The people's voice of reason

WAS THE FATHER OF OUR COUNTRY AN INCOMPETENT GENERAL?

“First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” So said General Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, speaking the eulogy of our first President whose birthday we celebrate this month.

But recent polls suggest that many Americans hardly know who George Washington was, when he lived, or what he accomplished.

Some even challenge his military skills, saying he was at best a mediocre tactician, lost more battles than he won, almost lost the war, and at one point was almost removed as commander because of widespread dissatisfaction in Congress, the public, and within the army.

Dave R. Palmer’s book, George Washington: Military Genius (Regnery 2012) comes as a welcome antidote to such ignorance. A retired three-star general and Vietnam veteran, General Palmer served as superintendent of West Point and military historian, General Palmer is well qualified to assess Washington’s military capabilities.

Consider what Washington had to overcome. Few if any have assumed command of an army under such adverse circumstances. The “army” of the American colonies consisted largely of untrained local militias who were unused to working together with militias of other colonies. Even though he had never commanded a large army before his appointment by Congress, Washington had to inculcate discipline into these ragtag soldiers and weld them into a cohesive fighting force. And he had to build a navy from virtually nothing.

Normally a commanding general serves under a Secretary of Defense who serves under the President. But during the War, the new United States had no president and no Chief Executive and no executive branch of government; the president of the Continental Congress was more like the current speaker of the house. For the conduct of the War, Washington had to act as chief executive, which meant he had to work with Congress and with the states to establish military policy and funding for the war.

This was especially difficult because under the Articles of Confederation, Congress had no power to tax. Congress could only send “requisitions” to the states which were little more than requests for funds, and some states complied, if at all, only after all their local budgetary needs were met.

The new USA had no State Department, so General Washington had to conduct foreign diplomacy and even establish foreign policy. He effectively built an alliance with France, working with some like Lafayette and Rochambeau who shared American ideals and with others who wanted to help America only to destabilize England. And Washinton was an impressive diplomat; his large size and graceful movement made every monarch in Europe, standing beside him, appear to be his valet.

He was less successful with the Germans, perhaps underestimating King George III’s Hanoverian German connections and ability to raise thousands of Hessian (German) soldiers to serve the British cause as mercenaries. But he did manage to recruit the Baron von Steuben, a Prussian military officer who was able to instill discipline into American troops.

Washington’s understanding of tactics was innovative for his time. In eighteenth-century Europe, battles commonly consisted of soldiers lined up in columns on opposite sides of a battlefield, firing volleys at each other. But Washington had served in the French and Indian War of the 1760s, and he had seen firsthand the Native American tactics of fighting from behind rocks and trees, and he adopted those and other guerrilla tactics for American soldiers. He also understood the need for military intelligence and built an extensive spy network. He freely sought the opinions of his subordinates, even though, like every good leader, he didn’t always follow their advice.

And the key to his military success was his ability to inspire confidence. His soldiers, like the nation as a whole, had such confidence in his patriotism, his integrity, and his compassion for them, that they were willing to sacrifice everything for him and for the American cause.

Yes, Washington lost a lot of battles. After all, he was facing the largest and best-trained army in the world. But he also won some key victories, and he knew that sometimes he had to win battles at greater cost than they appeared to be worth, to uphold the morale of his troops and of the nation – and to dampen the morale of the British back home.

Ultimately, Washington was a hard-headed realist. He knew that his meager forces were no match for the most powerful empire on earth. England had a population of nine million plus their colonies abroad, compared to America’s 3-4 million; this gave them the ability to call forth many times more soldiers. Their soldiers were well-provisioned and well-trained, unlike the Continental army which often starved and lacked weapons, ammunition, and even warm clothing, and some soldiers deserted because they were unpaid and their families were starving at home. If the British had amassed all their forces into the colonies with a determination to win at all costs, there is no earthly way Washington could have prevailed.

Washington’s goal, therefore, was not to defeat the British In an all-out war. Rather, his goal was to win just enough battles so as to appear successful, and to convince the British people that pursuing the War to a conclusion would be worth the cost in and resources.

And he succeeded, bringing the British to a surrender at Yorktown in 1781 and to France for the Treaty of Paris of 1783 that recognized American independence.

And bringing the War to a successful conclusion, Washington did the unthinkable: Like Gideon of the Bible and the Roman general Cincinnatus, he voluntarily abdicated his position. He submitted his resignation to the Congress and the thirteen governors, and returned home to Mt. Vernon intending to be a farmer for the rest of his life.

But God had other plans. As the nation descended into anarchy and chaos, Washington was called out of retirement to serve as President of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and as America’s first President from 1789 to1797. And he again voluntarily relinquished power, declaring that two terms as President are enough and returning home, to die two years later in 1789.

Humanly speaking, the fledgling nation could not have survived, let alone flourished, without George Washington’s helpful hand.

So Happy Birthday, General Washington! You were the first, and you were the best.

Col. Eidsmoe pastors two rural Alabama churches, teaches Constitutional Law for the Oak Brook College of Law & Government Policy (obcl.edu), and serves as Senior Counsel for the Foundation for Moral Law (morallaw.org). He may be contacted for speaking engagements at eidsmoeja@juno.com. Those needing help with constitutional issues may contact the Foundation at (334) 262-1245.

 

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