How George Washington's Savvy Won the Day

Despite his share of errors, the commander in chief prevailed as a strategist and a politician.

Washington's Delaware crossing: a fanciful, but enduring, image.

Washington's Delaware crossing: a fanciful, but enduring, image.


Idolatry has done George Washington a disservice. His popular image as the stolid icon of republican virtues—given earliest form in the cherry tree and other apocryphal stories of Parson Weems—obscures not only the complexity of the man but also his genius for leadership. Ripening fully in his presidency, Washington's gifts first found expression on the battlefields of the American Revolution. As commander in chief of the Continental Army, the Virginia planter and veteran of the French and Indian War did not simply best the world's most formidable fighting machine. He set the template for a new, truly American style of command—a style rightly called leadership.

Yet, says historian Thomas Fleming, author of Washington's Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge, "people still don't get Washington." Thanks largely to hagiography and, until recently, a neglect of military history by scholars, most Americans remain unaware of Washington's less obvious strengths, as well as those flaws that made his achievements all the more remarkable.

Political skills. "The fact that he was successful against the best combat officers of his day didn't mean that he was the best commander ever," says Mount Holyoke College historian Joseph Ellis, author of His Excellency: George Washington. Washington particularly struggled, Ellis says, when he couldn't see the whole battlefield, devising plans that were often too complicated for execution. Even in the successful surprise attack on Trenton in December 1776, only one of three elements of Washington's force made it across the Delaware River on Christmas Day. But many of the greatest generals in history, including Napoleon, did not in the end do what Washington did: "He won," says Ellis. "And he won because he understood the war, the big picture, including the political context."

Realism, strategic imagination, adaptability, and political savvy are all aspects of Washington's generalship that more than made up for his tactical deficiencies, as a new batch of political and military histories of the Revolutionary era show. All of those qualities emerged forcefully after the demoralizing defeats in and around New York in the summer of 1776, when the Americans were repeatedly crushed by the forces of Adm. Lord Richard Howe and his brother Gen. William Howe. "In twelve weeks," writes Brandeis University historian David Hackett Fischer in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington's Crossing, "George Washington lost large parts of three states, and 90 percent of the army under his command."

Yet Washington took cool stock of the situation. Seeing that pitched battles against the larger, better-trained British and Hessian troops were a formula for defeat, Washington wrote to the Continental Congress in September to advocate a defensive war that "should on all occasions avoid a General Action or put anything to the risque unless compelled by a necessity into which we ought never to be drawn." In addition to formulating his doctrine of a "war of posts"—with smaller forces hitting quickly wherever the enemy set up its bases—Washington stood up to republican idealists like John Adams, who believed that a largely volunteer militia, motivated by the ideals of liberty, should form the core of the war effort. Early defeats had only added to Washington's conviction that militias were inadequate; a disciplined army that would not melt away in the face of artillery and the well-drilled ranks of red-coated soldiers was, in his view, the necessary backbone of a protracted struggle.

Washington's realism extended to his views about the need for a paid force. Passions, he argued, would motivate people for only so long. To believe "among such people as compose the bulk of an Army," Washington wrote in a separate letter to Congress, "that they are influenced by any other principles than those of Interest, is to look for what never did, & I fear never will happen."

Fighting force. Washington's vision was vindicated in the winter of 1776-77, as his Army, often working with militias, scored quick-hitting successes at Trenton, Princeton, and other parts of New Jersey. Washington even made the best of a painful setback after the British conquest of the nation's capital, Philadelphia. Settling in for a hard winter at Valley Forge, Pa., Washington built a distinctively American fighting force even while exercising political skills that allowed him to overcome insubordinate rivals in the Army and to mollify critics in the Continental Congress.