George Washington's Military Genius
By Dave Palmer
“Washington or no Army”
Continental Army toast page 74
Back to non-fiction for a bit and given the recent holiday (that being July 4th or the American Independence Day) think a book about George Washington is called for. Ah, Washington, the first and greatest of our founding fathers and perhaps the most mythologized. The US has been prone to over reacting in how we see our founders, in recent times two groups have staked out their ground and gone to brutal war over it. The first group holds up the founders as flawless demi-gods sent down from the shining heavens by the Almighty Lord God himself to lovingly hand craft the pure and wonderful city on a hill that would become the United States. The second group decries them as a pack of ingrate wealthy elitists grown fat upon the suffering of slaves and natives who turned snarling upon the poor innocent government of the United Kingdom for meekly suggesting that the colonists should pay taxes.
My own position is bluntly that both groups are so ridiculously out of touch with reality that it is a wonder they even got the names of the people they are worshiping or slandering right. The founding fathers were men, as such they were flawed and imperfect. They did things that were to be frank immoral and wrong. They also were gifted men, who did things great and amazing and acted with charity and goodness. Such is the nature of humanity. They crafted through messy compromise and dickering and titanic labor a nation that would prosper, grow and become one of the mightiest nations in history, whose impact on culture and history can only be denied by the stupid, blind or extremely ideological blinkered, but I repeat myself there. Entire fields of art and science have been invented in this nation, deeds good, great and worthy of remembrance have been done here. I cannot deny that shameful and horrible things have been done. I also cannot deny that many people have suffered unjustly simply for their gender, race and more... I do believe that erases nor eclipses the good. I will stop here as this is suppose to be a book review not a political polemic.
As for Washington himself? I would argue that he is worthy of praise for one simple reason, he surrendered power. That doesn't sound like much... Until you compare him to the great number of successful revolutionaries who did not and the price their nations paid for that. Compare Washington to Castro, or Mugabe or others and suddenly praising him for that doesn't seem so silly does it? Disregarding that, as the book doesn't concern itself with that, I have never considered Washington to be among the great military generals and strategists of the world or even the United States. Lt. General Dave Palmer (retired), veteran of two tours of Vietnam, former superintendent of West Point and a noted historian of the American Revolution in his own right seeks to change my mind in this book. Let's discuss if he actually pulls it off.
Palmer starts the book by addressing the general facts of war and society in Washington's time. Pointing out that when we peer back through the centuries we are viewing a much different time. This war happens before the industrial revolution, an event that so dramatically changes human life on this planet that some historians have suggested that the generation of the founding fathers have more in common with the men of the Roman Empire then us, who live a mere 240 some odd years later. War was certainly different as were the armies that carried it out. Europe was still shaking off the memory of the destruction of the 30 year war and trying it's level best to avoid any total wars. Armies were expensive and as such battle was something to be avoided. A victory where your army took heavy loses (loses that would take years to replace) could lose you the war. European armies were usually made up of economically unproductive classes (that is the aristocracy and to be blunt the criminal and jobless) press ganging (basically kidnapping someone into service) was common and as such desertion was epidemic. This was because every man in the army was a man not on the farm or doing other more economically productive things. The gulf between enlisted and officer class was wide and deep, with the enlisted being in the main uneducated, rough, very low class men and officers being to the manor born. The American Revolutionary army was different in the sense it was made up of volunteers from all walks of life serving for a cause. In some ways it was a warning ripple of what the French Revolution would unleash in some decades time. For that matter the war itself was more like the French Revolution in that society itself had to be brought into the war. For most of the wars of 1700s, society was incredibly uninvolved. In fact citizens often didn't know or care if their nation was at war or at peace. It was normal to carry on trade and commerce with nations your government was at war with. The Americans wouldn't have that luxury but would be involved in the war whether they wished to be or not.
Palmer then proceeds to introduce us to the important facts of the ground. The nature of life and the set up of the colonies. How the population of some 2.5 million was shotgunned across the eastern seaboard. Despite that there were cities, Philadelphia in the 1750s was the 2nd largest city in the British Empire for example, the vast majority of Americans lived in small settlements in a large wilderness. We are also introduced to the British government of the time of the revolution and frankly, it is unimpressive. For example two quotes about King George:
“Had he born in different circumstances it is unlikely that he could have earned a living expect as an unskilled laborer,” British scholar page 36
“He was lethargic, apathetic, childish, a clod of a boy whom no one could teach” also page 36
We also learn an important fact, at this point in time, the British Army numbered roughly 50,000 men. These men had to police an empire stretching from Canada to India. This I think fully explains what is come next. These sections of the book are very informative and well written, I really enjoyed the first 25% of the book and I even managed to learn some things.
The next part of the book is where Palmer proceeds to make his argument. He divides the American Revolution into 4 phases. The first phase which was from April 1775 to June 1776, where the revolutionaries take the offensive and eject royal government administers from the 13 colonies and directly engage the British Army. Here he argues Washington takes the led by pushing for aggressive action against the British army in Boston and elsewhere. While Washington was able to gain success in New England, the revolution army in Canada ending up failing. At the end of the 1st phase we see the royal government and the British army forced out of the colonies and into Canada. Following on the heels of this comes the Declaration of Independence in July and phase 2.
The 2nd phase was intensive defensive with Washington working overtime to keep his army in the field and intact. This phase ran from July 1776 to December 1777, part of the reason for the defensive nature of the war was to put bluntly an extreme failure to estimate the British response. The Continental Congress had estimated that King George III would send 22,500 redcoats, 10,000 to hold Canada with the rest coming into to invade New England. In order to be able to meet this army on the field, the Revolutionaries in Congress determined they needed a 2 to 1 advantage at least in numbers. They set a goal of recruiting 65,000 men. They managed to raise an army of 25,000 and they would be meeting a British/German army around 48,000 strong. The Germans of whom over 30,000 would serve in the newly made US came from all over, their appearance enraged the colonists who believed that proper Englishmen did not sic foreign mercenaries on each other (this suggests that they were unaware of large chunks of English history but side issue). At this point if the Continental Army was destroyed the field, that would be the end of the Revolution. Recognizing that the Hudson river and control of it was vital, he fortified it (including founding West Point itself) and proceeded to deny a decisive battle to the British Army that was now twice his size, better trained and better equipped. However he also refused to break contact, constantly shadowing the British Army staying just out of reach of a lunge that would bring him into grips. I have to admit this is an amazing achievement. I have some idea of how hard this would be from my own military experiences, where it is the tendencies of firefights to grow bigger. My own experience is limited to that of a junior Corporal in the Marines though, I did not have to control militia during a retreat. Washington did and he did it well enough to avoid destruction. It was during this period that he received a nickname from the British Army, they would call him 'Old Fox.' As a bitter winter fell on the US in 1777 and Christmas came near, it was the opening of Phase 3.
Phase 3 opens with Washington crossing the Delaware River to make his now famous attack on Trenton and would continue until October 1781. A major change was an open military alliance with the French and the fact that the French fleet would be operating in the Atlantic against the British. Additionally the flow of armies and perhaps more importantly money from France, gave Washington room to risk. If he suffered heavy causalities, he would have the time and space to replace them. With the French money came a stream of European Officers willing to serve and train. Within Valley Forge those officers would hammer out the first professional American Army and Washington would use that army to attack. Cities would be retaken and the British Army would find itself under constant attack. Facing newly aggressive American forces and a French fleet prowling along their rear, the British began to retreat from many of their toe holds in the colonies. 1780 would prove to be a year of major set backs for the Revolutionaries as the British would invade the southern colonies and internal problems threaten to have the colonies fly apart, notable was the betrayal of the Revolution by Benedict Arnold. Washington was just able to keep the army and therefore country intact to strike back in 1781. The South was retaken, a French army arrived to fight alongside the Continentals and at last came the victory of Yorktown.
The final phase, phase 4 was mostly negotiation between the British and the Americans. Washington had to work to keep the United States from losing the peace as the final peace treaty was hammered out and to ensure that the army didn't turn on Congress. Something I can state is a mighty tempting idea at times even today (I might still be bitter about that veterans jobs bill guys). Considering that many of the men of the continental army hadn't been paid in months and most of them never would be, it must have way more tempting than I could possibly imagine. Still it was achieved and it might have one of the important things Washington has ever done. Well stepping down from the Presidency was more important but this one is close.
The book has a lot of interesting information and presents a thought provoking argument. As an overview it works fairly well. The division of the war into the 4 phases makes a lot of sense and is well thought out. However, Palmer clearly assumes his reader knows the details of all the campaigns he mentions because he never bothers providing any on his own. This weakens the book deeply in my view making a history book that needs to be paired with at least one other book to be of any use to anyone who is not already well aqquinted with Revolutionary war history. Frankly the lack of examination of the individual campaigns weakens the case, without showing us the actions that Washington preformed to justify calling him a military genius... It's a just a generalized argument. It's a strong argument, and it's enough to make me say I have to rethink my stance on Washington's tactical and strategic skills but the book should have spent some more time examining the campaigns Washington undertook. As it stands I don't believe the premise is supported by the book all that completely and frankly, I remain unconvinced that Washington should be called a military genius. Despite that it's a good basic overview of the war and gives an examination of both governments and explains of the reality of war in the time very well.
Because of that George Washington Military Genius by Dave R Palmer gets a B-. Read it, but read a book with a more detailed overview of Washington's campaigns first.