The indispensable man: Washington forges an army

Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

Washington forged the army and the army forged the country. He was the indispensable man. Without Washington the Revolution would have collapsed leaving Americans defeated, their leaders hanged for treason, desultory bands roaming the countryside taking potshots at British soldiers or Tory militia bringing harsh reprisals in a circle of never-ending violence and repression.

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That did not happen. In the face of almost continual defeats in the early days of the Revolution Washington brought up an army capable of fighting British regulars on equal terms. It could have been no other way if he was to win their respect. He was not a great tactician, only a passable strategist but through force of character formed disparate Americans into a fighting army. He was the North Star of Independence.

When painting Washington’s portrait Gilbert Stuart said of his subject, “he was a man of the most ungovernable passions”. The young Washington had the temperament to go with his red hair, but had learned to discipline himself, a feat without which he could never have commanded men. He had grown up respectable, but not wealthy, he was an outdoorsman and a skilled horseman. (From experience, if you can command a horse, you can command men both require the confidence that comes from self-discipline.) Washington made himself into a gentleman, heavily influenced by the classics and the Stoics. From this disposition, he molded his character as a leader. He yearned for martial glory; he got that and more in the Pennsylvania wilderness while marching on Ft Duquesne with Gen. Braddock and starting the French and Indian War. Braddock was killed, his force crushed but Washington executed a skilled retreat saving what he could of Braddock’s soldiers and his own Virginia militiamen. For the remainder of the war now Colonel Washington’s skill as a leader grew. With peace in 1763, having become a man of substance, he retired to Mt. Vernon and his wife. Had there been no revolution Washington’s agricultural innovations would have gained him recognition as a pioneering agronomist, it was not to be.

As the call for independence mounted, like Cincinnatus of old, he left his land to serve his country. There were other men of military accomplishment but Washington stood out and it was to him the Second Continental Congress bestowed command of the Continental Army in 1775. It had been a reluctant undertaking; the first American flag bore the Union Jack on the canton; it was as much civil war as revolution.

“… the rebellion had been slow in growing. The colonies, willing to acknowledge George III as sovereign, held that their own legislatures were the equal of parliament and that they had a right to govern themselves, that, in fact, sovereignty could be divided contrary to what Parliament insisted. The colonies had reached what would later be recognized as Dominion status; in 1776 Parliament could not see that and by the time it was willing to grant Americans home rule it was too late. (from my article, “The Battle of Eutaw Springs: The 19th of Foot in the American Revolution 1781-1782,” THE GREEN HOWARD, Green Howards Museum, Spring 2021 (Richmond, Yorkshire, England.)

For the next eight years, war consumed a divided country. John Adams estimated that only one-third of Americans actually engaged in the revolution, another third remained loyal to Britain, with the other third sitting on the fence. American victory at Saratoga in 1777 was the turning point. By 1778 France joined the fray supplying money, soldiers, and her fleet, followed by Spain and Holland declaring war on Britain. The rebellion had become a world war. Without French assistance, there would have been no independence, no victory at Yorktown where Gen. Cornwallis surrendered to Washington effectively ending the war. When signed the Treaty of Paris (1783) recognized thirteen independent states; the foundation of the United States was being laid. On hearing that Washington was resigning his command at war’s end instead of holding on to power George III said, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” So he was.

Washington’s legacy as an architect of the American Army lives on. even today the cap badge of the U.S. Army is the shield of the United States for the army was, and is, the shield of the nation.

©2024 William Layer