Washington as a Strategist, by By Henry B. Carrington

Washington and Lee University

Washington as a Strategist

By Colonel Henry B. Carrington, LL.D., United States Army.

Note: Author Henry Beebee Carrington (1824–1912) was a native of Wallingford, Connecticut, who after his graduation from Yale settled in Ohio. In addition to practicising law and and teaching college, he was an early proponent of abolition and was active in the formation of the Republican Party. In 1857 Ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase chose Carrington to reorganize the Ohio militia, and at the beginning of the Civil War he was the state’s adjutant general. In that capacity he became instrumental in organizing Ohio’s military contributions to the Union war effort, and his experience in mustering troops led Indiana Governor Olive P. Morton in 1862 to request Carrington’s assistance in raising 100,000 Union army troops in Indiana. Carrington was commissioned colonel of the 18th U.S. Infantry in May 1861, and promoted to brigadier general two years later. He apparently avoided combat service in favor of overseeing espionage operations in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee. After the war Carrington served as an engineer in the U.S. Army, erecting a chain of western forts that included Fort Phil Kearny, which he commanded. Carrington’s military career came to an abrupt end during the Red Cloud’s War, when a detachment of eighty-one men under Captain William J. Fetterman were killed in December 1866. In 1870 Carrington returned to teaching, at Wabash College. His numerous publications include The Scourge of the Alps (1847); Russian Among the Nations and American Classics (1849); Battles of the American Revolution, 1775–81 (1876); The Indian Question (1884); Washington the Soldier (1899); and the following essay, taken from the October 1881 issue of The North American Revew (Cedar Falls, Iowa: University of Northrn Iowa, vol. 133, pp. 405–15).

Henry B. Carrington


THE conflict which tried Washington and gave birth to the Republic was not to develop new principles of war, but to illustrate those which do not change with the physical appliances of force. It began without formal declaration on either side. Great Britain struck her first blows at local rebels, and did not see that revolt was universal. The people everywhere struck back, as if they were already rightfully free. The policy which, through secret orders to the colonial governors, had sought first to disarm, and then subdue, only intensified the popular longing to be free. Each colony committed overt disloyal acts before the clash at Lexington was known at the South. However tardily the world realized the fact, the war, from the first, was that of Great Britain against three millions of strong people, already practically a nation. Her right policy was that which would have directed her arms in a war against any independent state. To seize all commercial and social centers at once, so that combined resistance could not be successfully organized, was as important as for the colonies to demonstrate the universal unity and activity of their assertion of independence.

It was as well settled then as since that geographical elements shape strategical and tactical movements, and that, as armies have their right, center, and left divisions, so that it can never be a matter of exact indifference where a blow shall fall, so, in countries of large extent, there are right, center, and left zones or belts of operation, geographically taken, which strategy must respect. The Confederate grasp of Richmond, from 1861 to 1864, whereby the same forces were employed, both East and West, by the use of an interior line, was like to that masterly hold upon the fastnesses of New Jersey, by which Washington shaped the struggle, and with the same troops operated on the Hudson as well as toward New York and Philadelphia. The Federal campaign of 1862 had for its prime hopeful factor an absolute concert of movement by the forces beyond the Mississippi (the right zone), supported by a fleet, with those of the center toward Nashville, and of the left toward Richmond; and like considerations of military expediency prompted Great Britain to seize and operate from New York, as a military base, thereby to plan and combine operations over every field of disaffection or resistance.

The right zone embraced New England, sharply severed from the center by the Hudson River and the lakes beyond, as the left zone was defined by the waters of the Delaware and Chesapeake. From New York as a base there was quick access by water to Newport, within striking distance of Boston; and the control of tide-waters, well supported, left New England powerless to aid the center.

As early as 1775, Lord Dartmouth advised the evacuation of Boston, the occupation of New York and Newport, and “the seizure of some respectable port to the southward from which to attack sea-coast towns in the winter.” The struggle for New York was the practical beginning of the war upon a scientific basis. To isolate the American forces in the three zones was true British policy. It was the policy of Washington to hold his forces in each zone to the closest possible coöperative relation, and thus prevent a conflict in three zones at the same time, or beyond his effective reach and control. It is by holding these propositions in view that we apprehend the full significance of operations in New Jersey, which practically linked the three zones and became the strategic battle-field of the war.

Washington assumed general command July 3d, 1775, and thereby defined the impending war to be one for complete independence. An ever-changing mass of earnest men environed the city, cutting off supplies, indeed, but with slight discipline and less conception of that rigid system which alone could insure success. His first work was to convert those earnest men into an army, with recognized duties, responsibility, and accountability. “They have been trained, officers and soldiers alike, to have their own way too long,” he affirmed. Powder, arms, provisions, clothing, fire-wood, medicines, horses, carts, tools, and all supplies, however incidental, depended upon minute instructions of Washington himself. He was, practically, his own chief of staff. A few orders are cited as an introduction to that system of operations which mark his life as a soldier: To withhold commissions until some proof was given of individual fitness, involved grave responsibility. To punish swearing, gambling, theft, and lewdness evinced a high sense of the solemnity of the hour. To rebuke Protestants for mocking Catholics was to recognize the dependence of all alike upon one God of Battles. To repress gossip in camp, because the reputation of the humblest was sacred; to brand conflicts between those in authority as fatal to discipline and unity of action, and to forbid the settlement of private wrongs except through established legal methods, showed a clear perception of the conditions which would make an army obedient, united, and invincible. These, and similar acts in the line of military police regulations, and touching every social, moral, and physical habit which assails or enfeebles a soldier’s life and imperils a campaign, run through all his papers. It is through these that the careful student can pass that veil of formal propriety, reticence, and dignity which so often obscured the inner, the tentative elements of his military character. It was while imbued with such ideas, and while exacting strict conformity to his will and to such standards, that he urged on the siege of Boston. Its capture, or, if necessary, its destruction, was his settled objective. “Give me powder, or ice, and I will take Boston,” was his laconic demand for the means of bombardment, and his assurance that, if the river would freeze, he would force a decisive issue by direct assault, with the means already at command. The environment of the city was so complete that no substantial sortie was attempted. The double campaign into Canada, by Arnold through Maine, and by Montgomery toward Montreal, was made while adequate forces inclosed Boston, and its garrison could only draw aid from England itself. It had been ordered by Congress, and was supported by Washington, only upon the most positive assurance that the Canadians were ready to strike, and that, if delivered, they would maintain themselves. These diversions, so disastrous in themselves and in the subsequent depletion of his army, were strategically sound under other conditions, but an irresponsible people failed to support the army of deliverance, and failure was unavoidable. From that time forward, how ever strongly urged by Congress in the interest of France, every proposition for a Canadian campaign was successfully opposed by Washington.

On the 10th of October, General Howe relieved General Gage, and intimated his estimate of the peril to the Crown by formally assuming command “over all the Atlantic colonies, from Nova Scotia to West Florida.” Congress increased the army before Boston to nearly twenty-four thousand men, established a navy, and caught glimpses of the war beyond. Washington determined to free himself from local fastenings, so that he might make his head-quarters, general depot, and base at New York. Howe was rënforced December 31st, 1775. Within a week, Washington learned that Clinton would make an expedition by sea. General Charles Lee, then in Connecticut, but ordered to New York to place it in a condition of defense, reached that city just as Clinton anchored off Sandy Hook. A semi-armed neutrality existed between Governor Tryon and the people. The proposed measures of defense were real acts of war against Great Britain; but although “authorized to burn cities that refused submission,” Clinton sailed southward. Washington acted just in time to save New York.

The continuing siege of Boston was mostly memorable for the activity of the American commander-in-chief and the subordination of the army to discipline and duty. There “had been one single freeze, and some pretty good ice,” but a council of war opposed an assault. At last, suddenly, and, as ever, successful when acting freely, Washington planned and executed the occupation of Dorchester Heights, and Boston fell. The British army left on the 17th of March. On the 18th, General Heath was started for New York with infantry and artillery. On the 23d, when the British actually put to sea, the entire army, less a police garrison, followed. Dispatches to Governor Trumbull, of Connecticut, and to the local authorities of New York and New Jersey, announced the next field of conflict, while such careful itineraries were marked out by Washington himself that he knew the daily progress of his advancing columns. On the 22d of April, he was required by Congress to send Thompson, Greaton, Patterson, Bond, and Poor, and on the 26th to send Sullivan, Reid, Wayne, and Irving, to Canada. He protested that “by this division of forces neither army will be sufficient.” The waste by disease in Canada, and his inadequate force in the ensuing struggle at New York, confirmed his judgment. On the 7th of July, General Howe declared “the works at New York to be the first object of his attention,” while foreshadowing a movement from Canada and the occupation of Newport as essential to control New England. His arrival, June 26th; that of Knyphausen, July 7th; of Admiral Howe, July 12th, and of Clinton and Cornwallis from the South, August 1st, suggested to Washington the increasing force at his front. He accepted the challenge and prepared for the issue.

The battle of Long Island followed. Howe’s superb night march, August 27th, by which Sullivan, before the center, and Stirling, before the right, of the American lines, were alike taken in rear and captured, brought twenty thousand British troops before the works. The American army, which should have had an equal force on Long Island, and the same in New York, “fast fading away,” had a paper strength, all told, of less than twenty-eight thousand men. Even on the 19th, more troops had been sent to the northern army. Washington was compelled to guard fifteen miles of water-line, from King’s Bridge, along both sides of the Hudson; to garrison Governor’s Island, and keep open his communications with New Jersey. As deliberately as Washington occupied Brooklyn, to check the British advance and gain the moral force of overt action in defense of New York, so decidedly did he resolve to withdraw the garrison. The orders, only recently published, whereby that garrison was put under arms, as if to remove the sick and introduce fresh troops, but really to insure composure on retreat, are models in fitness, and their execution was masterly. The strategic stroke at Dorchester Heights was followed by the retreat from Brooklyn, and Europe accorded like praise for each.

The British army promptly extended its right wing toward Hell Gate and Long Island Sound. Congress urged the retention of New York, but finally left all to the discretion of Washington. For General Howe to hold Brooklyn and the main-land above New York, supported by a fleet, was to command the city. For Washington to retain it, under such conditions, with no control of the main-land adjacent, was simply to occupy a prison camp, at the mercy of his adversary. He determined to extricate his army and gain freedom of action.

As a statement of fact, Washington never emerged from a sore ordeal that he did not revive his command by some offensive return. The withdrawal and action near Harlem were not more creditable than the judicious location of a supply camp at White Plains, near to the Connecticut line, but remote from naval attack. General Howe understood its value, and having detached Knyphausen to King’s Bridge, he marched for White Plains, intending to capture the stores, to cross to the Hudson, and thereby imprison Washington below himself, as he had hoped to do before that officer retired from the city. It was a race of the two armies for White Plains.

Washington took the upper side of the river Bronx, intrenched each night, skirmished daily, reached White Plains first, and offered battle. Chatterton Hill, which commanded White Plains, was taken, but Washington gained North Castle Heights and freedom of action. Assuming that “Howe’s army was too strong to be idle, and must strike for Philadelphia,” he promptly entered New Jersey. It is difficult to find a better example of good adjustments than that which led those half-clad, half-armed troops from the evacuation of Boston to the so-called retreat through New Jersey. Retreat is a misnomer for that march. It was generalship. At every stage of advance, after the fall of forts Washington and Lee, the troops were so disposed that only the willful detention by Lee of his large division prevented a direct movement against Howe. Washington reached Trenton, seized all boats, held all ferries, and just when his escape seemed hopeless, as early as December 12th, resolved to take the offensive. The battle of Trenton was the blow he gave. That of Princeton followed, January 2d, 1777. On December 28th, he had declared his purpose “to drive the enemy from, or at least to the extremity of, New Jersey.” He regarded Philadelphia, and any city, as an immaterial factor if he could preserve his army. It was bold thus to put himself between the British and New York, and to challenge Howe before his head-quarters. That officer regained New York, wrote to England for reinforcements, and New Jersey was delivered. Contemporaries honored these exploits. The “Fabian policy,” so styled, had been enlivened by sudden brilliant acts, each of which was like an inspiration in its fitness, and a lightning stroke in its execution. Brooklyn and the retreat Harlem and the withdrawal, Chatterton Hill and White Plains, the march through New Jersey, Trenton and Princeton, suggest all, and these were crowned by such art in choice of a mountain camp that, as at the hub of a wheel, he alike threatened the Hudson, communicated with New England, kept New York and Staten Island under alarm, and covered the capital. These were so clasped within easy reach that Howe could attack neither without risk to his base. Clinton did, indeed, occupy Newport, December 9th, but was practically ignored, while Washington kept his main enemy ever on the alert, avoiding, for himself, decisive battle, drawn into no surprise, and yet striking at every exposed point, to inspire his own men and wear out his foe. It was sound strategy. On the 21st of January Howe withdrew two thousand men from Newport, and declared that “there was no object in Connecticut for which to risk a general action.” Tryon’s incursion into that colony did not disturb Washington. In June Howe advanced to Somerset Court-house, and put the capital in jeopardy to force his adversary to a general action. Washington took post at Middlebrook, drew reënforcements from Peekskill, disregarded Philadelphia, skirmished actively to invite attack, and at Quibbleton, Scotch Plains, Westfield, Woodbridge, and Metuchen Meeting-house so fully eluded Howe’s efforts to fight him at advantage that, on the 3d of July, that officer again retired to Staten Island and New York. The second campaign in New Jersey was as fruitless for British arms as was that of 1776.

Washington first learned of Burgoyne’s movement on the 20th of July. He expected that officer to gain New York by sea, as Burgoyne himself preferred thus to strengthen the New York garrison and make it equal to its obligations; but the activity of shipping in the lower bay of New York convinced Washington that all zones would share in the work of the next campaign. He strengthened posts on the Hudson and sent scouts as far as the Delaware capes. On the 20th of March, Lord Germaine determined upon combined movements; but General Howe held that “to make the capital an objective was the surest road to peace and the defeat of the rebel army.” Howe sailed from Sandy Hook July 23d, and Washington made a forced march to Wilmington, Del. From Howe’s landing at the Head of Elk, August 25th, until the American army awaited battle on the Brandywine, every effort to crowd Washington upon the Delaware, gain his rear, and cut him off from Philadelphia, was foiled. The American order of battle was planned, with General Greene’s aid, as if the army was so disciplined as to fear no defeat. It was one of those occasions when even comparatively fresh troops, ignorant of the real danger, have been led by great commanders to enterprises from which veterans might well shrink. Twelve thousand men were to withstand the advance of nearly eighteen thousand. When Howe exactly repeated the maneuvers of Long Island, Washington equally well again rescued his army, regained Philadelphia, drew supplies, marched up the Schuylkill, crossed at Swede’s Ford, and at Winchester offered battle. The whole march demonstrated the vitality of an army so inspired, and the strength of the faith, wisdom, and will of its commander. The battle of Germantown, October 4, 1777, was an offensive blow, with sound methods, and the rescue of the army under the changing conditions of the morning fog especially aroused the enthusiasm of France. Couriers were at once sent to Spain to invoke her coöperation, and on the 12th of December the French minister said: “Nothing has struck me so much as Washington attacking and giving battle to Howe’s army.”

On the 4th of December General Howe led fourteen thousand troops to Chestnut Hill, and uncovered Philadelphia, but was repulsed, without enticing Washington to attempt its capture. Even the ordeal of Valley Forge was a training school preparatory to that firm pursuit of Clinton which induced the battle of Monmouth. The plan of Washington—to strike obliquely the prolonged line of British march, and concentrate his advancing columns so that a superior force would bear upon the points assailed—was soldierly, but required of the immediate commander that will and faith in success which Charles Lee did not possess. Clinton received but a spent blow, and struck with vigor; but, as at Kipp’s Bay and Princeton, Washington arrived and threw himself into the hottest fight to suspend disaster. Clinton once more sought refuge in New York.

The grand British plan, so complete in preparation and so scientific in principle, had failed. The cabinet was in advance of its officers, as Washington was in advance of Congress. Bennington, Oriskany, Saratoga, Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth signified progress. Washington at White Plains, no longer planning to avoid an urgent enemy, but how best to regain the few posts still held by the Crown, thus contrasts his condition with that of 1776: “The hand of Providence has been so conspicuous that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and worse than wicked that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligation.” Thus far no foreign aid had been furnished. The arrival of Count d’Estaing in July did not realize all expectations, but General Clinton wrote to Lord Germaine, July 29th, that “he might be compelled even to return to Halifax.”

The disposition of the American army for winter quarters embraced Connecticut, both banks of the Hudson, and New Jersey, with head-quarters at Middlebrook, thus fulfilling all conditions for the safety of the command and observation of the enemy. Cornwallis made an incursion into New Jersey, and depredations were committed in Westchester County, N.Y., and elsewhere, but such was the despondency of Clinton that, on the 2d of December, he wrote the British Secretary of State: “Do not let anything be expected of one circumstanced as I am.”

The year 1779 brought the practical transfer of operations to the Southern zone. Washington in vain implored Congress to place Greene over that command, and Gates was assigned. Tryon’s impotent incursion into Connecticut, the burning of Norfolk and Portsmouth, the capture of Stony Point, its recapture by Wayne and its abandonment, its re-occupation by Clinton and his withdrawal, as well as from Newport, and the fruitless siege of Savannah, marked the year. Clinton sailed for Charleston in December. Washington re-adjusted his army, sent Southern troops to that zone, established head-quarters at Morristown, and held firm grasp upon the approaches to New York. The winter of 1780, with its severity, equally suspended the operations of both armies at the North, exacting the utmost vigilance of the American commander-in-chief to supply his army, quiet its groans, and keep it up to duty. The surrender of Charleston, May 12th, anticipated by him from the first, did not disturb his plans. Clinton returned to New York in June, just in time to aid Knyphausen’s attempt to draw Washington into a determining action; but with the burning of Springfield the plan ended, as well as all operations out of New York. Rochambeau lauded at Newport, R.I., July 10th, 1780, with six thousand troops, the half of a force designated by Louis XVI. to be under the personal command of Washington. The treason of Arnold occurred. The American army, neither paid nor fully fed, dwindled daily, until it seemed as if the French alliance was to fail for want of American support. The battle of Camden, August 16th, not known to Washington until September, was offset by the glow of success at King’s Mountain, October 7th; but the second French contingent did not arrive, and, on the 20th of December, Washington warned Congress, in very laconic terms, that “an army, or State which is the theater of war, could not rub through another campaign as the last.” But he resolutely re-organized the army, established the basis for a permanent establishment, and placed Greene in command at the South. Morgan’s victory over Tarleton, at Cowpens, January 17th, 1781; the battles of Guilford Court-house, Hobkirk Hill, and Eutaw Springs, at least proved the inability of the British commanders to gain general support from the people of the South; and with the assignment of Lafayette to Greene’s command, on his return from a visit to France, then began the immediate development of the plan by which Washington expected to end the war. The result confirmed his faith.

On the 18th of May, 1781, Lafayette assumed command in Virginia, with orders from Greene to make his reports to the commander-in-chief, direct. Washington reënforced him promptly, and on the 20th of May resolved, with Rochambeau, to make a summer campaign against the British head-quarters at New York. By the 6th of August, Lafayette reported “a very hopeful state of affairs in Virginia.” On the same date, Washington and Rochambeau made a demonstration in force against the head of New York Island, and along the Harlem as far as Hell Gate. Such was their pressure upon Clinton that he demanded aid from Cornwallis,—” the sooner, the better,” being “threatened with a siege.” On the 21st the American army, and on the 25th the French army, crossed the Hudson River. Boats, carried on wheels, brick ovens commenced opposite Staten Island, fictitious plans of operation purposely placed within Clinton’s reach, afforded that officer fresh cause for alarm. The allied armies were ignorant of their real destination, because, said Washington, “If the imposture does not take place completely at home, it will never sufficiently succeed abroad.” On the 30th of August, Washington was at Philadelphia, not missed by Clinton. His army passed that city September 2d, not missed by Clinton. On the 5th, Washington reached Chester, and learned that the Count de Grasse had entered the Chesapeake, and still he had not been missed by Clinton. On the 6th, Clinton understood all, and hurriedly, but too late, promised aid to Cornwallis.

That grasp of New Jersey fastnesses, which held supreme direction of operations and defeated British combinations during five years of war, was at last relaxed, only that it might assure that permanent triumph which its consummate strategy had made possible. On the 14th of September, Washington joined. Lafayette. On the 17th, Coruwallis surrendered.

The war was at an end. Against every possible obstacle, in. spite of small levies, scarce supplies, general corruption, universal bankruptcy, jealous subordinates, and factious politicians, there had been manifested, wherever Washington appeared, such strategical adjustments as assured the highest attainable advantages over the theater of war as a whole; such tactical action as made the most of the troops engaged, with no signal disaster in the extremest hour of peril; such prompt management of supplies as best to utilize the means furnished by Congress; such appliances in engineering as met emergencies, and such instruction in minor tactics that the Continental troops proper were rarely at fault. Add to these that military policy, or statesmanship in war, which was so clear and penetrating that Congress and subordinates only advanced the war as its suggestions were accepted as influential and paramount, and the summary seems complete.

Upon such premises of fact it is affirmed that there was one mind, that of Washington, which absolutely penetrated all the signal issues of the war for American independence by its magnetic force, and from Boston to Yorktown so controlled and developed those issues that victory became the logical necessity of its philosophy and action, and made him indeed “first in war.”