George Washington, unlike Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and Hamilton, was not a learned man. He was not an intellectual. Nor was he a powerful speaker like Patrick Henry. What he was, above all, was a leader—he was a man people would follow. He was not chosen by his fellow members of the Continental Congress to be commander-in-chief because he was a great military leader. He was chosen because they knew him; they knew the kind of man he was; they knew his character, his integrity.
Not all of those who marched off with Washington were heroes; they deserted by the hundreds and even the thousands, or they left at the end of their short tours of duty to return to care for their farms and their destitute families. But those who stayed with him stayed because they would not abandon this good man.
George Washington had phenomenal courage—physical and moral courage. He had high intelligence and was a quick learner. He made some awful mistakes as a military commander but he learned from each one. And he never forgot what the fight was all about: “the glorious cause of America.” Washington would not give up, he would not quit.
On October 29, 1776, the Americans lost a huge battle that entangled 40,000 men-at-arms. Washington organized a daring, almost miraculous, night-time retreat that involved ferrying 9,000 men across the frigid East River under cover of darkness. It was the Dunkirk of the Revolution. His men were totally demoralized. They had been defeated; they were soaking wet; they were cold; they were hungry. They lost again at Kip’s Bay. They lost again in the great battle of Fort Washington, when nearly 3,000 troops and all their equipment were taken captive. Probably a quarter of the army was too sick to fight, victims of smallpox, typhoid, typhus and epidemic dysentery. The stories of men leaving bloody footprints in the snow are true—that’s not mythology. Men deserted, men defected or they just disappeared, they just went away and were never heard from again. The General was left with just 3,000 men.
When every rational man and woman had concluded that the war was lost and that there wasn’t a chance, Washington did what you sometimes have to do when everything is lost and all hope is gone. He attacked. He marched his little army up river nine miles and on Christmas night he crossed the Delaware River, famously portrayed in the great painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” But the worst part of the whole night was not the crossing, as bad as that was. The worst part was the march through the night. It was so cold that two men froze to death because they had no winter clothing. They struck Hessian troops at Trenton and in a savage 45-minute battle they won. For the first time they defeated the enemy at its own profession. The consequences were enormous. It was a turning point.
They struck again at Princeton a few days later and won there, too—again by surprise, again after marching through the night, again taking the most daring possible route, risking all and winning. On October 17, 1781, after a combined American/French blockade and bombardment of Yorktown, the British commander, Cornwallis, raised the flag of surrender. The Battle of Yorktown was not the last military action of the war, but it signaled American victory.
Washington had never forgotten that Congress was boss. When the war at last was over, he, in one of the most important events in our entire history, gave up his military power and turned back his command to Congress. When George III of Britain heard that George Washington might do this, he said, “If he does, he will be the greatest man in the world.” He knew that if Washington so desired, he could become the first emperor of a new nation. The original decision of the Continental Congress was the wise one. They knew the man, they knew his character, and he lived up to his reputation.
The War for Independence was a long and costly war. It was the longest war in U.S. history except for the Vietnam War. 25,000 Americans were killed; that was one percent of the American population of 2.5 million. If we were to fight for independence today and the war were equally costly, there would be more than 3 million of us killed. It was a long, bloody, costly war.
Author, historian and biographer, David McCullough said, “I hope when you read about the American Revolution and the reality of those people that you never think of them again as just figures in a costume pageant or as gods. They were not perfect; they were imperfect—that’s what’s so miraculous. They rose to the occasion as very few generations ever have.”
And so it was back to Mount Vernon, back to the life Washington loved above all else. It somehow seemed fitting that it was Christmas Eve when the retired general once again walked through the door of his mansion on the Potomac.
Next Week: The American Pilot Who Deliberately Bombed Children
Sources: “World Leaders Past and Present: George Washington” by Roger Bruns. “The Glorious Cause of America” by David McCullough, BYU Magazine, Winter 2006.