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General George Washington and the American Revolutionary War

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My writing interests are general, with expertise in science, history, biographies, and “how-to” topics. I have written over sixty books.

General George Washington on horseback during the Revolutionary War. Painting by Thomas Sully, 1842.

General George Washington on horseback during the Revolutionary War. Painting by Thomas Sully, 1842.

The Beginning of the American Revolution

After the French and Indian War came to a close in 1763, the British government was in debt for the many expenses of the war. Since much of the expenses incurred by the British went for the defense of the 13 British colonies in North America, Parliament thought it was only natural that the colonies should help pay the costs. The British started imposing a series of taxes on the American colonists during the 1760s, which angered many of with the colonists who cried “taxation without representation.” The complaints of the colonists fell on deaf ears as the British became more oppressive. Heated words turned to gunfire in Boston during the spring of 1770 when five Bostonians were killed at the hands of British soldiers in a riot that got out of control. The death of the colonists galvanized much of the American population in New England against the British.

Resistance to the British fomented in the 13 colonies, with some colonists willing to risk open warfare with the British for independence, while others were ardent loyalists to the British Crown and sought peaceful means to reconcile their differences. In Virginia, the British disbanded the House of Burgesses in 1770 due to the revolutionary fervor of the members. Men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and George Mason were not intimidated by the British and met secretly to prepare for the possibility of an armed rebellion against the king.

Continental Congress

To bring all of the colonies together to discuss their grievances with the harsh tactics of the British, delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies met in Philadelphia to petition King George III to repeal punitive measures that had been placed on the colonies in response to the Boston Tea Party. One of the representatives from Virginia, George Washington, a tall and muscular plantation owner who had previously fought in the French and Indian War, favored independence from English rule. The British House of Commons upped the stakes for the colonists in early February 1775 when they declared Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion, thus imputing to the people of the colony the crime of treason. The following year George Washington traveled once again to Philadelphia for the second session of the Continental Congress that started in May 1775. In this meeting the mood was electric, as the British and the Colonial Minutemen had already been in a running and deadly battle in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, the month before. One of the overriding topics of the Congress was how to organize the loose confederation of 13 colonies into a unified nation that could defend itself from the massive and well-organized British army and navy. One of the first orders of business was to appoint a military leader to establish and train an army for the defense of the colonies. Each day at the meetings of the Congress, Washington attended in the blue and buff military uniform he wore during the French and Indian War. Probably it was his way of showing his willingness to fight in the Revolution. One of the delegates from Massachusetts, a rather short and stocky lawyer named John Adams, nominated Mr. Washington for the position of commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Based on his prior military experience and his calm and commanding bearing, the Congress voted unanimously that Washington should become the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Washington accepted the appointment, telling Congress: “But lest same unlucky event should happen…I beg it may be remembered, by every gentleman in this room, that I, this day, declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.” Washington accepted the position but refused all pay, except to be reimbursed for his necessary expenses. His commission gave the general virtual carte blanche on the way he ran the military: “You are hereby vested with full power and authority to act as you shall think for the good and welfare of the service.”

I am now embark on a tempestuous Ocean from whence, perhaps, no friendly harbor is to be found.

— George Washington, 1775

Washington Builds the Continental Army

General Washington met his new troops in early July at Cambridge, Massachusetts. Upon arrival he found 14,000 volunteer solders in a chaotic state. The men were from every walk of life, farmers, storekeepers, laborers, dock workers; their only common thread was their lack of experience as a soldier. The army was in critical need of basic supplies, such as gun powder, guns, ammunition, uniforms, and food. Washington set about immediately to build a quality officer corps to bring order to the chaos. In time, Washington and his officers formed an orderly army of volunteers who had come together to defend their homeland. One of the general’s problems with his army was the short terms of enlistment of the troops; just as a solider had become seasoned, his enlistment was up, and he would return to his home and family. Washington and the other leaders felt the war would be resolved quickly, assuming the British Parliament would not want to commit to a protracted war, but this assumption would turn out to be very wrong.

Unlike the Continentals, the British army was anything but undisciplined. It was made up of professional solders with experience fighting various wars throughout the world for over a century. To bring an end to the rebellion in America, the British began assembling an enormous expeditionary force of 30 ships that would carry some 32,000 troops to the shores of the British colonies in America. Their long history and experience in warfare had made the British army one of, if not the, most feared army in the world.

The British and Americans Harden their Positions

When Washington took command of the army in early July of 1775, the majority of the members of Congress were reluctant to demand full independence from Britain; many of the delegates still hoped the conflict could be resolved without war. The Congress soon learned that the British planned to send a massive force of tens of thousands to crush the rebellion. King George III issued a Royal Proclamation of Rebellion, which made Washington and the other Patriot leaders traitors, punishable by hanging. By October, Washington realized that there was no other choice but for the colonies to become fully independent from Great Britain. To stop the flow of supplies to the troops at Boston from England, Washington created a navy of six ships. In early November, Washington initiated a plan to arrest British loyalists, or Tories, within the colonies. Since most of the high-ranking government officials in each colony were British loyalists, this did much to strike at the heart of British authority.

Map of Bunker and Breed’s Hills.

Map of Bunker and Breed’s Hills.

The Battle for Boston

The first success of the Continental Army came in Boston in March 1776. The British Major General Thomas Gage and his troops occupying Boston were waiting for reinforcements from England. In May 1775, the reinforcements arrived from England and occupied the strategically important Dorchester Peninsula, south of Boston, and the Charleston Peninsula, across the Charles River north of the city. About 1,200 Massachusetts soldiers set out to fortify Bunker Hill on the Charleston Peninsula. By fortifying the position overlooking Boston, they intended to force the British to leave the city. During the night, the rebels mistakenly dug in the top of Breed’s Hill, closer to Boston than planned. The next day they received 2,000 reinforcements from the New Hampshire and Connecticut militias. Major General Gage was shocked by the audacity of the Americans and sent 2,500 redcoats under Major General Sir William Howe to oust the rebels. Howe planned to feign an attack on the rebel position on Breed’s Hill while sending his major force around its northeast flank on the low land along the Mystic River. Howe was overly confident in his troop’s effectiveness against the American militiamen. The colonial leader John Stark and his New Hampshire men countered the British flanking maneuver on the Mystic River beach, forcing Howe into a direct frontal assault on the colonists' advantageous hilltop position. Three times the redcoats advanced on the hill and only on the third attempt in overtaking the hill did they force the colonists off the peninsula.

Though the British took Breed’s and Bunker Hills, their casualties were extensive, with over 40 percent of the men killed or wounded. The New Englander’s losses were much fewer, with over 400 casualties. Due to a shortage of troops and supplies, Washington was unable to dislodge the British from Boston. In the spring of 1776, Congress authorized Washington to begin bombardment of the British position in Boston. The colonials positioned large cannons, which they had captured from the British, on the unoccupied Dorchester Heights overlooking the town; additionally, thousands of militiamen were called up to retake the city. The British General Howe, General Gage’s replacement, decided to evacuate Boston rather than defend the city. On March 17, 1776, the British army and several hundred British loyalists sailed out of the city for Nova Scotia. Washington was unsure where General Howe’s army would reappear, but he suspected New York. Anticipating Howe’s next move, Washington and his men went to New York to prepare for the British.

Map of battles in New York and New Jersey during 1776.

Map of battles in New York and New Jersey during 1776.

The Battle for New York

General Washington was correct on where the British army would go after their hasty departure from Boston: General Howe sailed into New York Harbor with thousands of British regular troops in early July and landed on Staten Island. Shortly thereafter, Howe’s brother, Admiral Richard Howe, arrived with a large fleet of ships and thousands more men ready for battle. Congress urged General Washington to defend New York from the British invasion as it was a critical hub of commerce, and occupation of New York would hamper overland communication between New England and the other colonies. Washington knew the task was nearly hopeless, for without a navy, he had to rely on shore batteries to protect his army from British advance. The colonials, with fewer than 20,000 men, many of whom were poorly trained and equipped, faced the largest British force yet sent overseas. The brothers General William Howe and Admiral Richard Howe commanded over 40,000 soldiers and sailors.

After seven weeks of careful preparation, the Howes launched a campaign to route the Americans from their earthworks. The British plan was to beat the Continental Army into submission to soften them for negotiations without creating martyrs. The British crossed the Narrows to Long Island on August 22, 1776, and began to implement a plan to pin down the Americans’ right flank and send down a large force around their left. The well-executed plan under Howe’s direct command routed the Americans from advanced positions on the Heights of Guan. The Americans fought valiantly but were overwhelmed, forced to retreat several miles to entrenchments on Brooklyn Heights. Washington expected a renewed British attack the next day and evacuated his war weary men to Manhattan Island under the cover of darkness on the night of August 29. The British awoke the next morning ready for battle only to find the Americans had vanished during the night.

Howe waited until September 15 before advancing on the American position on Manhattan Island. The Howes were under orders to attempt to negotiate a surrender with the rebels and met with an American delegation of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Edward Rutledge. The meeting produced little as the Howes had only limited authority and the Americans were not willing to rescind the Declaration of Independence. With failed negotiations, the British attacked the Americans on Manhattan Island, landing at Kip’s Bay on the east side of the island. Realizing his weak position, Washington and his men retreated northward toward the mainland. The main body of the Continental Army dug in at White Plains, New York. Howe’s troops arrived in October, driving the colonials into further retreat. The British did not pursue the fleeing Americans and returned to Manhattan.

Washington moved his troops across the Hudson River to Fort Lee. There he joined his troops with General Nathaniel Green. The British General Cornwallis pursued the Americans, driving them from the fort. During the retreat southward many of Washington’s men's enlistments were up. When Washington retreated across the Delaware River on December 11, 1776, into Pennsylvania, his army had dwindled to a mere 3,000 troops. Luckily for the Americans, Cornwallis called off his pursuit and went into winter quarters. With the Continental Army in a fragile state, military historians believe that if the British would have pursued the Americans at this point the rebellion would have been crushed.

The Battles of Trenton and Princeton

A year into the war the Americans’ had few victories to show for their valiant efforts, and the Continental Army’s morale was at a low point. As a further sign of the rebels’ weak position, the Continental Congress had moved its meeting location from Philadelphia to Baltimore to evade British capture. Washington’s army received some much-needed new troops from the remnants of the New York contingency and from Pennsylvania. Washington, desperate for a victory, made a daring decision to move his troops at night across the ice filled Delaware River from Pennsylvania to attack Hessian troops at Trenton, New Jersey. The Hessian troops, German mercenary troops hired by the British, were encamped in Trenton and were caught off guard by the Americans. The Continentals captured or killed about 1,000 German troops with only minor casualties. This victory provided a much-needed boost to the American troops’ morale.

Bolstered by the victory at Trenton, Washington made another bold move in the final days of 1776 when he took his 5,000 troops back across the Delaware River to occupy Trenton. The British, who had settled into their winter quarters, were caught unaware. Howe reacted by sending General Cornwallis form New York with 6,000 troops to stop the Americans in New Jersey. The British arrived in early January and prepared for battle. Washington realized Cornwallis’s force was superior and planned his retreat. To trick the British, Washington left a small group of men at his campsite during the night to keep the campfires burning and make the usual noises of an army at night camp to fool the British. While the British slept, Washington’s army left their encampment at Trenton and quietly marched to Princeton. During the night march, the Continentals encountered British troops, winning narrow victories. The American soldiers managed to elude the main body of Cornwallis’s men, retreating to winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey. The British withdrew their troops from the outposts and concentrated their troops in New York for winter quarters.

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The Cold Winter at Valley Forge

In the spring of 1777, the British were on the move with plans to cut off New England from the rest of the colonies. Another prong of the planned British offensive was for General Howe’s army to take Philadelphia. When Washington learned of Howe’s troops’ intentions, his army traveled southward to defend Philadelphia. The British and the Americans clashed at Brandywine, Pennsylvania. The Americans were unable to halt the British advance on Philadelphia. Washington counter-attacked unsuccessfully at Germantown, just north of Philadelphia. The Continental Army also lost the Delaware River forts that commanded Philadelphia’s water approaches. Though Washington’s defeats in 1777 were bruising, with many casualties, the losses did not threaten the dissolution of the army as they had done the year before. In mid-December, the Continental Army under Washington went into winter quarters at Valley Forge. From Washington’s perspective, it was a good place for winter quarters, being situated 20 miles from Philadelphia where the enemy was located, and between that place and the temporary seat of Congress at York, Pennsylvania.

The winter at Valley Forge took its toll on Washington’s men, as an estimated 2,500 died out of the 10,000 during their six months in camp. Food and supplies were scarce, and troops huddled in makeshift shelters until their huts could be completed in mid-January. By the time the men could occupy their temporary huts, there had been three complete breakdowns in the supply of food and nearly 4,000 soldiers were dressed in rags, forcing the men to share clothing when one had to leave the hut for duty.

All was not lost for the Continental Army during the cold winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge, however. The Prussian born Major General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben drilled the solders relentlessly, teaching them military drills, tactics, and discipline. Von Steuben helped turn the motley group of volunteer soldiers into an organized and disciplined fighting army. Additionally, General Nathanael Green took the time as quartermaster general to reform the supply system. The Continentals emerged from the bitter winter at Valley Forge tougher and better organized than ever. During the winter as the food, clothing, and supplies were dangerously low, Washington showed great restraint in dealing with the neighboring civilians, refusing to confiscate their food and clothing while his men suffered at winter camp.

Washington and his troops at winter camp at Valley Forge.

Washington and his troops at winter camp at Valley Forge.

The Conway Cabal: The Conspiracy to Oust General Washington

By the winter of 1777 it was clear that the war was going poorly for the Americans, with few victories and many defeats. Many blamed Washington for the poor performance of the military, contrasting him with the Major General Horatio Gates, who had led the successful battles at Saratoga, Georgia. The victory at Saratoga was significant because the Americans captured nearly 6,000 British troops, and the success led France to sign the France-American Alliance, thus drawing France into the war on the side of the Americans. The ringleaders of this shadowy organization to oust Washington were Samuel Adams, Richard Henry Lee, General Thomas Mifflin, and Dr. Benjamin Rush. The supposed instigator of the movement to remove Washington was Brigadier General Thomas Conway, a French-Irish general who commanded a brigade under Washington. Conway was with Washington at the Battle of Brandywine and was boastful of his military skills. After the Brandywine engagement, Conway requested from Congress a promotion to major general. Washington was opposed to Conway’s promotion, believing there were more deserving officers in need of promotion.

Conway wrote a letter to Major General Gates in October 1777 encouraging his ambition. The letter contained the sentence that would be at the heart of the controversy, “Heaven has determined to save our country, or a weak general and bad councilors would have ruined it.” Washington learned of the letter from his trusted staff member Lord Sterling. The information was given to Sterling by a member of his staff who had heard the drunken rantings of Gate’s aide-de-camp, James Wilkinson. Washington informed Conway that he was aware of the letter and the “weak general” comment. To this, Conway responded that he did not write the phrase “weak general” in his letter.

Due to the uproar over the supposed derogatory phrase in the letter, Conway submitted his resignation. Congress, instead of accepting his resignation, promoted Conway to the newly created position of Inspector General and increased his rank to Major General. Conway continued to serve with Washington at Valley Forge, as well as reporting to the Board of War. In his position as Inspector General, Conway claimed that Washington had not been supportive of the position, giving him a “cool” reception. To address this accusation, Washington responded directly to Congress: “If General Conway means, by cool receptions…that I did not receive his in the language of a warm and cordial friend, I readily confess the charge…My feelings will not permit me to make professions of friendship to a man I deem my enemy…At the same time, truth authorizes me to say that he was received and treated with proper respect to his official character, and that he has had no cause to justify the assertion that he could not expect any support for fulfilling the duties of his appointment.”

The whole episode began to unravel in early 1778 when Gates reached York, Pennsylvania, then the seat of Congress, with the original of the famous letter. Conway put on a show by claiming he wanted to have the letter published, yet neither Gates nor Conway allowed Washington to see the letter. The attempt to discredit Washington had failed completely. Congress sent Gates, Conway, and Mifflin back to the army and the Board of War and the Office of the Inspector General ceased to present any threat to Washington. The relationship between Gates and Washington eventually healed and they were able to work together. Conway resigned his position, and this time Congress accepted his resignation. The Conway Cabal was the only time during the war that Washington’s position as commander-in-chief was seriously threatened.

The Revolutionary War: Animated Battle Map

Battle of Yorktown

When the French entered into an alliance with the Americans in 1778, they gave the Colonials hope for a victory rather than merely avoiding defeat. France’s naval power could counter the extensive British navy, impeding the flow of supplies across the Atlantic and trapping British troops in seaports where they operated. Events came together in late 1781 that would portend an American victory. First, General Washington kept his forces in the field, putting pressure on the redcoats despite chronic shortages of money, clothing, and ammunition. Second, the leaders of the French army and navy were capable commanders, willing to coordinate with Washington and each other. Third, the British had concentrated their resources in home waters to prevent invasion. Ships from Britain were responsible for protecting both the West Indies and British enclaves along the North American coastline. Lastly, the British effort to use loyalists to reestablish royal control in the southern colonies had failed. In an effort to eliminate rebel strongholds in the South, Charles Lord Cornwallis invaded North Carolina and then Virginia.

Lord Cornwallis’s 10,000-man army in Virginia during the summer of 1781 made them vulnerable to attack from American and French forces from southern New England and New York. Washington seized upon the opportunity that Cornwallis had presented and coordinated an attack with the French commanders. Washington, who had been in New York for the last three years keeping the British in check, split his forces, moving 2,300 Continentals south in late August. In Virginia they joined with additional American troops already operating against the British. Cornwallis had withdrawn to Yorktown, on the York River, to wait for resupply from Britain.

On the 26th of August, the French naval commander de Grasse arrived from the West Indies, established control of the coastal waters of Virginia, and brought with him an additional 4,800 troops. In early September, the French navy fought a strategically decisive engagement with a British squadron sent from New York to evacuate Cornwallis’s troops. The French and the Continentals were now positioned to attack the trapped British. In October, the allies began siege operation on the British positions, which was made possible by France’s heavy artillery. By mid-October, the allies had sufficiently weakened the British, forcing Cornwallis to surrender. As the British fife and drums played “The World Turned Upside Down,” Washington received the surrender of the British troops.

Battle of the Chesapeake between the British and French navies.

Battle of the Chesapeake between the British and French navies.

The End of the Revolutionary War

The defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown was a major turning point in the war, as both countries were growing weary of the struggle. In March 1782, the British House of Commons voted to abandon the effort to bring the American colonies back under British control. A treaty was signed between the two nations in Paris on September 3, 1783, which officially ended the war. The treaty acknowledged the independent nation of the United States, which would extend from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River, and from Spanish Florida to what is now approximately the northern border with Canada.

Washington Retires from the Army

Though some called for Washington to become the king of America, his plans were simply to retire to his plantation and enjoy a life with his wife as a gentlemen planter. Though the defeat of Cornwallis had occurred in 1781, Washington kept the army in a state of readiness to keep British aggression in check. In April 1783, he entered New York City, at the head of the troops which still remained in service, as the British evacuated the city. There, Washington bade farewell to his officers at Fraunces Tavern and then set out for Congress to resign his commission. Though there was some uneasiness in Congress from those who thought he might at the last moment decide to become a dictator, Washington resigned “with satisfaction the appointment I accepted with diffidence.” On Christmas Eve 1783 he reached his home, Mount Vernon, and soon afterwards wrote to a friend: “I feel now, however, as I conceive a wearied traveler must do, who, after treading many a painful step with a heavy burden on his shoulders, is eased of the latter…and from his house top is looking back, and tracing with an eager eye the meanders by which he escaped the quick sands and mires which lay in his way; and into which none but the all-powerful Guide and Dispenser of human events could have prevented his falling.”

Though George Washington sought only the seclusion of his farm and family, his country would call him once again to public life, this time to lead the new nation he fought so diligently to create.

References

  • Boatner, Mark M. III. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. David McKay Company, Inc. 1969.
  • Chambers, John W. II (Editor In Chief). The Oxford Companion to American Military History. Oxford University Press. 1999.
  • Fitzpatrick, John C. “Washington, George” Dictionary of American Biography. Volume XIX, pages 509-527. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1936.
  • Hamilton, Neil A. and Ian C. Friedman (Reviser). Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary. Third Edition. Checkmark Books. 2010.
  • Matuz, Roger, Bill Harris, and Laura Ross. The Presidents Fact Book: The Achievements, Campaigns, Events, Triumphs, Tragedies, and Legacies of Every President From George Washington to Barack Obama. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. 2009.
  • Nettels, Curtis P. “Washington, George.” The Encyclopedia Americana International Edition. Americana Corporation. Vol. 28. Pp. 387-395. 1968.
  • West, Doug. George Washington: A Short Biography: First President of the United States. C&D Publications. 2020.
  • West, Doug. The American Revolutionary War: A Short History. C&D Publications. 2015.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Doug West

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