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Lose the battle, win the war

Washington's brilliance led an overmatched Army to victory

George Washington described the Army as “a mixed multitude of people ... under very little discipline, order or government.” Photo credit: U.S. Army

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This author sat down to write about our first President. He called to his wife, "I'll be in the office for a while. I've got to get into the frame of mind to write something about George Washington's military skill." She replied with a straight face, "Do you want me to get you a quarter or a dollar to sit by your computer?"  

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower wore five stars as the Supreme Allied Commander Europe. But when he landed in Normandy on D-Day, he was basically coaching a battle of the Seattle Seahawks versus the New England Patriots. When Gen. Washington took the Continental Army up against the British Army and Navy, he was taking a local high school team of farmers up against the British Seahawks. Our forces were desperately overmatched, but his military genius found tactic after tactic that led to one of the most unlikely upsets in war history.

In 1755, for example, at age 23, young Col. Washington was serving under Gen. Edward Braddock when their unit was ambushed by Indians. Mid-battle, Washington pleaded for a move into the forest, but Braddock refused. It quickly turned into a massacre. Braddock was killed.

With the troops panicking and scrambling for cover in any direction, Col. Washington rallied the men. The firefight was wild. Washington had two horses killed from under him, four bullet holes put in his coat, and literally had his hat shot off his head. He survived it all, and even "enjoyed" the action, he wrote later. His rally-and-retreat brought the soldiers home alive.

Twenty years later, in 1775, Gen. Washington was leading the U.S. Army into the Battle of Monmouth. He rode with one part of his Army, but the other half was routed. He rode back and found Gen. Charles Lee's men in retreat, under pursuit by the British. He rode up and berated Lee for the incompetence. Washington turned his men back around to attack. Marquis de Lafayette, assisting that day, was awestruck. He wrote, "Washington seemed to arrest fortune with one glance. His presence stopped the retreat. I thought then, as now, that I had never beheld so superb a man."

Washington had worked as a surveyor when a young man, laying out the city of Washington, D.C., and this gave him an uncanny ability to gauge the land. Many of his brilliant tactics were defensive, and he kept secure his retreat options at all times.

One example: the Revolutionary War's first major battle was at Long Island in August 1776. William Howe's superior British forces thrashed the young U.S. troops like Apollo Creed knocking down Rocky four times in the first round. As night fell, the British celebrated their plans to finish us off once and for all.

A providential fog settled over the river, and Washington hit on the plan of an eerie-silent retreat. Thousands of U.S. soldiers crept into boats and attempted the cross from Long Island to Manhattan. Washington rode up and down the lines, hushing the men and horses. Finally dawn broke, Washington himself got into the last boat, and the British guard watched the back of Washington's coat disappearing into the mist.

A few weeks later, at Kip Bay, our troops were routed again. Washington called his Army out for "disgraceful and disorderly conduct." The ragtag soldiers learned to respect their General more than they feared the British. Two days later, the same unit fought well at Harlem Heights. Gen. Washington commended them for fighting correctly. He then wrote Congress, laying out the specific next steps for a permanent, trained Continental Army that would compete with its enemies. To the vast surprise of the British, they suddenly found themselves in a real war.

Washington had a grand feel for war campaigns, and he realized that for the American Revolution to succeed, the U.S. had only to defend itself against the British. He ran America's first rope-a-dope strategy. And unlike Braddock 20 years earlier, Washington was not too proud to retreat when he needed to survive to harry the Redcoats another day.

In October 1776, he had carefully secured a defensive position on a hill near White Plains, New York. The British, no slouches themselves, took a nearby hill that was higher. At just the right moment, Washington alertly and decisively battled his way to even higher hills outside New Castle. His troops survived again.

One year later, in a famous battle near Philadelphia, the British finally managed to outflank the U.S. Army. They targeted its rear flank and prepared to lay waste the Americans. Gen. Washington hurried to the rear. He personally led a successful defense of the perimeter, and most of his Army was saved yet again. At Boston, he filled barrels filled with rocks and dirt around his position to create the appearance of strength.  The Redcoats hesitated. When fighting finally began, his Army had secured extra time to prepare - and then he rolled the barrels down the hill to crush advancing enemies.

Washington was brilliant in attack, but it was in his miraculous survival tactics that the American Revolution was won. Many in Congress, not quite understanding war on the same level, questioned his tactics. Standing in front of a Congress on one occasion, he faced the verbal bullets as coolly as he did the lead bullets. "I will not be deprived of a comfort in this," he said, "even in the worst event - if I retain a consciousness of having acted in my best judgment." In other words, if I die and Americans become slaves, even if nobody else is happy with my work, I'll be happy with it. Such are the words of a man who found the sound of bullets whistling past his head to be "charming."

Von Moltke was quoted in 1974, "You have in American history one of the great captains of all times. It might be said of him, as it was of William the Silent, that he seldom won a battle but he never lost a campaign." The U.S. Congress has declared George Washington our only 7-star general, Supreme Commander of the Army for all time. It was not an honorary title. If you think that today's generals are smarter, more inventive, or more resourceful than George Washington, think again. Don't underestimate the oldtimers!

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