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Much has been written in the past two centuries about George Washington the statesman and “father of his country.” Less often discussed is Washington’s military career, including his exploits as a young officer and his performance as the Revolutionary War commander in chief. Now, in a revealing work of historical biography, Edward Lengel has written the definitive account of George Washington the soldier.
Based largely on Washington’s personal papers, this engrossing book paints a vivid, factual portrait of a man to whom lore and legend so tenaciously cling. To Lengel, Washington was the imperfect commander. Washington possessed no great tactical ingenuity, and his acknowledged “brilliance in retreat” only demonstrates the role luck plays in the fortunes of all great men. He was not an enlisted man’s leader; he made a point of never mingling with his troops. He was not an especially creative military thinker; he fought largely by the book.
He was not a professional, but a citizen soldier, who, at a time when warfare demanded that armies maneuver efficiently in precise formation, had little practical training handling men in combat. Yet despite his flaws, Washington was a remarkable figure, a true man of the moment, a leader who possessed a clear strategic, national, and continental vision, and who inspired complete loyalty from his fellow revolutionaries, officers, and enlisted men. America could never have won freedom without him.
A trained surveyor, Washington mastered topography and used his superior knowledge of battlegrounds to maximum effect. He appreciated the importance of good allies in times of crisis, and understood well the benefits of coordination of ground and naval forces. Like the American nation itself, he was a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts–a remarkable everyman whose acts determined the course of history. Lengel argues that Washington’s excellence was in his completeness, in how he united the military, political, and personal skills necessary to lead a nation in war and peace.
At once informative and engaging, and filled with some eye-opening revelations about Washington, the war for American independence, and the very nature of military command, General George Washington is a book that reintroduces readers to a figure many think they already know.
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EDWARD LENGEL is associate professor of history at the University of Virginia and associate editor of The Papers of George Washington. A specialist in military history, he is the author of World War I Memories and The Irish Through British Eyes.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
May 1741 – February 1753 At the end of May 1741, a young American officer stood sweltering on the sun-baked deck of a warship off the coast of Jamaica. Transports full of red-coated soldiers surrounded him, clogging the horizon with wooden hulls, masts, and sails that announced the presence of a British expeditionary army. As a captain in the provincial infantry, he occupied only a small corner of that army, and counted for little; but as an American he felt proud to participate in Great Britain’s glorious military tradition. Or at least he had at first. Now all reason for pride had gone. The army was dying. It had won no laurels, just a watery shroud. Most of the men had perished in the last four months, and disease stalked every survivor. As the American captain watched, daily burials at sea became feasts for frenzied sharks. He had no reason to think that he would not end the same way. Officers enjoyed no immunity to tropical disease or ignominious burial. Like all soldiers, Captain Lawrence Washington found refuge in thoughts of home. He came from Fredericksburg, Virginia, over a thousand miles away. He had not been there in over a year. Letters took weeks to travel each way, and often never arrived at all. Still, writing to his loved ones could make them seem closer, so retreating from the sun to his cabin or a shady place on deck, he turned from the horrors surrounding him, took up a pen, and wrote a letter to his father.
Lawrence Washington wrote as a recent eyewitness to the most important battle of the War of Jenkins’ Ear, and as a participant in its miserable aftermath. Named after the alleged mutilation of English sailor Robert Jenkins, the conflict had started in the summer of 1739 as a minor colonial fray between Great Britain and Spain. The bloodletting centered in the Caribbean, where the British sought to strangle Spain’s communications with the gold and silver mines of South America by snatching some of her outposts. Victors of the war’s early encounters, the British expected to make short work of the decrepit Spanish empire by capturing the important port of Cartagena off the northeast coast of South America. After this, with the Spanish reeling, they expected to move on to seize the even more important settlement of Havana on the island of Cuba. As plans for its Caribbean offensive jelled in 1739, the British government announced its intention to form an American regiment to serve as part of an amphibious army of six marine regiments and other regular units. Virginia, whose governor was appointed to command the regiment, provided the largest number of volunteers when recruitment began in the spring of 1740. The common Virginians made unimpressive soldiers—a British observer called them “Blacksmiths, Tailors, Barbers, Shoemakers, and all the Banditry the colonies afford”—but their officers were privileged, cultured, and generally intelligent young men, anxious to earn good reputations in battle. Sons of the Old Dominion had besieged colonial officials with requests for commissions, and Lawrence Washington was one of the many who lobbied fiercely for the four captaincies available from his colony. Thanks to his family’s influence and his own considerable personal charm, he received the highest-ranking spot.
The newly appointed Captain Washington followed the American Regiment to Jamaica near the end of 1740. At first, his soldiers showed little promise. Like the British redcoats, the American enlisted men came from the scum of society; and the Virginians stood out even in such rough company. Among them were vagrants, loafers, cutpurses, and former convicts. Soldiering did not come naturally to them, as Lawrence and his fellow officers swiftly discovered. They looked bad, too. Only about one in every six of the scrawny, ill-fed men possessed a uniform. British Brigadier General Thomas Wentworth reviewed the Americans on Jamaica in January 1741 and shook his head at the spectacle they presented. Yet there was some innate quality in the common soldiers that he liked. Under proper leadership and discipline, he decided, they might eventually prove useful. For American officers, on the other hand, he expressed complete and unreserved contempt. Branding them naïve and stupid, and certain that they would falter in combat, he attempted to replace them with British regulars. But by then the scruffy American enlisted soldiers had bonded with their young officers, and they bluntly refused to serve under anyone else. Irritated, Wentworth relented, but he privately resolved to keep all of the Americans on shipboard during the approaching campaign. It was inconceivable to him that the redcoats might need their provincial allies’ support. Wentworth commanded the land element of the expeditionary force of 8,000 British regulars and 3,000 Americans that left Jamaica in February 1741. The fleet carrying his troops sailed under Admiral Edward Vernon, a fifty-five-year-old, ill-tempered naval commander known in the fleet as “Grog” because of his grogram cloak. Sailors also applied this nickname to the watered-down rum that he forced upon them. But the ribbing was good- natured. Vernon’s capture of Porto Bello on the Panamanian isthmus in November 1739 had made him a popular hero. Capturing Cartagena would add to his reputation and clear the way for other conquests in the Caribbean. The fleet dropped anchor off Cartagena in early March 1741, and the redcoats quickly debarked, eager to fight. Yet their enthusiasm availed little in the ensuing six weeks as the expedition foundered and disintegrated. The British easily invested the port, but instead of storming its fortifications, Vernon and Wentworth quarreled over the plan of attack.
Finally, after weeks of dithering that left the troops gravely weakened by dysentery and malaria, the British launched a large-scale assault on April 9th. Their officers bungled the advance, and the well-entrenched Spanish refused to budge. Nearly 700 redcoats fell slain without penetrating the enemy entrenchments. The siege then stalled while the British returned to the ships where their American allies had spent the last month languishing in stifling heat. Though spared the horrors of battle, the colonials had not been able to avoid the equally appalling threats of heatstroke, fever, and disease. British surgeons and their assistants—among them a young writer named Tobias Smollett—struggled to care for the sick and wounded, and as soldiers perished in increasing numbers, discipline collapsed. Officers gave up on their duties and avoided their haggard men. The living casually dumped the bodies of dead comrades overboard, strewing the waters of Cartagena with bloated corpses. The trail of bodies led all the way to Jamaica, where the fleet arrived several weeks after abandoning its siege. But that island offered little relief, and the fever epidemic continued unabated. The army’s effective strength rapidly fell to fewer than 2,000 British and just over 1,000 Americans. Captain Lawrence Washington, by some miracle still alive and apparently healthy despite the carnage surrounding him, had the Cartagena fiasco fresh in his mind as he wrote to his father from on board the British warship in May 1741. The crisis continued as he wrote, and the expeditionary force still wasted away. Total disintegration was near. Yet he knew the keen anticipation with which his news-starved family would read his letter. His father would seek war news as well as hints on the state of trade and commerce in the Caribbean. His mother would want to know about Lawrence’s health, and to hear about the fates of other friends and relations. And nine-year-old George, Lawrence’s half brother, would look for descriptions of the roar of the cannon or the sight of infantry boldly charging the Spanish fortifications. None of them would want to hear about a disaster. Lawrence wrote his letter with a mixture of sulkiness and reticence, providing only the briefest summary of the terrible expedition. He did not, or could not, bear to confess that the American Regiment had succumbed to disease without firing a shot. Instead he hid the truth with gentle boasting, including some lines possibly intended for George. “Our Regiment has not recd that treatment we expected,” Lawrence wrote, “but I am resolved to persivere in the undertaking. War is horrid in fact, but much more so in imagination; We there learn’d to live on ordinary diet, to watch much, & disregard the noise, or shot of Cannon.” These words must have impressed themselves on the boy’s memory, for he echoed them with his own pen thirteen years later.
Lawrence returned to Fredericksburg in January 1743 after Admiral Vernon discarded his government’s grandiose plans for the conquest of the Carib-bean and sent the exhausted troops home. No parades greeted the Americans, who had failed to garner any kind of military glory. Most of the young officers who had left Virginia so confidently in 1740 had not fallen nobly in battle but died in squalid ships’ holds before being dined upon by sea creatures. Veterans discovered that society had grown used to getting on without them, and the best jobs, honors, and appointments had already been taken by the stay-at-homes. The thought that he had squandered some of the most important years of his life must have lain heavily on Lawrence’s mind. Yet a child’s love can heal many wounds, as Lawrence learned from his admiring young half brother George. The two came from a large family. Their father, Augustine, born in 1694, was a soft-spoken but energetic and physically powerful man. In 1738 he had settled at Ferry Farm, which stood across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, and he now owned 10,000 acres and fifty slaves. His first wife, Jane Butler, died in 1729 after bearing three children: Lawrence (born around 1717), Augustine Jr., and Jane. Augustine Sr.’s second wife, the orphan Mary Ball, who had been born around 17...
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