded," saying, "it is a military observation strongly supported by experience, 'that a superior army may fall a sacrifice to an inferior, by an injudicious division.'" It was exactly this which defeated the British; every conquest they made weakened their force, and the war was not a third through when Washington said, "I am well convinced myself, that the enemy, long ere this, are perfectly well satisfied, that the possession of our towns, while we have an army in the field, will avail them little." As Franklin said, when the news was announced that Howe had captured Philadelphia, "No, Philadelphia has captured Howe."

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