In celebration of the groundbreaking on Mount Vernon’s Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, we’ve asked a few of our favorite historians to weigh in on various aspects of the first president’s leadership style. Former lieutenant general of the United States Army and military historian Dave Palmer writes this week’s installment:
We know that George Washington was the primary strategist of the American Revolution. At question, though, is his competence in that role. Obviously, he was successful. But was he merely lucky, as some believe, or was he outstanding? The answer may be found by looking at the war’s four distinct phases.
April 1775-July 1776: At the outset of the war, royal officials controlled all thirteen colonies, but their hold was weak. Washington realized that he had to take the offensive in every feasible way before Great Britain could send reinforcements. When this period ended, patriots controlled everything except Canada and Florida. Independence had been won — and declared.
August 1776-December 1777: The task in this phase was to defend the new nation. British forces arriving in mid-1776 were the most powerful London had ever sent anywhere. Washington had to fight, of course, but more importantly he had to avoid being overwhelmed. The Continental Army was all that stood in the way of total defeat. At the end of this phase redcoats held only New York City, Newport, and Philadelphia.
January 1778-October 1781: France entered the war against Great Britain. With that ally, Washington could focus on the destruction of the enemy. He strove mightily to orchestrate “one great vigorous effort” to do just that, culminating in the victory at Yorktown in 1781. That blow convinced London to open negotiations to end the war.
November 1781-December 1783: What had been won on the battlefield could be forfeited at the negotiating table. Washington’s challenge during this tenuous period was to hold the American army together. In many ways this phase was more fraught with danger than any of the first three. Americans did, in fact, come perilously close to throwing away all they had fought for. Only Washington’s firm hand prevented that. It may be that he made his finest showing during those final two years.
In each instance, as circumstances changed, Washington adopted the correct strategy. And in each he managed to implement it. We can therefore say that he was indeed a superb strategist.
Military historian and author Dave Palmer is a retired lieutenant general of the United States Army and was superintendent of West Point Military Academy from 1986 to 1991. A two-tour veteran of Vietnam, his areas of historical interest include George Washington’s military campaigns and the eighteenth-century American army. He is a graduate of West Point and Duke University.
Palmer’s books on the topics of Washington or military history include: The Way of the Fox: American Strategy in The War for America, 1755-1783; George Washington and Benedict Arnold: A Tale of Two Patriots; 1794: America, Its Army, and the Birth of a Nation: and George Washington: First in War.