What Washington Learned

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It takes a particular genius to bring alive a hero so ossified and marblized as George Washington. We see him in full-length statues and half portraits later in life, with his mouth a tight scar across his hawk-nosed face. The poor man had such bad teeth, and then bad wooden dentures that he didn’t smile and often suffered from mouth and jaw pain. His profile is on our coins and dollar bills. We rub against him daily, as perennial and indistinguisable as sky. Thus it’s no surprise that only a literary and historical genius can set him back on a real stage and show us the inside of his head and heart, blood and guts.

David McCullough in “1776” does just that. But though Washington is eventually the pinnacle of this pyramid of a history, with the foot soldiers as the base, McCullough does not begin with him. He opens the book with a long description of George III’s setting out from St. James palace to address Parliament on the question of the colonies’ rebellion. We are entertained by lavish details of the king’s coach–all 4 tons, with elaborate exterior sculptures and scenes, inside which rides the rather pedestrian personage of the king, not given to either sexual or gustatory license, preferring puttering on his farms to the intrigue and excess of court life. By the time McCullough sights across the 3000 miles of ocean to the siege of Boston, we are convinced that though Brittiania rules the waves, it harbors a canker within–excess confidence and debauch within its aristocracy. Still it has the largest and best-trained army and navy in the world.

Whereas, the ragtail rebellion holding the British within Boston after the pyrrhic British victory at Bunker Hill, are poorly clad and armed, irregularly fed, and its generals except for Washington are green to the business of warfare. Not so Washington. From the beginning of his command, Washington rises above his men. His physique and physical strength, at the start, capture our attention. At 42 years old, six feet, two inches tall, he is used to riding to the fox hunt for seven or eight hours at a stretch and has fought in the French and Indian Wars. At crucial moments of near rout, he will position himself among his faltering army and in a fury of threats and pleas rouse them to battle.

His pen is never idle: in a era of epistolary communication, his letters provide masterly details of the rebellion, his own uncertainties of command, and occasionally minute directions to Mount Vernon for the cleaning of chimneys, finishing of wainscotting and pruning of fruit trees. Precision and order are native to his personality, as is constant, daily involvement with the men under his command. Perhaps his first lesson learned is subterfuge: As the Americans are digging into fortifications on the heights of Dorchester, Washington provides the British down in the city of Boston with a diversion. It works. The British wake up to discover the American army above them, and soon decamp.

The next lesson is to know the surrounding territory, which is not the case with New York, the Americans’ next stop. Even to me Washington’s decision to bring his army into what we now call Manhattan seems foolhardy–the huge British fleet will anchor in the harbor and send ships cruising up and down the Hudson and East Rivers. Washington has no generals who know Brooklyn or Long Island, which is where the British make a surprise landing. The Americans are poorly positioned to take on the huge British and Hessian army, and Washington is forced to pull up the island toward the narrow, heavily wooded heights.

Finally, as winter closes in and Washington’s troops have walked toward Trenton, often with no shoes, leaving bloody trails to mark their passing, Washington learns one more lesson in this crucial first full year of conflict: the advantage of a surprise attack. Ever since American history meant anything to me–I’m guessing maybe age 8 as my history-professor father lectured us at the dinner table–Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River has loomed as one of the crucial instances. To read that it actually happened, that the ragtag army and all its cannon and horses were crossed in flat-bottom boats in foul weather to surprise the Hessians billeted at Trenton brings to life Washington’s daring and determination. Outnumbered and outgunned, yet with surprise as their weapon, they rouse the Hessians in the middle of the night, and capture hundreds, killing the Hessian leader as well. This victory, as Washington understood, was necessary to rouse and unite the flagging American populace, fix the army’s confidence, and find purpose to keep fighting.

The truism of the ultimate American victory is that the Americans were fighting on their home ground. To this McCullough adds Washington’s grit, intelligence, and spirit of command. He was not the only fine American general, nor was he inordinately proud and incapable of collaboration. In fact, he was often humbled by what transpired, and throughout had an excellent eye for the skill and courage of his subordinate generals and staff. He did not stint himself; but often put himself in the thick of the fight, as did occasionally the British general Lord Howe. But Washington had perserverance, determination, and the physical and emotional qualities to thrive in what we call a theater of war. That he also made a fine first president has earned him the title “Father of his Country.” Given how raw was the country, how much it was building itself up from scratch, his gifts were even more necessary and helped determine our survival.

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