Friday, September 2, 2011

General George Washington: the Myth and the Man

I've recently been reading General George Washington: A Military Life by Edward Lengel. George Washington has sort of a double aura in American history: not only was he one of the founding fathers, and the first President of the United States, but he was also the supreme commander of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. His portrait hung at revered spots in taverns and public buildings for decades, and he was the almost demi-godlike subject of toasts and legends spun throughout the 19th Century. Many contemporary writers, seeking perhaps a symbol for their own political or moral ideals have written books on GW's leadership style and public career.

Lengel's approach is more tightly focused on Washington's career as a military leader: from his humble beginnings as a district recruiting officer for the slovenly Virginia Militia, to the Revolutionary War and beyond. Perhaps what distinguishes this book from the many others on the subject is how Lengel is unafraid of exploding cherished myths in order to get at the truth behind 18th Century warfare. In an early chapter of the book, for instance, Washington's role as a Major attached to the staff of General Henry Braddock is examined. Traditionally, Braddock's 1755 defeat at the hands of French militia and Indians is portrayed thusly:

The traditional image is of European regulars in bright uniforms standing like robots and being cut to pieces by accurate rifle fire from camouflaged Indians. The American militia who experienced this war supposedly went back home and adopted hit and run tactics to defeat the British during the Revolution. However, contrary to the popular belief, Lengel points out that it was the disorder of the British regulars (accustomed to garrison duty in Ireland), rather than their closed-order style of fighting, that led to the chaotic rout of Braddock's column. The officers could not control their men, who allowed themselves to break ranks, and fight as a mob. Washington, far from suggesting that the Virginians "fight as the Indians do", got swept away in the rout and couldn't help much. As for Braddock, he was mortally wounded a few hours into the action, and carried back along his road on a jolting wagon to the spot where he died.

The problem with fighting like Indians is that you can't hold or take ground. If your enemy is unskilled or audacious, like St. Clair on the Wabash or Tarleton at Cowpens, you can use light infantry tactics to chew up his detachments and finish off the weakened and disordered remainder. But if an opponent in close-order formation holds their ground or concentrates their forces for a bayonet charge, the men fighting behind trees have to make a run for it or get spitted like pigs. Lengel's description of the battle of Long Island in 1776, where the Americans tried to set up another Bunker Hill and were routed, illustrates this principle. Only when the American army adapted to European tactics did it start winning campaigns.

Another myth associated with the Revolution is that the heavy guns captured at Ticonderoga played a decisive role in the British decision to evacuate Boston after the Continentals emplaced them on Dorchester Heights overlooking the town. Actually, General William Howe had long since decided that it was impossible to supply his army by sea at Boston, and that New York would make a better base of operations. When the Ticonderoga cannons, commanded by Henry Knox, opened up on Boston, the American's lax skills at gunnery became apparent. Several mortars and guns exploded, killing or injuring their crews. Other shots went wild, completely missing the British positions.

Lengel's book is a very good work of popular history and biography, because it makes the strategy and problems of the Revolutionary War more accessible to casual readers. Lengel points out that GW was not at all the brilliant commander he is sometimes credited as being. However, without the training and resources that his more conventional and cautious British opponents possessed, this American general's greatest strength was that he was willing to commit seemingly audacious movements (like that towards Yorktown) and fight as if he was winning the war even whilst losing campaigns. I urge anyone who's truly interested in how the Revolutionary war was fought to duck the unoriginal Discovery channel type documentaries and read this book.