Washington: The Greatest American-Part I

George Washington

by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benét

Sing hey! For bold George Washington,

That jolly British tar,

King George’s famous admiral

From Hull to Zanzibar!

No–wait a minute–something’s wrong–

George wished to sail the foam.

But, when his mother thought aghast,

Of Georgie shinning up a mast,

Her tears and protests flowed so fast

That George remained at home.

Sing ho! For grave Washington,

The staid Virginia squire,

Who farms his fields and hunts his hounds

And aims at nothing higher!

Stop, stop it’s going wrong again!

George liked to live on farms,

But when the Colonies agreed

They could and should and would be freed,

They called on George to do the deed

And George cried “Shoulder arms!”

Sing ha! For Emperor Washington,

That hero of renown,

Who freed his land from Britain’s rule

To win a golden crown!

No, no, that’s what George might have won

But didn’t for he said,

“There’s not much point about a king,

They’re pretty but they’re apt to sting

And, as for crowns–the heavy thing

Would only hurt my head.”

Sing ho! For our George Washington!

(At last I’ve got it straight.)

The first in war, the first in peace,

The goodly and the great.

But, when you think about him now,

From here to Valley Forge,

Remember this–he might have been

A highly different specimen,

And, where on earth would we be, then?

I’m glad that George was George.

I have never liked President’s Day.  Why celebrate loser presidents like Jimmy Carter and James Buchanan, non-entities like Millard Fillmore, bad presidents, like Grant, with great presidents like Washington and Lincoln?   Officially the date is still the commemoration of George Washington’s birthday and in this post we will recall the life of the greatest American who ever lived.  Ironically in the length of a blog post we will be unable to cover all of Washington’s event filled life, including his Presidency.  We will break off at the close of the Revolution and finish off on February 22, the actual birthday of the man who will always be first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of all of us who, as Americans, in many ways are his children.

Only Abraham Lincoln comes close to Washington in our American secular pantheon.  Our first president, he was also the man who led our armies to victory in the Revolutionary War, a conflict I am certain that we would have lost but for his leadership, faith and example.  In his own time, and from his days as a very young man, most people who encountered Washington assumed he was destined for greatness.  Six foot three at a time when most men were around five foot six, Washington was a literal giant for his day, weighing 220 pounds of muscle, and noted for his feats of strength.  A quiet aura of dignity and command seemed to envelop him from the first time that he put on the uniform of a Virginia militia officer.  He had a hot temper that he usually successfully controlled beneath a mask of quiet dignity, leavened by a lively sense of humor.  However, none of these explain why men and women instinctively looked to him for leadership, but they always did.  Perhaps it was simply a matter of trust.  Although the cherry tree is a myth, Washington was always known to be an honest man, and a man who could be entrusted with great tasks that he would attempt to do out of a sense of duty and not for personal aggrandizement.  Such men are very rare in history, and almost all Washington’s contemporaries realized that he was  such a rarity.

Washington of course did not appear full grown on the stage of history.  When he was born none would have expected him to have any historical significance in his life.

Considering that he is the father of George Washington, Augustine Washington is a rather obscure figure in American history.  Born in 1694, he died in 1743 when George was only eleven.  Only four when his father, John Washington, died, Augustine inherited 1000 acres at Bridges Creek in Westmoreland County in Virginia.  Marrying Jane Butler, a marriage which added 640 acres to his property, Washington spent his life as a prosperous planter, active in local politics, serving as county sheriff and justice of the peace.   Other than his political activities, and his involvement in the Anglican Church, Augustine’s life revolved around his family and increasing his land holdings.  He and his wife had four children, Lawrence and Augustine, Jr. being the two who survived into adulthood.

After Jane died in 1729, Augustine married Mary Ball in 1731.  This Union produced a second family  rapidly for Augustine:   George in 1732, Mary in 1733, Samuel in 1734, John in 1736, Charles in 1738 and Mary in 1739.  Upon his death in 1743 of “gout of the stomach”, whatever malady that truly was,  Augustine left his family well provided for.  In the absence of his father, George became deeply attached to his brother Lawrence who would serve as the young man’s surrogate father, and a role model.  Thus Washington was the scion of a second family of his father, with the lion’s share of the estate going to his half brothers Lawrence and Augustine.   George bore no ill will over this circumstance but his mother certainly did.  Mary Washington was something of a pill.  A constant complainer and fault finder she loved  her oldest son, but frequently pointed out what she perceived to be faults in him, as she did with virtually all she came into contact with.  George Washington, always a dutiful son, endured his mother’s frequently sour disposition with grace and a sense of humor.  She would live to be 80 dying during her son’s first term as President in 1789.  Washington always looked after his mother, buying her a fine house in Fredericksburg.  She named him the executor of her estate in her will.

Without a doubt the most significant influence in the life of young Washington was his half brother Lawrence.  Fourteen years older than George, Lawrence served as the Captain of a Virginia company under Admiral Vernon in campaigns waged by the British in the War of Jenkin’s Ear in 1740-1742.  Lawrence was quite fond of his commander and named the plantation he inherited from his father Mount Vernon as a result.  Lawrence told his younger brother many tales of his adventures and inflamed his brother’s desire for a military career, perhaps as a British naval officer.  Lawrence taught his brother how to fence and hunt, and treated him more like a beloved son than a half brother.  Dying of tuberculosis in 1752, and none of his four children surviving him, he left a life estate in Mount Vernon to his wife Anne with the remainder interest upon her death to George who lived at Mount Vernon and managed it for her.  Anne remarried into the Lee family and upon her death in 1761 George was now master of Mount Vernon.

At 21 Washington became the locus of events that led to a world war that saw fighting on every continent with the exceptions of Antarctica and the then undiscovered Australia.  His brother Lawrence had held the post of adjutant of the Virginia militia with the rank of major.  Upon his death Washington lobbied Lieutenant Governor Dinwiddie for the job.  Dinwiddie, perhaps reluctant to entrust the job to a man so young, divided the duties of the office among four men, with Washington being one of them with the rank of Major.  If Dinwiddie had any apprehensions about the youth of Washington, he soon overcame them as he granted to Washington an important commission.  The French and the British disputed the Ohio valley and Dinwiddie sent Washington with a letter to the French commander in the Ohio asking them to remove themselves forthwith from the Ohio region.

The journey through what was then hundreds of miles of wilderness impressed Washington greatly with the future potential of this area for rapid expansion.  Washington delivered Dinwiddie’s message to Captain Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre, the French commander in the area, who received Washington courteously but who declined to withdraw.

Washington reported back to Dinwiddie.  Washington kept a diary of his journey which Dinwiddie ordered to be printed, and fame came suddenly, and lastingly, to Washington throughout Virginia.  Diplomacy having failed, Dinwiddie had Washington raise a force of Virginia militia to guard  members of the Ohio company engaged in building a fort at present day Pittsburgh.  The French beat the British to the punch, chased out the British traders and constructed Fort Duquesne at what is now Pittsburgh.  In retaliation on May 28, 1754 Washington with his militia troops and Mingo allies attacked a French force of Canadiens under Joseph Coulon de Villiers, Sieur de Jumonville.  Washington defeated them.  Jumonville was captured, only to be murdered by one of Washington’s Indian allies, to the intense shock and horror of Washington.

“I heard the bullets whistle, and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound.”

George Washington, letter to his brother May 31, 1754, telling him about his victory .  What might have been mere bragging by virtually any other man, King George II of Great Britain an old soldier himself supposedly heard about the remark and said that Washington must not have heard many bullets whistle by him yet if he found the sound pleasant, was not the case with Washington.  As far as we can judge from outward evidence, Washington was absolutely fearless.  Time after time in the French and Indian War and in the American Revolution he exposed himself to enemy fire.  At Braddock’s Defeat in 1755 Washington had two horses shot out from beneath him, and four enemy musket balls were lodged in his clothes by the end of the fight.  Washington believed that he could not be an effective leader unless he led from the front, and that is precisely what he did, often to the distress of his aides.  His only emotional reaction to being under enemy fire was apparently complete contempt for the fire of the enemy.  Men who observed him often wrote that they were amazed that anyone could be as fearless as he was.

The outraged French quickly turned the military tables.  A huge force of 600 French, Canadiens and Indians besieged Washington at a badly sited stockade that Washington designated Fort Necessity.  The military situation being hopeless, Washington surrendered, with his troops being allowed to march back to Virginia, the date being July 4, 1754.  Washington and his French adversaries had fired the opening shots in the Seven Years War, known as the French and Indian War.  English writer and member of Parliament Horace Walpole summed the situation up nicely:  “The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire.”

The British struck back with a column under Major General Edward Braddock.   Washington served with the force as an unpaid volunteer.  A British regular, Braddock had little fondness for Americans, although he made an exception for Washington who always had a knack for making friends.

At the battle of the Monongahela on July 9, 1755, the French and their Indian allies inflicted a humiliating defeat on the British expedition.  Colonel George Washington, after the wounding of Braddock, although not being part of the chain of command since he was serving as an aide to Braddock and being technically outranked by every officer in Braddock’s force due to Washington only holding Virginia militia rank, effectively took command of the army, established a rear guard under himself, and allowed the army to stage an orderly retreat.  This was an astounding performance for a man of only 23 with limited military experience.  For years afterwards Washington would be known as the hero of the Monongahela until destiny allowed him the opportunity to earn much greater laurels.

On July 18, 1755 Washington wrote a report of the defeat to Dinwiddie.  It is an early specimen of the type of reports that Washington would submit to Congress during the Revolutionary War two decades later, and it bears the features that Washington always displayed in his reports:

1.  Concise:  Washington had a talent for being able to render complex events into very few words.  The brevity of his reports speak to his ability to sift the important from the superfluous.

2.  Modesty:  Although Washington was the hero of the day, no one could detect that from his report.  Washington assumed that others would judge him from his actions, and wasted no words in self promotion or self-defense.

3.  Warts and all:  Washington was always blunt.  In the report Washington does not attempt to mitigate the gravity of the defeat and notes that the frontier is now defenseless except for the shattered Virginia militia which were unequal to the task.

4.  Honorable mentions:  Washington always believed in reporting the courage and good performance of others, and he does so in his report, most notably for the Virginia military who carried the burden of the fight.

Here is the text of Washington’s report:

“To Governor Dinwiddie:

“Honbl. Sir – As I am favored with an opportunity, I should think myself inexcusable was I to omit giving you some account of our late Engagement with the French on the Monongahela, the 9th instant.

“We continued our march from Fort Cumberland to Frazier’s (which is within 7 miles of Duquesne) without meeting any extraordinary event, having only a straggler or two picked up by the French Indians. When we came to this place, we were attacked (very unexpectedly) by about three hundred French and Indians. Our numbers consisted of about thirteen hundred well-armed men, chiefly Regulars, who were immediately struck with such an inconceivable panic that nothing but confusion and disobedience of orders prevailed among them. The officers, in general, behaved with incomparable bravery, for which they greatly suffered, there being near sixty killed and wounded – a large proportion, out of the number we had!

“The Virginia companies behaved like men and died like soldiers; for I believe out of three companies that were on the ground that day scarce thirty were left alive. Capt. Peyroney and all his officers, down to a corporal, were killed; Captn. Polson had almost as hard a fate, for only one of his escaped. In short, the dastardly behavior of the Regular troops (so called)1 exposed those who were inclined to do their duty to almost certain death, and, at length, in despite of every effort to the contrary, broke and ran as sheep before hounds, leaving the artillery, ammunition, provisions, baggage, and, in short, everything a prey to the enemy. And when we endeavored to rally them, in hopes of regaining the ground and what we had left upon it, it was with as little success as if we had attempted to have stopped the wild bears of the mountains or rivulets with our feet; for they would break by, in despite of every effort that could be made to prevent it.

“The General was wounded in the shoulder and breast, of which he died three days after; his two aids-de-camp were both wounded, but are in a fair way of recovery; Colo. Burton and Sr. John St. Clair are also wounded and I hope will get over it; Sir Peter Halket, with many other brave officers, were killed in the field. It is supposed that we had three hundred or more killed; about that number we brought off wounded, and it is conjectured (I believe with much truth) that two-thirds of both received their shot from our own cowardly Regulars, who gathered themselves into a body, contrary to orders, ten or twelve deep, would then level, fire and shoot down the men before them.

“I tremble at the consequences that this defeat may have upon our back settlers, who, I suppose, will all leave their habitations unless there are proper measures taken for their security.

“Colo. Dunbar, who commands at present, intends, as soon as his men are recruited at this place, to continue his march to Philadelphia for winter quarters, consequently there will be no men left here, unless it is the shattered remains of the Virginia troops, who are totally inadequate to the protection of the frontiers.”

Celebrated as a hero, Washington was made commander of the Virginia regiment of a 1000 men and of all other colonial troops in Virginia.  He and his men successfully guarded the Virginia frontier and its settlers, prevailing in some 20 engagements.  Washington and his men participated in the Forbes Expedition of 1758 which culminated in the taking of Fort Duquesne.  With a successful conclusion of the War in the Virginia and Ohio theaters, Washington resigned his commission and was promptly elected to the House of Burgesses.

Washington was now able to concern himself with his favorite career:  managing Mount Vernon and his other land.  Starting with 3000 acres, Washington would purchase over the years until he had around 7600 acres, or 12 square miles.  He operated his estate as five separate farms, using the latest methods of farming and keeping meticulous records.  This is a good place to discuss slavery and Washington’s use of slaves.  At first Washington was a fairly typical slave holder, more considerate than most masters as to the well being of his slaves, visitors to Mount Vernon remarking on how well clothed, well fed and well housed Washington’s slaves were.  Washington rarely referred to his slaves as slaves, calling them by their names or referring to them collectively as “servants”.  By the time of the Revolution slavery was beginning to trouble his conscience, and his letters not infrequently contain wishes that slavery might be abolished.  In this he was not unusual among other slave holding Founding Fathers who recognized that slavery was an evil which they assumed would soon die out.   However, Washington would not simply wait for this to occur, he would attempt to do something about it.  “The unfortunate condition of the persons whose labour in part I employed, has been the only unavoidable subject of regret.   To make the Adults among them as easy & comfortable in their circumstances as their actual state of ignorance and improvidence   would admit; and to lay a foundation to prepare the rising   generation for a destiny different from that in which they were born, afforded some satisfaction to my mind, and could not I hoped be displeasing to the justice of the Creator.”

Unlike other Founding Fathers who also talked about the evils of slavery but never freed their slaves, Washington left explicit instructions in his will for the freeing of his slaves after the death of his wife.   This of course involved a huge pecuniary loss to his Estate.   He not only made arrangements for the freeing of his slaves, he also left provisions for the care of slaves who were too old and/or infirm to support themselves and instructions that young slaves were to be taught to read and write and trained in a useful occupation and freed on their 25th birthday.   He specifically forbade the sale or transportation of any of his slaves from Virginia in an attempt to avoid the provisions of his will freeing them.   Martha Washington freed all of George Washington’s slaves on January 1, 1801.  Washington’s example strengthened growing anti-slavery forces in the North and encouraged Southern slave holders to manumit their slaves.

In 1759 he married the rich widow Martha Custis.  They had a happy marriage, although their union was not blessed with children.  Martha brought two children into their marriage from her prior marriage:  John Parke Custis, who was four, and Martha Parke Custis, who was two, and who was called Patsy.  Washington raised the two children as his own.

At the age of eleven or twelve Patsy began to have epileptic seizures.  The Washingtons consulted numerous doctors and attempted endless cures, all to no avail.  Modern medicine was not yet even in its infancy, and anti-seizure medications were over a century in the future.  However, even then it was known that epilepsy was not usually a mortal disorder.  Patsy had frequent seizures but she came out of them each time with no discernible harm.

On June 19, 1773 Patsy was  at Mount Vernon talking to her brother’s fiancée, Eleanor Calvert.  Patsy went to her room to retrieve a letter from her brother who was away at college.    Eleanor suddenly heard a strange noise and found Patsy on the floor having a seizure.  Her parents were summoned and George Washington placed her on her bed.  Family letters describe Washington kneeling at Patsy’s bedside, tears streaming down his face, praying for her recovery.    After only two minutes, Patsy died.  She was buried the next day, George writing to his brother-in-law, that his “sweet, innocent girl had died”:    [Patsy] rose from dinner about four o’clock in better health and spirits than she had appeared to have been in for some time; soon after which she was seized with one of her usual fits and expired in it in less than two minutes without uttering a word, a groan, or scarce a sigh. This sudden and unexpected blow … has almost reduced my poor wife to the lowest ebb of misery.

Except for this great tragedy Martha and George had a happy life together.  During the War she always visited George during the winter, being called Lady Washington by the troops who always looked forward to the gifts of clothing and food she would attempt to arrange for as many of them as she could.  She was in overall charge of Mount Vernon while George was away.  Although the Washingtons usually agreed, she had a mind of her own.  She opposed him agreeing to serve as President, thinking he had sacrificed enough for the country, and she refused to be present at his first inauguration.

They both loved to entertain and dance, and Mount Vernon was always a scene of lavish hospitality.  Washington enjoyed fox hunting and was widely regarded as one of the finest horsemen in America.  Washington excelled at athletic contests.  Charles Wilson Peale who painted Washington’s portrait recalled this incident when Washington was 40, and he observed some young men who were guests at Mount Vernon engaging in a pitching contest with an iron bar to see who could throw it the farthest.  Washington decided to participate:

No sooner did the heavy iron bar feel the grasp of Washington’s mighty hand than it lost the power of gravitation and whizzed through the air, striking the ground, far, very far beyond our utmost limits.   We were indeed amazed, as we stood around all stripped to buff, with short sleeves rolled up, and having thought ourselves very clever fellows, while the Colonel, on retiring, pleasantly observed, “When you beat my pitch, young gentlemen, I’ll try again.”

As to his personal habits, Washington believed in moderation.  He ate moderately and drank moderately, especially as he grew older.  As a young man he smoked a pipe occasionally, a habit he broke himself of before middle age.  He detested the vice of swearing, perhaps because he would swear if he lost control of his temper, something he usually kept iron control of, because he acknowledged that he did have a hot one.  He was noted for treating everyone he encountered with courtesy, rich or poor, man or woman, white or black.

In the House of Burgesses he became a leader of the delegates opposed to the measures of Great Britain to tax the colonies.  As one of the richest men in America Washington had much to lose if open conflict broke out, but that did not deter him in his deeply held belief that the mother country was treating Americans as disobedient children instead of fellow Englishmen with all the traditional rights of self government of Englishmen.  He served as one of Virginia’s delegates to the First Continental Congress in 1774.  After Lexington and Concord he appeared at the Second Continental Congress signaling his willingness to take part in the War.  It was a foregone conclusion that he would be placed in charge of the Army due to the fame he had won in the French and Indian War, although like the other American veterans of that conflict who also served in the Revolution, he started out the conflict very much an amateur soldier.

Washington arrived at Cambridge, Massachusetts on July 3, 1775 to take command of the largely New England army besieging Boston.  He was appalled at the material from which he was expected to build a Continental Army.  Most of the men seemed to be an undisciplined rabble and most of their officers appeared to be notable only for their stupidity.  He quickly set to work to discipline the army, train them, improve their food, get them better clothes, doing all of this while confronting a besieged British army in Boston which enjoyed complete naval supremacy and a Congress that supplied him with little but empty promises.  Most generals have only to worry about defeating the enemy.  Washington, from first to last in the Revolution, had to worry first about simply keeping his army in existence due to completely inadequate support from Congress and the States, and, once that was accomplished for the time being, then to determine the methods by which his force, usually outnumbered, would defeat a professional army, better trained and better supplied than his army could ever be, and which enjoyed complete command of the seas for almost the entire War.

The first task at hand was to take back Boston from the British.  Colonel Henry Knox, a former Boston book seller, came up with the idea of transporting the artillery from Ticonderoga in northern New York to the siege lines around Boston.  This was accomplished by Knox from November 1775 to January 1776, transporting sixty tons of artillery and ammunition through wilderness in the dead of winter, a truly astounding feat.  With this artillery Washington, to the astonishment of the British, fortified the Dorchester Heights in a single night on March 4, 1776.  The commander of the British forces, General William Howe, decided to withdraw by sea from Boston, rather than face a destructive barrage.  The amateur General, and his rabble in arms, had scored a major victory.

Washington was not deluded for an instant that the War was over.  He expected the British to attack New York with the massive forces they were sending to America and he was not disappointed in that expectation.

The year in which we declared our independence from Great Britain was a year of military disaster for the United States.  Washington and his troops were beaten time after time in the fighting around New York, and as the end of the year approached the Revolution seemed to be dying.  The British controlled New York, the largest city in the colonies and the major port.  New Jersey had been conquered.  The Continental Congress was in flight from Philadelphia, in expectation that the British would next move on that city.  Washington’s army had been reduced to around 3,000 ill-clad and ill-fed poorly trained troops, vastly outnumbered by their British adversaries and their Hessian mercenaries, all well-trained, well equipped, well clad and well fed.  Defeat seemed all but inevitable to everyone, but Washington.

Instead, Washington carried out the Trenton attack on December 26, 1776 which was an incredible success.  When Cornwallis marched against him with a larger army after Trenton, Washington went around it in a daring night march and defeated a British detachment at Princeton.  American morale soared, and patriots rose up throughout New Jersey, causing the British to withdraw from most of that state.  Many Tories, appalled by British excesses during the fighting in 1776, and heartened by the victories of Trenton and Princeton, came over to the patriot side.  George Washington saved the American Revolution and earned the title Father of his country.

The year 1777 saw Washington and the Continental Army being defeated in the battle of Brandywine, which led to the loss of Philadelphia, and then failing to take Philadelphia back in the battle of Germantown.  However, appearances were deceiving.  The British lacked the troops to hold on to Philadelphia long term, and Washington and his Continentals were showing ever improving ability in stand up fights against the main British army.  With the American victory at Saratoga against the British invasion from Canada under General John Burgoyne, France decided to come into the War and one no longer needed to be a deranged optimist to believe that the Americans had a good chance to prevail.

However, Washington still had the problem of just keeping his army in existence.  The army went into winter quarters on starvation rations.  At Valley Forge Washington wrote,   “that unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place … this Army must inevitably … Starve, dissolve, or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can.”   Some 2000 of Washington’s 12000 troops would die before the winter encampment ended, expiring from disease, little food and inadequate clothing.

There is an old tradition that Washington prayed in the snow at Valley Forge on Christmas Day.  Certainly the wretched condition of the Continental Army in December of 1777, with a hungry winter beginning, would have driven commanders less pious than Washington to their knees.  However, Washington was pious and prayed every day.

The tradition rests on this account of the Reverend Nathaniel Randolph Snowden, a Presbyterian Minister in Philadelphia who lived from 1770-1851 and who wrote the following:

“I knew personally the celebrated Quaker Potts who saw Gen’l Washington alone in the woods at prayer. I got it from himself, myself. Weems mentioned it in his history of Washington, but I got it from the man myself, as follows:

“I was riding with him (Mr. Potts) in Montgomery County, Penn’a near to the Valley Forge, where the army lay during the war of ye Revolution. Mr. Potts was a Senator in our State & a Whig. I told him I was agreeably surprised to find him a friend to his country as the Quakers were mostly Tories. He said, ‘It was so and I was a rank Tory once, for I never believed that America c’d proceed against Great Britain whose fleets and armies covered the land and ocean, but something very extraordinary converted me to the Good Faith!” “What was that,” I inquired? ‘Do you see that woods, & that plain. It was about a quarter of a mile off from the place we were riding, as it happened.’ ‘There,’ said he, ‘laid the army of Washington. It was a most distressing time of ye war, and all were for giving up the Ship but that great and good man. In that woods pointing to a close in view, I heard a plaintive sound as, of a man at prayer. I tied my horse to a sapling & went quietly into the woods & to my astonishment I saw the great George Washington on his knees alone, with his sword on one side and his cocked hat on the other. He was at Prayer to the God of the Armies, beseeching to interpose with his Divine aid, as it was ye Crisis, & the cause of the country, of humanity & of the world.

‘Such a prayer I never heard from the lips of man. I left him alone praying.

‘I went home & told my wife. I saw a sight and heard today what I never saw or heard before, and just related to her what I had seen & heard & observed. We never thought a man c’d be a soldier & a Christian, but if there is one in the world, it is Washington. She also was astonished. We thought it was the cause of God, & America could prevail.’ “He then to me put out his right hand & said ‘I turned right about and became a Whig.'”

 

If Washington indeed prayed for a miracle at Valley Forge, he got one in a most unusual form.

Friedrich Wihelm von Steuben was an impecunious former Prussian officer when he was introduced to Benjamin Franklin in 1777 in Paris.  Von Steuben had fought bravely and skillfully in the Prussian Army during the Seven Years War, but was released from service at the conclusion of the war in 1763, and had since that time been unemployed as a soldier.  He called himself a baron but had no right to the title.  Franklin saw that there was a bit of the con artist in von Steuben, but he also saw that he was a talented and highly trained officer, someone who the Americans had great need of.  Franklin wrote a letter of introduction to Washington for von Steuben in which he described the erst-while captain as a former Prussian lieutenant-general.

Unlike other foreign volunteers to come to America, von Steuben made a favorable impression on Washington and Congress by not demanding rank or pay.  He simply wished to be placed to work as an unpaid volunteer.  On February 23, 1778 he reported at Valley Forge, and quickly began to earn the title by which he is known to history:  Drillmaster of the Revolution.

Von Steuben quickly realized that the rag tag Continentals needed to learn both discipline and drill.  He also realized that these men were not professional soldiers fighting for pay, but volunteers fighting for the liberty of their nation.  He would later write to a friend in Europe and explain that with the American soldier it was not only necessary to tell him what to do, but to explain to him why he should do it.  He simplified the Prussian manual of arms, and picking a “model company” of 120 men chosen from every regiment at Valley Forge, began to drill them.

Von Steuben proved himself a very effective drill instructor.  He used both profanity, when his limited store of English curses proved inadequate he would have one of his aides swear at the troops, and humor to underline what he was teaching the men.  The results proved immensely successful.  The men of the “model company” learned their lessons well, and quickly became drill masters for their units.  Von Steuben had the men dig latrines and organized an efficient layout of the camp.  He drilled the men extensively in the use of the bayonet.  He transformed a near raw militia into a regular army.  Washington was pleasantly amazed and had von Steuben appointed Inspector General of the Continental Army on April 30, 1778.

The proof of the superb work of Von Steuben was illustrated at the battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778 where the Americans attacked the British army as it was retreating from Philadelphia to New York.  The Americans slugged it out with some of the best regiments in the British army and held the battlefield as the British continued their retreat.  Monmouth was the last major battle fought in the North during the American Revolution with the British spending the rest of the War in the North clinging to New York city.

The subsequent years were frustrating for Washington as he struggled against a collapsing American economy to keep his army from starving, unable to build up the military power necessary to put New York under siege.  The situation altered in 1781. The French navy achieved temporary control of the waters off Virginia, and Washington secretly marched with 8,000 Continentals and 5,000 French from New York to attack the army of General Cornwallis in Virginia.  Besieged at Yorktown, Cornwallis surrendered his 7,000 men on October 19, 1781.

Treaty negotiations would drag on until 1783, but after Yorktown no one doubted that American independence had been achieved.  Washington summed up the War that he and his men had won against the odds:

A contemplation of the compleat attainment (at a period earlier than could have been expected) of the object for which we contended against so formidable a power cannot but inspire us with astonishment and gratitude. The disadvantageous circumstances on our part, under which the war was undertaken, can never be forgotten. The singular interpositions of Providence in our feeble condition were such, as could scarcely escape the attention of the most unobserving; while the unparalleled perseverance of the Armies of the U States, through almost every possible suffering and discouragement for the space of eight long years, was little short of a standing miracle. 

One act remains in the Revolution to be performed by Washington, and it is perhaps the most important act of his life.  Successful revolutions are usually soon betrayed by a victorious general setting himself up as a king or a dictator and largely defeating the purpose of the revolution.  Cromwell had followed this path and Napoleon would do so before the death of Washington, and a whole host of lesser men would prefer power to what their revolutions had ostensibly been fought for.  Not so Washington.  While he sympathized with the plight of soldiers and officers at the end of the War who were owed many months pay by an uncaring Congress, he spurned suggestions that he put himself at the head of the army and coerce Congress into fulfilling its many promises to the men who had won liberty for the American people.  Instead Washington addressed his officers on March 15, 1783 at the army encampment in Newburgh, New York.  Washington condemned in no uncertain terms the idea that the army could be used against Congress.  He melted the hearts of his officers at the beginning of the speech when he had to put on his spectacles to read it.  Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.  The incipient mutiny collapsed immediately.  The Revolution would not be betrayed in America thanks to George Washington, the man who preferred freedom for his country to power for himself.

16 Responses to Washington: The Greatest American-Part I

  • We, the people, and all future generations, are George Washington’s constitutional posterity. (All presidents must be held to the highest virtue.)

  • Excellent work, Donald! I look forward to Part 2.

    Will you be addressing the “legend” that Washington had an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or that he died a Catholic?

  • Alas no Nicolas. I have addressed those in other posts and none of that is true. What is true is that during the Revolution and as President Washington occasionally attended Mass, although he did that with other denominations also. He had no religious prejudice and counted many Catholics among his good friends including the first bishop of America. He did have a painting of the Virgin Mary among his other paintings. As Commander in Chief during the Revolution he forbade the army to observed Guy Fawkes Day:

    Here is his order on November 5, 1775:

    “As the Commander in Chief has been apprized of a design form’d for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the pope–He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are solliciting, and have really obtain’d, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider as Brethren embarked in the same Cause. The defence of the general Liberty of America: At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren, as to them we are so much indebted for every late happy Success over the common Enemy in Canada.”

    Catholics always had a friend in the Father of Our Country.

  • “I have never liked President’s Day…Officially the date is still the commemoration of George Washington’s birthday – ”

    I’ve grown to the habit of reminding others that there is no such holiday as “President’s Day”, and I think I notice a trend toward calling the Monday holiday by its correct name. Most shocking was last Wednesday; I went to the Prince George’s County Government offices, and noted the printed announcements posted that they will be closed for Washington’s Birthday, and each posting had a large picture of Mr. Washington… (in color). This is something to be only hoped for on the Virginia side of the river…totally unexpected for this inside-the-beltway Maryland county.

  • It is indeed true that General Washington squashed the stupid observance of Guy Fawkes Day among his troops. I remember reading, I think on the website of the US Ambassador to the Vatican, that President Washington (a Mason most of his adult life) was approached by an emissary from the Vatican congratulating him and asking for permission to send Catholic priests from other lands to serve the faithful in the US. President Washington stated that no such permission from him was necessary – a big difference from other countries that demanded and had a concordat with the Vatican giving them say over the establishment and appointment of sees and bishops.

  • George Washington did have many adventures in the region I call home – Southwestern Pennsylvania, then known as the Ohio Country, which was at one time, during the latter days of the War for Independence and a few years after, a serious point of contention between Pennsylvania and Virginia.

    The French were established throughout the Ohio Valley region, stretching down the Mississippi and all the way to New Orleans even then.

    Washington nearly drowned in the Allegheny River in a back channel between a little island formerly known as Herr’s Landing (now home to several upscale homes and known as Washington’s Landing) less than a mile from the Point, then known as the Forks.

    Today, atop Mount Summit just south of Uniontown (50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh) one can find the small town of Jumonville, named for the French officer who met with the unfortunate end. A few miles south along US Route 40 there is the Fort Necessity National Park, which houses a reconstruction of the fort constructed by Washington’s troops.

    The route Washington used to travel to Pittsburgh, originally old Indian trails, is now US Route 40 from Cumberland, Maryland to Uniontown, and Route 51, from Uniontown to Pittsburgh (Route 51 continues all the way to Public Square in Cleveland). General Braddock’s grave is also located along Route 40 south of Uniontown (founded on July 4, 1776 and the hometown of General George Marshall).

    Colonel Henry Bouquet led the British charge to drive the French from Fort Duquesne. Bouquet made his way from York, PA, to Bedford and then on to Fort Duquesne, carving out a path that eventually became US Route 30. the french evacuated and burned the fort, which bouquet took and renamed fort Pitt in honor of the British Prime Minister of the day, William Pitt (a sympathizer of American independence).

    The Fort Pitt Museum in Point State Park in Pittsburgh has many exhibits of this time period, and there are numerous places in the area named for the people and places of the time (Fort Pitt Bridge, Tunnel and Boulevard, Fort Duquesne Bridge and Boulevard, Bouquet Street, Forbes Avenue, the boroughs of Duquesne and Braddock which have seen better days, Duquesne University, Duquesne Beer, Fort Pitt Beer, etc.)

    The first location named for George Washington was Washington County, Pennsylvania (where my parents grew up), and later the home of the Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790s. Washington himself led the charge of Federal troops to stop the insurrection of angry poor Scot farmers who refused to pay what they thought were exorbitant taxes on the whiskey them made.

    The history of St. Mary of Mercy church in downtown Pittsburgh points out that the first Christian religious service in present day Pittsburgh was Holy Mass celebrated by the French chaplains who accompanied the French troops wherever they went or were stationed.

  • “”President Washington (a Mason most of his adult life) was approached by an emissary from the Vatican congratulating him and asking for permission to send Catholic priests from other lands to serve the faithful in the US. President Washington stated that no such permission from him was necessary “” Incredible. I love this man, Washington, more and more, for he respected his fellowman and his office. True separation of church and state.

  • “The history of St. Mary of Mercy church in downtown Pittsburgh points out that the first Christian religious service in present day Pittsburgh was Holy Mass celebrated by the French chaplains who accompanied the French troops wherever they went or were stationed.”
    No Mass in government shutdown, because Obama owns the citizen’s soul.

  • Donald, thanks for addressing the “legends” in the combox.

  • Thank you Nicholas! Some day I am going to do a post about all the legends that have clustered around Washington. There are dozens of them!

  • I knew two Jesuits, long since deceased, and they related to me that the Jesuits had passed on news that Washington did indeed convert to Catholicism on his deathbed. He sent his slaves to fetch Father Leonard Neale, SJ (the order being then still supressed), to assist his last hours. Neale would only say that everything was “taken care of.” Washington was also known to bless himself before meals. The affair in Pittsburg with the French does not say much for the man however. Seems to me that the French had more of a right to the land than any colonial frontiersmen. British PM William Pitt wanted to drive the French out of the Ohio Valley (and many other places) and push them into Canada. He was the one who ordered the attack on Fort Duquesne. Washington showed no mercy to any of the French that he did catch up with in the 1758 attack.

  • “I knew two Jesuits, long since deceased, and they related to me that the Jesuits had passed on news that Washington did indeed convert to Catholicism on his deathbed.”

    Washington’s last illness and final hours are quite well documented. No such conversion occurred.

    “Seems to me that the French had more of a right to the land than any colonial frontiersmen.”

    Why? They had no better claim to expand into this land than the British did.

    “Washington showed no mercy to any of the French that he did catch up with in the 1758 attack.”
    Quite untrue. The French blew up Fort Duquesne and evacuated it prior to the British scouts under Colonel Washington arriving at the Fort.

  • George Washington gets my vote (the only one that counts) as the greatest American that ever lived and he will never be eclipsed. The historical record proves it.

    Even today he is “First in war; first in peace; and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

    Who would come “within a mile” of such God-given natural nobility: courage/fortitude, justice, prudence, and temperance? Well, maybe Saint Patrick . . .

    And, I don’t care for any detraction.

    When King Goeorge III was informed that Washingtion did not seize the rule over America, he stated that GW was the greatest man that ever lived. Or, something to that effect.

  • “Give the last word to Washington’s great adversary, King George III. The king asked his American painter, Benjamin West, what Washington would do after winning independence. West replied, “They say he will return to his farm.”

    “If he does that,” the incredulous monarch said, “he will be the greatest man in the world.”

  • Thank you for your comments. Apparently I had read inaccurate information. War is hell. I still say, however, that the French were there first. French explorers had canvassed the area long before English settlers began settling. The French had mapped out the territory and claimed it for the throne. But the English were the worst expansionists. Treaties meant nothing to them. Nor did the conversion of the Indians. At least the French evangelized, many dying martyrs. Have you forgotten Pere Marquette, and Jolliet. De Lasalle also brought missionaries on his expeditions. He was the first to explore the Ohio River (1682). You are wrong about the English having just as much right to the Ohio Valley as the French. That is unhistorical.

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