George Washington Was a Lousy General

After all I have read about the American Revolution, I have come to the conclusion that George Washington simply was not a very good general. Ferling was correct in his assertion, of course, that Washington “was neither a professional soldier nor the product of a military academy,” with his only military experience having come from small-scale engagements on the frontier during the French and Indian War.[1] It is also true that Washington displayed admirable administrative talents, and those gifts combined with his commanding presence and personality were perhaps the only things that kept the Continental Army together during some very trying times. Furthermore, as Ferling pointed out, Washington was a superb politician, enjoying “splendid relationships with Congress and state officials,” while his ability to detect talent in others—and put that talent to good use—allowed the Americans to achieve successes they might not otherwise have enjoyed.[2] However, as a combat commander, Washington’s performance was undoubtedly subpar.

Washington achieved early success when Howe departed Boston in March 1776, but even that victory relied heavily on the almost superhuman achievements of another officer. Without the artillery brought down from Ticonderoga under extraordinarily difficult circumstances by Henry Knox, Washington had lacked the heavy firepower necessary to drive the British from Boston.[3] Washington correctly surmised that the British would move on New York City, and he moved his own troops to Long Island and Manhattan to await their arrival. When Howe’s invasion took place in August 1776, Washington made numerous missteps (though, to be fair, many of his subordinate commanders also performed poorly), and it was only the British army’s own lackluster performance that spared the Continental Army from annihilation and allowed it to escape in tatters.[4]

For the next five years, Washington kept his army nearly stationary, hovering between Philadelphia and the Hudson River above New York City. During that time, Washington scored a few notable but relatively small-scale victories against the British and Hessians, but the lion’s share of the war was fought farther upstate in New York by soldiers commanded by Gates and Sullivan, and in the South by Greene and Morgan. All the while, Washington was fixated on New York City, and despite Rochambeau’s advice to the contrary, the American commander was convinced that the capture of New York was essential to an American victory.[5] Indeed, without Rochambeau’s gentle prodding of Washington that a campaign against Cornwallis in Virginia was highly preferable and his secret messages to de Grasse informing the French admiral to sail for the Chesapeake, Washington may have insisted on a disastrous siege of New York.[6]

Despite his stature as perhaps the preeminent founder and his many genuine abilities, Washington’s true talents did not lie in combat command, either on a strategic or tactical level. Without French aid—in men, materiel, and advice to a novice commander—Washington’s legacy may have been one of ignoble defeat.

[1] John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 571.

[2] Ibid., 570.

[3] Ibid., 102-06.

[4] Ibid., 130-37.

[5] Ibid., 444-47.

[6] Ibid., 523-24.

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