General George Washington: The Greatness of America’s First General

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George Washington

Before George Washington became America’s first President, he was its first general. General George Washington was indispensable to winning the American Revolution.

Virtually all Americans know that George Washington was the first President of the United States. Most Americans also know he was the Continental Army commander-in-chief during the American Revolution. Yet very few truly appreciate the indispensable role he played in the formation of the United States, even before becoming President.

Without General George Washington, there likely would not be a United States of America today. Just what makes George Washington so great? Here are the facts on George Washington as indispensable leader in the American Revolution.

French and Indian War

George Washington stepped onto the world stage during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). He actually helped start the war. In response to French encroachment and under orders from Virginia’s governor, Washington led a clumsy expedition into what is now Pennsylvania. Though Washington proved he had much to learn in military tactics, he proved himself a charismatic leader and fearless battlefield warrior.

George Washington, the Politician

From the late 1750s through the early 1770s, George Washington turned his attention to Mount Vernon, marriage, and colonial politics. He supported the colonial right of self-governance and was elected to both the First Continental Congress (1774) and Second Continental Congress (1775).

When the Continental Congress needed a general to lead the new Continental Army, George Washington was available. Washington advertised his willingness to serve by wearing his Virginia militia uniform every day the Congress was in session.

General George Washington

George Washington assumed command of an “army” that really wasn’t an army. He had to build the Continental Army from scratch. Despite his efforts, the army was almost always poorly supplied, ill-equipped, and unpaid. For the first 2-3 years of the war, the army was also poorly trained.

Though he made many mistakes during the American Revolution (1775-1783), General George Washington was doggedly persistent and he understood the overall strategic situation better than most of his contemporaries.

Independence was declared during the war, but at several points, the cause of American independence looked bleak. Washington refused to give up. Highlights of Washington’s persistence include:

New York / Long Island Campaign – The British overwhelmed Washington’s defenses of New York and Long Island and almost destroyed the Continental Army. Washington pulled off a miraculous escape and kept his army and the cause alive, in spite of suffering terrible losses

New Jersey Campaign – Fresh from being defeated in New York and faced with desertions and expiring enlistments, Washington led his rag-tag army to a stunning upset victory over the dreaded Hessian mercernaries in Trenton, New Jersey (December 1776). He then followed up his victory by eluding British forces under General Lord Cornwallis, and in fact, scoring another victory against their rear guard at Princeton (January 1777).

Brandywine and Germantown – Despite losing at Brandywine (September 1777) and then seeing the British occupy the capital at Philadelphia, Washington counterattacked at Germantown (October 1777). Though the Continentals lost at Germantown, it was close, and the battle proved to the British (and the French) that the Americans were far from defeated.

Winter Encampments – All of the Continental Army encampments during winter were brutal experiences, with many soldiers dying of disease, hunger, and the elements. Desertions were rampant and mutinies became more of a threat. Washington stuck with his army, refusing to go home and lobbying hard for better supplies and pay. He even used the encampments (such as Valley Forge) to train his army to fight more like regulars.

Monmouth – When the British evacuated Philadelphia, General Washington saw an opportunity to attack their march. The initial attack at Monmouth (June 1778) was bungled by Charles Lee, but Washington refused to allow another defeat. He personally rallied his troops on the field, exposing himself yet again to enemy fire, and fought the British to a stalemate. The British withdrew the next day.

Yorktown – Most historians focus on French naval support at Yorktown, which made Cornwallis’ situation untenable – forcing his surrender. What is forgotten is that General Washington had to abandon his lines circling New York, risking that the British under General Henry Clinton would leave New York and attack the Continental Army while moving South. Washington took the risk, doing everything possible to confuse and befuddle the British – thus keeping them bottled up in New York. The gambit worked. Washington was able to link his army with General Nathanael Greene’s and the French in the South, finishing off Cornwallis and all British hopes of victory.

The Legacy of George Washington

Not only was General George Washington indispensable to victory in the Revolution itself, he headed off a dangerous military coup in 1782 and resigned his commission in 1783 — thus confirming civilian leadership in a democratic Republic. For these actions alone, Washington deserves every honor he has received.

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States understood Washington’s legacy. When asked to eulogize the first President, Lincoln replied:

Washington is the mightiest name on earth, long since mightiest in the cause of civil liberty; still mightiest in moral reformation. On that name, a eulogy is expected. It cannot be. To add brightness to the sun, or glory to the name of Washington, is alike impossible. Let none attempt it. In solemn awe pronounce the name, and in its naked deathless splendor, leave it shining on.