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George Washington Is Appointed Commander-In-Chief

( Originally Published 1916 )


On the 16th of June, the day before the battle of Bunker Hill, the Congress, having accepted Massachusetts' gift of the army before Boston, gave the command of it to Colonel George Washington, of Virginia, and made him a general and commanderin-chief of all the forces of the patriot cause.

Hancock, it is said, had ambitions in that direction, and was somewhat disappointed at the choice. But the fitness of Washington for the office was generally admitted as soon as John Adams urged his appointment. He would conciliate the moderate patriots, for he had clung to the old arguments as long as possible, and refrained from forcing events. If substantial independence of Parliament and the Ministry could be secured, he was willing to allow the King a vague or imaginary headship until in the course of years that excrescence should slough away.

Many were inclined to think that a New England general should command the New England army that was gathered before Boston ; but they were obliged to admit that the appointment of a general from Virginia, the most populous and prosperous of the colonies, would tend to draw the Southern interest to the patriot cause.

Washington was forty-three years old, which was the right age for entering upon the supreme command in what might be a long war. He had distinguished himself by helping to rescue Braddock's defeated army in 1755, and he had taken a more or less prominent part in the subsequent campaigns which ended in driving the French out of Canada. This military education and experience seemed slight, and not equal to that of the British officers who would be opposed to him. But it was American experience, no colonist was any better equipped, and he was of a larger intelligence than Putnam, Ward, and other Americans who had served in the French War.

His strong character and personality had impressed themselves upon his fellow-delegates in the Congress. It was this impressive personality which made his career and brought to him grave responsibility without effort on his part to seek office or position. When he was only twenty-one the governor of Virginia had sent him through the wilderness to interview the French commander near Lake Erie, a mission which required the hardihood of the hunter and some of the shrewd intelligence of the diplomat.

But much to the surprise of travelers and visitors, Washington never appeared to be a brilliant man.

He was always a trifle reserved, and this habit grew on him with years. His methods of work were homely and painstaking, reminding us somewhat of Lincoln ; and the laborious carefulness of his military plans seemed to European critics to imply a lack of genius.

But it was difficult to judge him by European standards, because the conditions of the warfare he conducted were totally unlike anything in Europe. He never commanded a real army with well-organized departments and good equipment. His troops were usually barefooted, half-starved, and for several years incapable of performing the simplest parade manoeuvre. Brilliant movements, except on a small scale, as at Princeton, were rarely within his reach ; and large complicated movements were impossible because he had not the equipment of officers and organization for handling large bodies of men spread out over a great extent of country. He was obliged to adopt the principle of concentration and avoid making detachments or isolated movements that could be cut off by the British. To some of his contemporaries it therefore seemed that his most striking ability lay in conciliating local habits and prejudices, harmonizing discordant opinions, and holding together an army which seemed to the British always on the eve of disbanding.

He reasoned out, however, in his own way, the peculiar needs of every military position, and how he did this will appear more clearly as our narrative progresses. He often spoke of his own lack of military experience, as well as of the lack of it in the officers about him ; and this seems to have led him to study every situation like a beginner, with exhaustive care, consulting with everybody, calling councils of war on every possible occasion, and reasoning out his plans with minute carefulness. This method, which his best friends sometimes ridiculed, was in striking contrast to the method of one of his own officers, General Greene, and also to the method of Grant in the Civil War. Both Greene and Grant dispensed altogether with laborious consultations and councils of war.

But the laborious method was well suited to Washington, whose mind was never satisfied unless it could strike a balance among a great mass of arguments and details which must be obtained from others, and not through his own imagination. He liked to reserve his decision until the last moment, and this trait was sometimes mistaken for weakness. His preparedness and devotion to details remind us of Napoleon. His cautious, balancing, weighing habit, developed by lifelong practice, runs through all his letters and every act of his life, appearing in some of the great events of his career as a superb and masterful equipoise. It became very impressive even to those who ridiculed it; it could inspire confidence through years of disaster and de-feat; and it enabled him to grasp the general strategy of the war so thoroughly that no military critic has ever detected him in a mistake.

As a soldier he fought against distinguished British officers four pitched battles-Long Island, Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth; in the first three of which he was defeated, and the last was a draw. He conducted two sieges—Boston and Yorktown—in both of which he was successful; and he destroyed two outposts—Trenton and Princeton—in a manner generally regarded as so brilliant and effective that he saved the patriot cause from its first period of depression. His characteristics as a soldier were farseeing judgment and circumspection, a certain long-headedness, as it might be called, and astonishing ability to recover from and ignore a de-feat. In his pitched battles, like Long Island and Brandywine, he knew that defeat was probable, and he prepared for it.'

He was compelled to act so much on the defensive, and the British methods were so slow, that his activities in the field were not numerous when we consider that he was in command for seven years. The greater part of his time and energy was employed in building up the cause by mild, balanced, but wonderfully effective arguments; reconciling animosities by tactful precautions; and by the confidence his personality inspired preventing the army from disbanding. A large part of this labor was put forth in writing letters of wonderful beauty and perfection in the literary art, when we consider the end they were to accomplish. Complete editions of his writings of this sort usually fill a dozen or more large volumes ; and there have been few if any great generals of the world who have accomplished so much by writing, or who have been such consummate masters of language.

Sufficient care has not always been taken to distinguish between the different periods of his life. He aged rapidly at the close of the Revolution; his reserved manner and a certain " asperity of temper," as Hamilton called it, greatly increased; and some years afterwards, when President, he had become a very silent and stiffly formal man, far different from the young soldier who, in the prime of life, drew his sword beneath the old elm at Cam-bridge to take command of the patriot army.

The Virginians of his time appear to have had occupations and social intercourse which educated them in a way we are unable to imitate. Washing-ton in his prime was a social and convivial man, fond of cards, fine horses, and fox-hunting. Although not usually credited with book learning, his letters and conduct in the Revolution show that he was quite familiar with the politics of foreign countries and the general information of his time. We have not yet learned to appreciate the full force of his intellect and culture.

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