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Di Leo: George Washington and the Impossible Dream

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George Washington Taking Control at Cambridge by Charles Stanley Reinhart

By John F. Di Leo - 

Reflections on the anniversary of General Washington’s arrival at Cambridge, July, 1775, a year before the Declaration of Independence…

Having been unanimously selected by his fellow delegates in the Continental Congress as Commander-in-Chief, on June 15, 1775, George Washington of Virginia was commissioned a General on June 19 and sent off to assume command of the newly created Continental Army… which was then little more than a fiction, as those awaiting him outside Boston really belonged to their localities and their states.

When General Washington arrived at Cambridge, Massachusetts on July 3, 1775, he took command of a collection of local militias, some large, some small, blessed with great patriotism, great courage, and great will… but precious little actual military ability or experience.

What General Washington knew from his own service with the English, during the Seven Years’ War  (also known as the French and Indian War), was that, this time, he was up against the greatest fighting force in the world, in some ways, the greatest fighting force in human history up to that point. 

And he knew that his troops, whatever their patriotism, courage and will, were no match for them.

The Man and His Journey

Like most Colonial Americans of the time, George Washington was raised in Virginia as a proud Englishman.  Compared to all the other cultures of the world, the English of the 18th century had good reason to be proud; they had more freedom – both political and economic – than most other people in the world, and they had a fair means of redressing injustices, through the courts and the legislature. 

Every American colony had long had its own legislature, based on Parliament itself, and with regular elections – and regular opportunities to meet with one’s representative, if one wanted to – the freemen of these colonies felt that they enjoyed the same good life as their cousins back home; even better, in fact, because our diet, our weather, economic opportunity and religious freedom were all superior to almost every other country (as long as you didn’t have the misfortune of being born into slavery, or living in one of the coast’s yellow fever breeding grounds, anyway).

But this golden existence started to change for the worse – to actually go backward – in the mid-18th century.

First, King George II started forcibly restricting the economic options available to the Colonists, shutting down their foundries, banning certain types of manufacturing, in order to force the colonies to remain dependent upon the mother country for finished goods. Then, after the Seven Years War, his son George III, the third Hanoverian king, decided to fund the costs of the war with onerous new taxes, set entirely by Parliament.

Finally, when colonists objected to these changes, George III instituted aspects of martial law, such as shutting our ports, ordering that we could no longer trade with anyone but England, even stationing soldiers in civilians’ homes!  And all of this was done without the slightest consultation with any of our own duly elected colonial governments.  In fact, when our colonial governments objected, King George ordered them shut down too.

George Washington was therefore ahead of the curve on the question of independence. Even when he couldn’t say so out loud, because he was ahead of his time on this, as on so many things, he had been working toward American independence for years. 

Washington had become the most experienced soldier on the American frontier, during the Seven Years War. He had then served in the Virginia House of Burgesses, as a legislator, for almost twenty years, before being sent to Philadelphia to attend the Continental Congress as a delegate from Virginia.  When that Congress needed to select a military leader, known and respected the world over, to unify both the colonies’ armed services and their public opinion effort, George Washington really was the only logical choice.

But as ready as he was to be chosen, and as clear as he was on the challenge that they were to face in the years to come, he could never have been ready for what he found, when he arrived at Boston that first week of July, 1775.

The Soldiers of the Glorious Cause

When General Washington reached Boston to take command on July 3, the rival armies were in a tense holding pattern.   The British army was concentrated in the city of Boston; most patriots had already fled.  Thousands of militiamen, representing various towns and states on the patriot side, were arranged in a siege line, blockading all of Boston except the harbor… so the British had a line of supply via the sea, as the patriots had a line of supply over land.

Try to imagine General Washington’s discovery, over those first few days of his command, on July 3, 4 and 5, 1775, as he realized just how bad things were for his men.  It must have gone something like this:  “Let’s see them in formation.”  “They don’t know how to do formation, sir.”  “Let’s supervise some artillery drills.” “We don’t have enough cannonballs for artillery drills, sir.”  “Hmmm… well, let’s see some rifle marksmanship practice then.”  “Actually, General, we don’t have enough gunpowder or ammunition to spare for practice.”

This is no exaggeration.  Our troops were willing, but they were untrained and ill-equipped.  Without gunpowder and ammunition, they could not practice, and without practice, they were even more ill-matched than they looked.  While some New Englanders had served in past wars, and some were experienced hunters, far too many had never held a gun before, and needed training at a time when we had no way to train them!

So one of General Washington’s greatest challenges, those first months on the job, was to organize this odd collection of independent platoons and companies into a single, organized unit… and to beg the Continental Congress, in letter after pleading letter, for the clothing, food, gunpowder and shells they would need to practice… both to keep the Redcoats nervous and to be able to beat the Redcoats when the time for a confrontation finally arrived.

Imagine holding a city under siege, virtually on a poker bluff.   He had to give the impression that the Continentals were as threatening a force as they had been a few months earlier, at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill.  He could never let the British know that they were surrounded by a ring of amateurs, with barely enough powder and bullets for a single shot, after which they would have to do their fighting in hand-to-hand combat with bayonets (a method that only has a chance, after all, if both sides are out of ammunition).

In the great Peter Stone / Sherman Edwards musical, 1776, which, hopefully, everyone watches sometime on or around Independence Day, we listen to the secretary reading the General’s dispatches… we watch John Adams plead the ladies of Massachusetts to show their support for the war effort by manufacturing and shipping gunpowder to the troops… we hear the reports of famished troops, desperate for sustenance as the months (and years) go by. 

That imagery is all true. When General Washington took command in July, 1775, this newly-assembled federation was in no shape, economically or logistically, to fight any kind of war, especially against the greatest military force on earth.

Strategy, Patience, and Time

But despite these challenges, General Washington, the Continental Army and eventual Navy, and all the militias and spy rings and privateers and foreign allies that somehow came together in the years to come, managed to do the impossible after all.

General Washington sent forces where he could, where there might be a chance… training his people as he could, equipping them as well as possible, making the most of every opportunity, for every year of the fight, as reliant on patience as on any other tool of war.

The tense stalemate in Boston, for example, lasted nearly a year, neither side daring to start a battle that might be either an utter defeat or a pyrrhic victory.  It didn’t break until March of 1776, when young bookseller Henry Knox returned from an impossible journey bearing the Guns of Ticonderoga, and Washington could at last fortify the Dorchester Heights and drive British from Boston in a single overwhelming battle, impressive enough to give the Continental Congress enough confidence to pass a Declaration of Independence.

That was the situation, again and again, over the eight long years of the war – valiant but ill-equipped soldiers had to wait, suffering starvation and illness, as lack of funds and lack of opportunity, sometimes for weeks or months, necessarily postponed action until some bit of luck would finally break their way.

Over the years, General Washington ordered that all new recruits be inoculated against smallpox. He gave orders on how to design and place the latrines so that camps would be hygienic. He put Baron von Steuben in charge of training, and directed young aide Alexander Hamilton to turn that Prussian training into an American training manual.

The General did the best he could with what little he was given.  He partnered with the French, noting who he could count on as a true friend of our effort, like young Lafayette, and who he could tell was more a strategic partner.  Starting with few experienced officers, he cultivated young talent, doing his best to reward merit without regard to breeding (a concept unheard of in the British army), setting Henry Knox, Alexander Hamilton, Tench Tilghman, John Trumbull, and dozens of others on their way to greatness in their own right over the years… not to mention the tens of thousands of patriotic heroes whose names we do not know.

A Long and Worthy Fight

Counting the days from the Shot Heard Round the World, at Lexington and Concord in April, 1775, until the peace was finally signed at the Hotel d’York in Paris, in September, 1783, the American War of Independence lasted eight and a half years.  And if we count the days from when King George III first imposed martial law on Boston and started shutting down colonial legislatures in the late 1760s, the true timeframe must have felt to our Founders like fifteen years, not eight.

We complain today about how long our wars are.  Having been spoiled by the two-year Korean Conflict, the two-month conquest of Grenada, and the six-month Desert Shield / Desert Storm, the idea of a war lasting several years is simply “too much” in the minds of many, and in a nation in which public opinion determines elections, that means that a long war frequently signals punishment at the polls, no matter whether that lengthy duration was in fact avoidable or not.

The duration of a war is often not up to one side or the other alone.  In the case of our own War of Independence, the only way it could have been shorter is if we had decided to lose.  The modified Fabian strategy that General Washington pursued – making the war so long and costly for the British that they would lose interest in the fight before we did – virtually required that we be patient.  We waited them out, forcing England to finance a difficult foreign war for years and years, and it worked in the end… for us.

And we learned lessons, so many lessons, from the War of Independence, though we have forgotten many of them in the centuries since.  Among them:

  • We must always be ready for war. In the 1750s, virtually no American colonists would have dreamed that we would find it necessary to fight a War of Independence twenty years later, but we did.  You can’t always pick the time for action; sometimes, the time is picked for you.
  • The power of government that we count on to defend us could easily be turned against us, so we must be capable on our own, of either defending ourselves from criminals when our government will not, or overthrowing the government when it becomes tyrannical. In many ways, the 2nd Amendment was born on July 3, 1775, when General Washington arrived in Boston to find men who didn’t even know how to handle a firearm; we must never allow our people to be so inexperienced again.
  • Our forefathers’ pride in their English heritage was rooted in the traditions of the English Common Law and a half-millennium of progress in limited government and expanding individual freedoms. As late as the days of George Washington’s youth, it was assumed that the days of activist monarchs were over for English speakers, and legislatures such as Parliament and our colonial statehouses were in charge. It all changed on a dime when George III inherited the throne, and decided on his own that colonial legislatures were just a meaningless plaything, and that his subjects’ liberty was a privilege he could grant or withhold at his whim. We learned that it was not enough to have the tradition of limited government; we must teach it, and appreciate it, and be prepared to fight whenever the establishment tries to change the rules.
  • We need a strong and independent economy. Our colonies were so dependent upon England for finished goods – from clothing to plows, from cups and dishes to hand tools – that our war effort and our entire economy suffered for a decade. We learned this lesson, and worked to become self-sufficient in the 19th century, so that imports could be purchased by choice not by necessity, but we forgot this lesson in the 20th  Today, unable to make things at home, we import critical technology from distant lands, sometimes even the countries we are likely one day to face on the battlefield… putting both our economy and our war effort at risk in a future war.

The lessons to be learned from the wisdom and experience of our Founding Fathers are as numerous as the stars in the heavens; these few barely scratch the surface. But perhaps most important is this one:  that history is made by people, so we must nurture and value those people.  Who is available when the call comes? Who has prepared for the challenge, and rises to it when called?  Are we operating a society that prepares people, studying philosophy and religion, math and science, history and economics, so they will be ready for these jobs, whatever these jobs may be, when their nation needs them?

Divine Providence broke all precedent in the second half of the 18th century, when He placed a concentration of the greatest minds in human history on the eastern coast of a barely-explored continent, giving them an opportunity to change the world for the better. Adams and Paine, Lafayette and Hamilton, Morris and Morris, Knox and Mulligan, and most of all, George Washington, the Father of his Country.

Our lives, and our very world, are better because these men lived.

And on holidays like Independence Day, we are proud to take the time to honor and cherish their memory, and to thank Divine Providence, once again, for giving these heroes to us.

Copyright 2017 John F. Di Leo 

John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based Customs broker and international trade lecturer, actor and writer.  He studied his history and political science as a student at Northwestern University, but learned the most about our heritage in independent study, as a consumer of the biographies and histories written about our Founding by such talents as Flexner, Ellis, Brookhiser, Johnson, Randall and Unger.  There are so many great historians, available online or from a local library. Know your history!

Permission is hereby granted to forward freely, provided it is uncut and the IR URL and byline remain.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Good job! I remember reading about the fish at Valley Forge and the crossing of the Delaware and the Battle of Trenton. I have walked many of the battlefields here in the US and where we fought in Europe. In so many of these we would never have won without the Lord helping us do it.
    Thank you for writing this.

  2. Washington often “learned by doing,” and one of the lessons came from the disaster of General Braddock’s mission to take Fort Duquesne (today’s Pittsburg) from the French.
    This military fiasco taught Washington that conventional British military tactics were often inflexible, British officers were arrogant and unwilling to heed advice from “the locals,” who knew how a different form of war was fought against the French and their indian allies, here in the wilderness.
    It taught him that with the proper, adaptable tactics, the lordly British COULD be beaten. And, they eventually were.