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.

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Many of Washington's virtues as a leader were on display during this crucial period, says Fleming. Respecting the civil authority that had granted him extensive powers, Washington nevertheless saw the need for a commanding general to stay in touch with political actualities, not least to correct misperceptions about military developments. And with some of his own generals criticizing and even subverting him, Washington had to maintain his own back channels with Congress in order to retain his position, press for reforms, and otherwise keep the war effort on course.

While Washington despised disloyalty, Valley Forge made it clear that he valued strong and independent-minded officers. He heeded their best ideas and gave them plenty of room to exercise initiative. With the Prussian Friedrich Wilhelm August de Steuben, Washington developed a style of military discipline suited to a democratically inclined people, above all embracing Steuben's dictum that a captain must win the love of his men.

The Army that came out of Valley Forge would quickly prove itself in the Battle of Monmouth, exhibiting even greater discipline and courage than it had shown in the earlier New Jersey battles. If ultimate victory and independence were still far from assured, Washington had forged an Army that mirrored his own blend of prudence and daring.

Just as important, he had won the lasting support of America's civilian authorities, to whom he returned all power at war's end. Hearing of that gesture, Britain's King George III said that Washington would be the greatest man in history if it was true. It would be only slightly less praise to say that Washington's surrender of power was just part of what made him the first great leader in the modern world.