Historic Valley Forge

George Washington:
The Commander In Chief

Page 3

October 17, 1777, Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga to the army under Gates; and this fact, aided by the influence of Lafayette and Benjamin Franklin eventually secured the French alliance with the aid of money, men and ships. Meanwhile, General Howe went into winter quarters in Philadelphia, and General Washington and his army went to Valley Forge December 19, 1777, where he could watch Howe's army and guard the country about Philadelphia. Howe's admission that he had no hope of ending the war without 10,000 more troops proved that the Americans had scored beyond their hopes in 1777.

The rigor and hardships of Valley Forge would have vanquished any other man but General Washington. Owing to the inefficiency of the commissary departments fully 2,898 soldiers in camp in Valley Forge were unfit for duty because they were barefoot and destitute of clothing. At times there was not three days provisions for men or horses in camp and often not sufficient for one day. It was in the midst of this poverty and privation that Baron von Steuben began his work of drill and discipline. he aroused the enthusiasm of the officers, and they imbibed his zeal, with a result in morale and efficiency that was astonishing and which continued in spite of Washington's failure to convince Congress and the States of the futility of short-term enlistments. Within a few months von Steuben was a witness to the effect of his training in the turning of the tide at Monmouth.

The year 1778 brought the departure of Howe, and Sir Henry Clinton succeeded him. Clinton soon decided to evacuate Philadelphia and move his forces to New York. This they did by such slow marches that the Americans came upon them at Monmouth on June 28, led by Major General Lee, who for no cause whatever ordered a retreat, to the astonishment of Wayne and Lafayette. However, General Washington came riding out to meet Lee and, seeing his men in retreat, severely reprimanded Lee, took command of the situation, and turned the tide against the enemy so strongly that after nightfall they slipped away to New York. After two years of war the British were again confined to the city, and Washington was again at White Plains. There was no further attempt to conquer the Northern States; and the military situation was such as to be proof positive that General Washington had accomplished his entire object against the British, whose attempt to overrun the country he had entirely defeated; baffling and outwitting a superior army still huddled on the coast.

The British then attempted to subjugate the South, while continuing to hold New York against Washington's immediate army. Watching the ebb and flow of conflict in the South, minor engagements along the Hudson, the problem of cooperative movement with the French Army and fleet, the ever-present financial deficiency, the treason of Arnold, with many lesser vicissitudes, kept the Commander in Chief of the American Army constantly alert and watchful of the next move in the conflict, until the exciting close of hostilities at Yorktown in 1781.

When the Revolution began and General Washington, unlike the British generals against whom he was fighting and the French generals with whom he became associated, had no powerful organized central government back of him to keep him supplied with the sinews and munitions of war, with its bureaus and departments to facilitate the conduct of military campaigns. Instead, only an elective committee represented all the Colonies. To secure supplies became the all-important issue and the never-ending struggle. Jealousies between the States north and south and the personal jealousy not only of ambitious officers, but of Congress, lest General Washington become too popular, brought upon his head petty slights and indifference from the very agencies that should have given him the utmost support in their power. Criticism of every act also hampered him, and his military skill was even disputed and belittled. He was criticized for inactivity, though in most cases when a council of officers was called to decide upon an attack the General's opinion was outvoted. However, it is noticeable that when he did decide to follow his own judgement for action brilliant victories were usually the result.

He was a past master at strategy and planned strategy for each campaign and for the war as a whole. He had to be commander, chief engineer, chief of intelligence, soldier, judge, statesman, quartermaster, commissary head, sanitary head, and not only take orders from Congress but also to advise Congress on legislative matters. He had to pledge his own fortune to keep soldiers in the service, which the short-time enlistment policy of Congress kept in a constantly moving procession of partly trained men going through the ranks, many of them remaining less than three months.

Incapable of fear, the same indifference to his own personal safety which characterized his actions through the Braddock Expedition and the French and Indian War, was the source of great uneasiness to his men. One of his officers wrote:

"Our army love their General very much, but they have one thing against him which is the little care he takes of himself in any action. His personal bravery and the desire he has of animating his troops by example, make him fearless of danger. This occasions much uneasiness."

Although considered stern, cold, and remote, commanding the respect of the rank and file and the public by the forcefulness of his personality and his high character, he was not a hard man or a martinet. He suffered in sympathy for his ragged, half-starved, poorly-fed soldiers and shared every privation with them. For more than six years, although often within a couple of hundred miles of his own home of ease and plenty, he did not visit it. Despite his formal and austere manner, every man in the ranks knew that he had the complete sympathy of his Commander and rested in the assurance of his justice.

Through the long struggle when every victory seemed to be checked by a defeat, when disloyalty, indifference, and treason in his own official family added to the burden of that which he carried, he never faltered at the rigors imposed not for a moment let go of the conviction that ultimate victory was to come. Washington's constant retreating before the British Army brought upon him much severe criticism, but in the end those who so bitterly assailed him for this seeming lack of success were forced to admit that an open fight would have crushed the Continental Army.

General Washington considered the Revolution as a war of posts. He urged against the danger of dividing and subdividing forces, so that no one would be sufficiently guarded, saying "it is a military observation strongly supported by experience that a superior force may fall a sacrifice to an inferior by an injudicious division." General Washington, observing this weakness in operation of the English forces, said before the Revolution was even a third of its way, "I am well convinced myself, that the enemy long ere this, are perfectly satisfied that the possession of our towns while we have an army in the field will avail them little."

The English had not been able to keep to the field against the Americans. They seemed unable to occupy American territory away from the sea. At the end of the year 1778 they were held on the defensive in New York and in Newport where they could be supplied by the navy. Although they had unlimited resources, they conceded themselves defeated in their effort to subdue the Northern States. This very fact is the greatest praise of General Washington's military skill — he outgeneraled them — and is the incontestable proof of General Washington's greatness as a military leader.

The greatest task that fell so heavily on the Commander was that of keeping his army actually in existence. Here his great business training and ability showed itself. The British could and did repeatedly beat the Continental Army, but they could not beat General Washington. Neither abuse, attack, defeat, nor discontentment could make him resign, and as long as he was in the field he was the rallying point for whatever fighting spirit could still be aroused.

General Washington had early formulated a set of six rules for his military guidance, by which he measured and directed the actions of his Army and followed to the letter himself. They are:

  1. Never attack a position in front which you can gain by turning.
  2. Charges of Cavalry should be made if possible on the flanks of infantry.
  3. The first qualification of a soldier is fortitude under fatigue and privation. Courage is only the second. Hardship, poverty and actual want are the soldier's best school.
  4. Nothing is so important in war as an undivided command.
  5. Never do what the enemy wishes you to do.
  6. A General of ordinary talent, occupying a bad position and surprised by superior force, seeks safety in retreat; but a great captain supplies all deficiencies by his courage and marches boldly to meet the attack.

While the Conway Cabal was exercising its spell over Congress the Commander in Chief, stung to retort by the criticism of lack of activity of the military under such conditions, wrote that body:

"I am informed that it is a matter of amazement and that reflections have been thrown out against this army for not being more active and enterprising. In the opinion of some they ought to have been. If the charge is just, the best way to account for it will be to refer you to the returns of our strength and those I can produce of the enemy and to the enclosed abstract of the clothing now actually wanting for the army. I can assure these gentleman [he said in reply to political criticism] that it is much easier and less distressing a thing to draw remonstrances in a comfortable room by a good fireside than to occupy a cold bleak hillside and sleep under snow, without clothes or blankets."

The soldiers felt perfect confidence in the wise leadership of the Commander in Chief, and his splendid courage, foresight, and marvelous ability to endure won the final liberty of the long-suffering Colonies. He held the Army together and through his letters to Congress prevented that body from doing too many unwise things that would have spoiled completely his carefully laid plans. The end of the long struggle for liberty came on October 19, 1781, with the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown. On November 20, 1782, Great Britain acknowledged the independence of the United States, and on September 3, 1783, a treaty of peace was signed at Versailles in France, and America was free.

General Washington, wise and unselfish Commander of a tattered citizen soldiery, wrung victory from the seasoned legions of Europe under discouragements that would have crushed any save an indomitable spirit. Of his leadership and skill Von Moltke is quoted as saying in Berlin in 1974:

"You have in American history one of the great captains of all times. It might be said of him, as it was of William the Silent, that he seldom won a battle but he never lost a campaign."

Adapted from "George Washington — The Commander in Chief", Prepared for the U.S. George Washington Bicentennial Commission, Submitted by Mrs. Franklin B. Wildman, The Picket Post, The Valley Forge Historical Society. April 1966


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