Historic Valley Forge

George Washington:
The Commander In Chief

General George Washington at Trenton
John Trumbull, 1792

George Washington was much more than the Commander in Chief. He was the one necessary person, whose calm, unswerving, determined sense of patriotic duty to country, and ability put real backbone into the Revolution and kept it from collapsing under the hardships and unexpected privations encountered during the eight years of war. Without General Washington at its head it could never have succeeded. His faith in the cause and his devotion to the ideals it embodied made him the symbol of America — the spirit of the Revolution.

From boyhood on Washington lived in a military atmosphere much of his time. Under his brother's influence and direction he was trained in fencing, also probably in the manual of arms. He assumed service and responsibility in the Virginia militia; and by the time he was serving as an aide to General Braddock he made the assertion, "My inclinations are strongly bent to arms."

Each of the different tasks that fell to his hand seemed to contribute to the store of knowledge useful to him the next one to follow. His experience as a surveyor was a fine preparation for the dangerous mission to the Ohio with Governor Dinwiddie's letter to the French commander. These gave him a real insight into pioneer settlement conditions, the wary methods of Indian warfare, and the difficulties of travel through unbroken forests in midwinter. The Braddock campaign taught him many of the weaknesses in the military system of training British Regular officers and men. He also had tragic evidence of the uselessness and folly of the pomp and display, and the paraphernalia of the formal English movements and practices and learned some vastly important facts of the helplessness of the British soldier in unfamiliar environment where his former European battlefield training could not be employed.

Witnessing all of the horrors of Braddock's defeat, more of a massacre than a battle, George Washington's personal courage had its baptism of fire and bore the acid test of every experience with honor. With two horses shot beneath him and four bullets through his coat, he not only continued his duties as aide but when General Braddock was mortally wounded and most of the other officers either killed or wounded, it was the young provincial colonel who took command of the remnant of the brilliant English Army and brought it and the wounded leader out of the terrifying forest ambush of Indians to safety.

Following this, his experiences of the French and Indian War gave him additional knowledge of border warfare, invaluable experience in training, disciplining, and subsisting his men far from their base of supplies, meeting every emergency and through resourcefulness and initiative creating out of every emergency opportunity to turn to the advantage of his forces. In these early days is said that fear had no part in his make-up.

Through his 15 years in the House of Burgesses his opinions were solidifying into fixed standards and settled convictions that were to hold him fast and keep him true to the defense of the principles of representative government for the Colonies. He had felt the spell of Patrick Henry's ringing challenges to the spirit of free-born Englishmen: "If this be treason make the most of it — Give me liberty or give me death."

He had absorbed the ideals that prompted protests, petitions, debates, discussions, had a voice in the Resolves, in the denunciations of the Stamp Act and the Port Bill and call for a General Congress of the American Colonies to which he was a delegate. George Washington's power and personality must have been marked in this Congress, since Patrick Henry on being asked to name the greatest man in the Congress replied, "If you speak of eloquence, Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina is by far the greatest orator; but if you speak of solid information and sound judgement, Colonel Washington is unquestionably the greatest man on the floor."

In the Virginia Convention some time before he had expressed his stand on the closing of the port of Boston, thus: "I will raise one thousand men, subsist them at my own expense and march myself at their head to the relief of Boston."

Journée de Lexington
François Godefroy
Date unknown

Then came the news of April 18, 1775. Major Pitcairn of the British Army had fired upon the American militia, assembled on Lexington Common, shouting, "Dispense, ye rebels!" and thereby started the American Revolution. Washington at the second meeting of the Continental Congress, May 10, 1775, like his colleagues, realized that settling matters without conflict became impossible with the news of the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord. Americans from 23 towns were found among the dead and wounded, and as the word spread the almost hourly appearance of more companies of armed men from far and near soon resulted in the assemblage of a determined army around Boston. This siege of Boston by its suddenness and the overwhelming numbers put a changed aspect upon the entire situation. A royal governor was hemmed in, apparently with abundant naval and military forces to enforce his orders, but was unable to command a single bit of aid outside of Boston, where he was regarded merely as a military commander of a besieged town.

One of the first steps of the new Congress was to adopt the army gathered about Boston, calling it the Continental Army to distinguish it from that of England which they called the Ministerial Army. It then became necessary to give that body a leader — a commander in chief to handle it. Opinions varied; several were ambitious for the post. George Washington, who, it is alleged, arrived clad in his uniform as a Colonel of Virginia forces, was named but was opposed by some of the delegates. However John Adams, of Massachusetts, nominated him, recording in his diary afterward much of his comments:

"I had no hesitation to declare that I had but one gentleman in my mind for that important command and that was a gentleman from Virginia, who was among us and very well known to all of us; a gentleman, whose skill and experience as an officer, whose independent fortune, great talents and excellent universal character would command the approbation of all America, and unite the cordial exertions of all the colonies better than any other person in the Union."


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