General Washington, by Bradley T. Johnson, Chapter 12

Washington and Lee University

General Washington

By General Bradley T. Johnson



WHEN Washington took command of the New England army, in July, 1775, no man living understood the conditions, political and military, as well, and no man enlarged his view as environment developed and changed the relations of people, of communities, and of States; and he rose higher and higher to understand what surrounded him and what was necessary. The Fairfax resolutions accurately represented his views: First, protest against illegal acts of government, because government had no right to levy taxes or take any portion of the property of any Englishman without his consent; this had been done by John Hampden. Protest proving unavailing, then to resist with arms every trespass on common right—the right of Englishmen to have, hold, and enjoy the products of their own labor, free from interference by any one, from King to constable, except under laws to which he had consented.

Such armed resistance, which the common law called the right of self-defense, was the reform element of the British Constitution, and since the Norman Conquest had been the power by which the English had kept their rulers in check and preserved rights of person and of property to home and family. Self-defense against trespass on rights—the right to use precisely that amount of force which was necessary to protect and preserve person and home—was the logical premise of armed resistance against void laws attempted to be enforced by officers of government, whether civil or military. The colonists comprised about three million white people, mainly English, scattered along the Atlantic seaboard for two thousand miles, which was indented at every point with sounds, bays, and rivers, affording easy access to the interior, Great Britain had three hundred thousand troops in the field, seasoned by campaigns in every climate in every part of the world, and braced by victory over every foe they ever met. For a thousand years the Cross of St. George had been the signal for victory and the emblem of glory, and for nearly a hundred and fifty years it had swept the oceans from continent to continent, the controller of commerce and the mistress of the sea.

The strategy of the Revolution was the largest, wisest, best, that could have been adopted. It was evolved from the broad brain and great heart of Washington, and was the result of his capacity and experience. He understood continental conditions. He knew the value of the Western lands, and how the outlet to the highway of commerce, of civilizations, of nations, and races, was necessary to the future dwellers on the great rivers and lakes of the inland continental basin; but he also understood that the continent itself was necessary to support the progress of the seaboard. The thirteen separate, distinct corporations—colonies—were as entirely apart as if they were on different continents. Charleston was as far from Boston as from London, and the people of New England differed as widely from those on the Chesapeake as those on opposite sides of the British Channel. In race, in religion, in ideas of life, and ideals of right and duty, they differed widely—in many respects were antagonistic.

The Marylanders despised the Connecticut “Yankees” as bumpkins without manners; the Yankees derided the Marylanders as “Macaronis” without manliness. Virginia and Pennsylvania were on the point of war about the possession of the upper Ohio. New York and New Hampshire had a similar bitter quarrel about the Green Mountains. So, when Washington assumed command of the Continental army, it was in substance a New England army, and the continental feeling was not yet born to brace it. During the whole time of the investment of Boston his great effort was to bring his people together so as to know each other, for he knew that association would produce sympathy and respect, and, when the Virginia troops under Morgan and the Maryland Riflemen under Cresap reported, he was enabled to carry out his policy of mixing them. While seeking to crystallize his command by association, and thus consolidate the colonies by the friendly relations of their representatives, his mind was occupied with the grand conceptions which embraced the continent and eventually directed the war.

He sent Montgomery and Arnold to Canada to secure the support of that people, which would have been done but for the accident of the fall of Montgomery at Quebec, and the impenetrable stupidity and incorrigible bigotry of the Continental Congress, which alleged as one of the grievances the colonies had taken arms to redress, the act of Parliament securing liberty of conscience, freedom of worship, and protection of property to Roman Catholics and to their Church in Canada. Such a statement of the principles and feelings of the colonies in arms against the Government effectually crushed out any sentiment of sympathy that may have existed among the French in Canada. The Congress attempted to repair its blunder by sending a commission with John Carroll, Provincial of the Society of Jesus in America, at its head, to explain away to the Canadians the protest and petition to the King.

The Congress did not mean what they said, but only desired to enlist on their side the bigotry which lay dormant in every Englishman’s heart. The Roman Catholics of Maryland would testify that among the Protestants in the English colonies there was the fullest religious liberty and toleration for Catholics. But the Canadians very reasonably refused their confidence to a policy which consisted of falsehood and deception, They could have no guarantee that they were not to be the victims of the fraud, and not the English people, The other move against Canada was more successful. The Quebec Act of 1763 had extended the boundaries of Canada to the Ohio River, thus asserting, ratifying, and executing the pretensions of the French as to that boundary. The great colonies on the ocean shore were thus cut off from the Mississippi Valley and the Great Lakes.

Washington understood and appreciated the continental conditions flowing from the control of the inland waters and lands—i.e., development and commerce. When, therefore, a young Virginian frontiersman, scout, hunter, surveyor, prospector—George Rogers Clark—came forward with a proposition for the conquest of the Western country, to Governor Patrick Henry, during the winter of 1777–’78, Washington supported the movement with all his influence; and early in 1778 all the county northwest of the Ohio was conquered by Clark and annexed to Virginia as the “County of Illinois.” The strategy of the resistance was to create cohesion and fraternity among the people of the different colonies, to evade the British in the open field and on the high sea, to expand the power of the colonies by territorial extension, to confine the enemy to the ports, and protect the interim from them Washington believed in waging a waiting war, in exhausting his enemy—so far from his source of supplies—by delay, in the firm conviction that the finances mast break down and war cease from very exhaustion. War of invasion requires greater efforts and greater sacrifices than war of defense Invasion is voluntary, and may cease at any moment the invader wills it. It therefore requires energy and determination, as well as enormous expenditure of material resources of men and money.

But defense is a matter of pure necessity; it is the protection of home and property, as well as of life and liberty. Invasion is at a distance from the base. Defense is on the base itself. Every pound of food and forage used by the British troops in Boston, New York, or Philadelphia was brought from England or Halifax, while the Continental army was fed by the neighborhood. It was impossible to drive the British out of the seaports without sea force. It was equally impossible for the British to penetrate the interior. Sir John Burgoyne and Sir William Howe had both tried it with disastrous consequences. The strategy of the war, therefore, was to be defense and delay, as long as the dominion of the sea was wielded by the British.

But Washington argued that the maritime nations could not and would not let slip such an opportunity to emancipate commerce and to create a rival to the maritime control of Great Britain. Strategy, the direction and control of military force toward great objects, is the product of great genius, great will, great intelligence. The strategy of the Revolution, elaborated and created by Washington, was the result of all these, and therefore it was grand, wise, and all-embracing. Skillful tactics, the management of troops in actual contact with the enemy, is the result of experience. This, of course, the Virginia colonel did not have, and therefore his tactics were defective, weak, and inefficient.

The campaign of Schuyler and Gates against Burgoyne; of Gates and Lafayette and Greene against Cornwallis; the defense of the line of the Hudson and the Delaware; the concentration by interior lines on Yorktown, were all parts of the same wise, strong strategy, and exhibit the highest qualities of generalship. But the dispositions at Long Island and at Brandywine, at both of which places he was flanked, and the attempted movement of converging columns at Germantown and Trenton, both of which failed to be carried out as projected, all show the inexperienced soldier, He had seen Braddock’s two thousand men in battle destroyed by bad handling, and had absolutely no experience in tactical movement of troops on the field of battle except that once, and his tactics were bad. Just as, in the beginning of the war between the States, in 1861 there was no soldier below Genera1 Scott who had ever commanded a regiment in battle, and none of them had ever seen a brigade movement under fire. At the first battle of Manassas, July 21, 1861, McDowell’s plan of battle was faultless, if he had had veteran officers and troops to execute it. He moved round his adversary’s flank, and there, marching down the right bank of Bull Run, extended and re-enforced his line as each ford or bridge was uncovered. His movement had been executed with the accuracy of a game of chess, until Johnston’s unexpected attack on his flank gave him checkmate. Beauregard’s reply move was to cross Bull Run and capture McDowell’s reserve and supplies, and cut off his army; and this failed from the inexperience of his officers.

Washington attempted Beauregard’s move at Brandywine, and failed from precisely the same cause. His apparent recklessness in battle was prompted by the same reason. He knew what he wanted done. He could not get it done by orders or agents, so he undertook to do it himself. It was a matter of cold, calculating necessity. He was too large a man—had too firm a hold on a fiery, tempestuous nature—knew his own limitations too well to ever permit himself the enjoyment of letting himself loose in battle. His business was to see, to think, and to direct. The mere fighting could well be left to people whose business it was to attend to that department. The exhilaration of combat is an excitement that a great man—leader of men—never permits himself. The stimulant rouses the heart to quicker pulsations, drives the blood with faster throbs, charges the batteries of the brain, until the great general in battle becomes one ganglion of nerves, with twenty senses, each acting with electrical force and precision.

He sees everything, hears everything, understands everything above sight, and hearing, and judgment. The present is photographed on his brain as the future is displayed to his heart, and he acts on inspiration, not logic. Washington did not have this genius. Battle roused him physically, but not so much intellectually, and when he could not get done what he saw was necessary and which he wanted done, he attempted to do it himself. Hence his attempt to rally the rout at Brandywine; hence his throwing himself before his retreating line at Germantown, until Sullivan led his horse out; hence his establishing himself within forty yards of the charging line of British bayonets at Princeton, until his leading regiments could be brought up to him and take the place from which Mercer’s troops had just been driven. These incidents were not exhibitions of the gaudium certaminis, or the fury of fighting, at all; they were the struggles of the inexperienced soldier to repair disaster caused by his inexperienced officers and men. But he was master of the strategy of the struggle. That was to protract resistance, keep an army in the field, pen up the enemy in the ports, until a foreign alliance gave him a chance on the sea.

France was the historical, logical, necessary ally of rebellion in the British Empire. Every attack on the hereditary enemy within her own dominions, for ten generations, had come from France, and it was mathematically certain from the first that, as soon as France was convinced that rebellion promised revolution, she would aid it with all her force. The news of the treaty of alliance, then, which had been concluded February 6, 1778, was precisely what he expected; and when war was declared by Great Britain, Washington well knew that it must be followed by war with Spain.

Sir Henry Clinton crossed over to Staten Island on June 30th, where he was securely bottled up by Washington, who promptly took position on the Hudson. On July 8th—a week afterward—the French fleet appeared off the Capes of the Delaware, under command of Lieutenant General the Count D’Estaing. After communicating with the shore it sailed for Sandy Hook. The British fleet in the harbor was far inferior to the French outside, and Washington sent his aids—Laurens and Hamilton—promptly to the French general admiral to propose a joint attack on New York. No men accept kindly the command of men of different professions, and sailors no more like command of soldiers than soldiers would that of sailors; and the French admiral did not enjoy the command of the American general. The bar of New York was found to impose an insuperable obstacle to the great French line of battle ships; and Washington’s dream of the two previous years—of the capture of a British army by aid of a co-operating naval force—was abandoned at that point.

Another place, however, offered opportunity. After the expulsion of the British from Boston, New England had been free from the enemy, except that Lord Percy had made a lodgment at Newport, in Rhode Island, where the British commanders had ever since maintained a considerable force. Instead of concentrating and forcing the line of the Hudson, and thus isolating New England, British strategy consisted of threats, occupation of seaports, raids on exposed rural districts, and harrying defenseless towns and villages. War on women and children sometimes, though rarely, unnerves the arms of men in the field; it more generally braces them. But for two years this outlying post of New York was kept up. Sir Henry Clinton used it to worry Washington and to make him loose his grip on the Hudson to defend Connecticut. After Lord Percy’s departure for home, the command devolved eventually on Sir Robert Piggott, an accomplished soldier and a gentleman, under whom the garrison was increased to six thousand men.

Newport and New York were the only places in the United States pressed by British feet, and, as the latter could not be attacked by the allies, the former was considered the next point to move on. John Sullivan, of New Hampshire, had been in command at Providence since the spring, and Washington now sent him fifteen hundred picked men, under Greene, a native of the country, and whose Rhode Island brigade had been the smartest, best equipped, best drilled, and best disciplined corps at Boston.

D’Estaing arrived off the harbor of Newport, July 29th, and it was agreed between him and Sullivan that a joint landing should be made and a concerted attack pressed. Sullivan moved promptly, as he always did, and seized Butts Hill, an outlying prominence where there was a British battery; which exploit hurt the feelings of the French, to whom “the doing” was not as important as the “manner of doing it”; and this “manner” not being exactly according to the agreement, they became affronted.

Just then, however, Lord Howe appeared in the offing with a British fleet. Such a challenge no French gentleman could possibly ref use, no matter how momentous the consequences of accepting it, and D’Estaing re-embarked his troops and sailed oat to attack the British. But a storm fiercer than the heaviest ordnance drove both enemies over the face of the deep, and gave them full occupation to save themselves instead of destroying each other. It was not until August 20th that D’Estaing brought his shattered fleet into harbor, and then decided to take his troops and his ships to Boston and refit.

Sullivan remonstrated and Lafayette pleaded with no avail, and the Frenchman sailed away from the point of contact with the enemy. This was the second failure to secure cordial co-operation between French and English, between Saxon and Gaul. Many a man in General Sullivan’s command bore a firelock which his father had carried at Louisburg against the French, and a sword which his grandfather had worn in fights against French and Indians. It was a sore test of human nature to ask these men to give their hearts to the French, who on the first trial of friendship had failed them—as they felt, and as Sullivan said in a public proclamation. Not the least of the difficulties with which Washington struggled from this time until Yorktown, in October, 1781, was the constant effort to smooth the sensibilities of the susceptible French, and to appease their insatiable demand for honor, glory, and consideration.

As soon as the fleet appeared on the coast he had opened communications with them with a tact, a delicacy, and a finesse which nothing could surpass. He sent Laurens—French in blood, in manners, in language—and Hamilton—West Indian by birth—two youths as perfect specimens of cultured chivalry as ever won spurs or bore sword. Personal appearance, deportment, air, produce a profound and lasting impression on human nature, and these brilliant young staff officers only prepared the minds of the Frenchmen for the appearance of their chief. The natural gravity and grace of Washington’s carriage, the grand proportions of the man, the vigor of his intellect and the clearness of his views, at once subdued the respect and conquered the allegiance of all, from general and admiral to the line and the ranks.

In letters which are absolutely unparalleled for delicacy, for elegance, for convincing logic, for appeals to chivalric sentiment, he persuaded, he convinced, he led his allies to follow his directions. His difficulty was enormously increased by the character of the French force. It was a mixed army and navy, under command of a soldier. So, to the jealousies of race and religion were added those of the States on the one side and those of the army and navy on the other. Washington’s problem was to keep in touch, on friendly terms, the Puritan and the Cavalier, the soldier and the sailor, the Saxon and the Gaul, and so imbue them with a common sentiment that they could be got to act in a common enterprise.

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