Part 3 (The General): Washington: A Life

Washington crossing the Delaware…with artistic license.

I’ve been blogging about Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life section by section.  Chernow breaks Washington’s life into five major parts:

  1. The Frontiersman
  2. The Planter (or, The Planted on my ebook version)
  3. The General
  4. The Statesman
  5. The President
  6. The Legend

Today’s post is on The General.  This section of the book covers Washington’s time as the commander in chief of the continental army, from 1775 to 1784. This post is in no way a comprehensive overview of Part 3: The General, because there is just so much packed into this section, but what follows are some highlights.

There are two big take-aways for me from Part 3: The General.  

The first is that by serving as commander in chief Washington was forced to engage with a wider variety of types of people than most gentlemen of his time and class, which helped him become more egalitarian, or at least less of a class snob.  As Chernow says, the continental army was a working laboratory for melding together citizen soldiers from various colonies and classes, creating a composite American identity.  Washington didn’t cause this melding, but he held the army together against tremendous odds for the melding to occur.  Washington initially surrounded himself with officers of his own class and thought that officers from New England, specifically Massachusetts, were too close to their men. In a letter to his cousin he referred to the enlisted New England men under his command as “exceedingly dirty and nasty people.” When the issue of allowing blacks to serve in the army was first brought up, Washington–a slave owner–said no way. He eventually outgrows these opinions and stances out of both necessity (he needed men) and experience (direct observation).  He came to see his dirty and smelly troops as great men who endured unspeakable hardship for the cause and showed great loyalty. He eventually allowed free blacks to serve in the army. He even received Phillis Wheatley, a slave, as a social equal after she had written a poem about him and he wrote her a letter. Although Washington grew uneasy about owning slaves during this time, his feeling was mainly economic, it seems. He eventually re-writes his will to free his slaves, but only after Martha dies so she can enjoy the fruits of their labor. His treatment toward the Native Americans were brutal, slash and burn policies. According to Chernow, Washington’s horrific treatment of Native American populations set the tone for the way future presidents would treat Native Americans.

The second take-away was that by being in charge of the continental army, Washington not only understood intellectually but felt viscerally the need for a strong central power to run the government.  This need arose from the never ending desperation for more troops and more supplies for those troops. Congress wasn’t very effective during the war years because most colonies withheld resources for their own use. They still regarded the welfare of their colony as the priority.  As a result, the colonies were not providing the men or the supplies needed to fight the war. It was a miracle that Washington was able to hold the army together with no draft, enlistments of only one year, and a congress and colonies that regularly did not come through with supplies and promised resources.  In the spring of 1775 Washington estimated that he needed 20,000 men to fight; he got 14,500. By August 1776 the British had 32,000 troops and Washington had 10,500. Men signed up for one year enlistments. During some battles there was only enough gun powder to supply 40 bullets per man, during another battle only 9 per man. Most of the time the troops were hungry (sometimes starving), lacked proper clothing (some wore rags that barely covered their bodies and had no shoes), and often went without pay for months. This at a time when American farmers were selling their crops to the British, who could pay more.

As Alexander Hamiliton wrote: “We begin to hate the country for its neglect of us.”

Why was Washington even given the job as top dog?
  • He was from Virginia, which was the most populous colony.
  • Southern colonists thought New Englanders were obstinate and prone to extremism and feared a northern general would turn despotic and conquer the south.
  • He was rich and congress thought that would make him immune to bribery.
  • He had served in the military for five years and had combat leadership experience from the French & Indian Wars.
  • He served as a Burgess for 16 years.
  • He didn’t toot his own horn but let others make the argument for him, so he didn’t seem power hungry. This last reason became a bit of a hallmark for Washington’s political career: he didn’t seem to actively seek power, but let it come to him.
Washington became the face of the cause overnight. Before their was a flag, seal, constitution, or nation, there was George Washington. As early as 1778 he was considered the country’s “political father.”
It had to be really hard for Chernow to write this section because there is just so much going on militarily, politically, and socially. I think he strikes a good balance between keeping the focus on Washington and providing information about why Washington does what he does, how he handles situations, and how what he learns impacts his view later when he serves as president.
What kind of leader was Washington?
  • He deferred major decisions to congress, insisting that military leadership must always defer to civil authority.
  • He surrounded himself with men that he felt were better educated, often younger men.
  • Out of necessity he used secrecy and deception well, even on his own people. Military leaders have long relied on secrecy and deception to protect the element of surprise and strength levels, but Washington really, really needed to keep information about his army’s capacity under wraps, even from his own officers at times. How else could you fight against the world’s greatest military power at the time (Great Britain) without sufficient man power or gun power (see above)?
  • He was a firm leader who punished wrong doers. One common punishment from the period was “Riding the Wooden Horse”: a man’s arms are tied behind him and he’s made to straddle a high saw horse and weights are tied to his dangling feet. Men “bite the bullet” to help with the pain. Whippings were dealt out and sometimes the death penalty was awarded. But his men came to love Washington and one visitor to a winter camp observed the general playing catch with his men for hours. He fought in the thick of battles.
  • He didn’t respond to detractors or publicly speak against personal “competitors,” rather he patiently waited and let them eventually burn themselves out or fade away. And instead of demonizing Great Britain, he studied it and tried to understand why they were having problems and challenges.
  • He made some big mistakes. Jefferson’s assessment of Washington as a general was that he was good if all went according to his well-thought-out plans, but that he was “neither quick nor nimble” and lacked the gift of spontaneity and found it difficult to improvise on the spot—which is crucial in a combat. Washington’s strength was “prolonged deliberation and slow, mature decisions,” but these were luxuries seldom permitted in the heat and confusion of battle.
  •  He successfully handled at least two mutinous uprisings. (See the link below regarding his eye glasses.)
    Here are a few odds and ends about Washington and this chapter:
    • His relationship with his mother continues to be rocky: he wrote hundreds of letters during the war years, but not a one to his mother who files a public claim for financial help. A friend of Washington’s stops it before it becomes public to avoid embarrassment.
    • Washington created the Purple Heart award, which was giving only to non-coms and enlisted men, not officers.  The award fell out of fashion and was revived in 1932.
    • He gets reading glasses in 1783. Read about their importance here.  And this might have been from a prior section, but Washington did not wear a wig. He simply powered his hair, which was a popular hair style for gentlemen.
    • He gets reimbursed for his wartime expenses: 10,404 pounds.
    • 200,000 Americans served in the army; 25,000 died from combat and disease. About 5,000 were black men (6-12%).
    • Washington had 18 servants during the war and a French cook.
    • He saw the best and the worst of human nature during the war—from Benedict Arnold to soldiers that defiled the corpse of a child to farmers that sold their crops to the British while their own starved to heroism on the battle field and sacrifice on the home front. He saw much more of human nature that he ever wold have had he stayed secluded on his plantation socializing only with other gentlemen and ladies.
    • The weirdest thing about this section is that Chernow almost casually includes Washington’s problem with his teeth toward the end of this section. Washington had problems with his teeth during his early days in the army when he was a young man. By 1773 it was “agonizing” for Washington to chew his food. After all the description of Washington’s entertainment at Mount Vernon and dinners during the war, I thought it odd that Chernow doesn’t discuss this earlier. By the time of his inauguration, Washington has only one working tooth. He bought teeth from poor people, including blacks. This was apparently common at the time. For someone to be in such ceaseless pain for decades, I was surprised that Chernow didn’t’ discuss it earlier.
    Washington’s false teeth

    I’m still enjoying reading about Washington, but am going to take a break from this biography for at least a few weeks. There are a few books that I’m chomping at the bit to get to and I’m woefully behind (i.e., haven’t started!) on reading War and Peace for the Books on the Nightstand read-along.

    What do you think? Leave a comment and let's talk!

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.