11 QCAHMP George Washington’s Brilliance Shines Through
Welcome to another quick and condensed version of American History for the Modern Patriot.
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Why was George Washington appointed as commander of the colonial troops? What major impediment did Washington face within the first year of taking command? When and why did those troops become known as the “Continental Army?” What was life like for a Continental solider? And what is a brilliant example of Washington’s ability to motivate those whom he led? We will learn the answer to these questions in this episode.
George Washington was truly a brilliant commander. Not only in the sense of his tactical decisions, but also in his understanding of how to maintain the morale of his troops. He was a motivational force who intuitively knew when and how to inspire those whom he led.
Let’s learn about Washington’s appointment as commander of the colonial troops by the Continental Congress, and the rough road he traveled in his quest to organize and discipline the men he inspired.
On June 16, 1775, the Continental Congress unanimously voted that George Washington would be appointed to head the colonial forces. He was chosen not only for his experience during the French-Indian War, but because he was from the southern Colony of Virginia. One of my favorite George Washington quotes was recorded in his acceptance of this appointment. He said, “I do not think myself equal to the Command I am honored with.”
Washington’s Virginia roots played no small part in the decision to appoint him as commander of the colonial forces. Although Washington had substantial military experience, he did not have a history of commanding a large body of men. While Washington did not think himself equal to the Command he was honored with, it is doubtful that anyone in the chamber doubted his character. What he lacked in experience as a military commander, he made up with his experiences managing his plantation, known as Mount Vernon, and serving for fifteen years in the Virginia House of Burgesses with notables such as Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and Peyton Randolph.
But what was the nature of army that Washington had been appointed to command? What type of enemy met him squarely in the face, and what were his thoughts upon assuming his new role? In a letter written to John A. Washington on July 27, 1775, Washington commented:
“I found a mixed multitude of People here, under very little discipline, order, or Government. I found the enemy in possession of a place called Bunker’s Hill, on Charles Town Neck, strongly Intrenched, and Fortifying themselves;” He also found the 16,000 or so colonial troops to be scattered about the Boston area and began the process of strategically organizing them against the approximately 12,000 British soldiers in the area.
After assuming command, Washington’s troops had victories in Canada, Virginia, and South Carolina. However, as the new year approached, Washington faced the end of the enlistment period of his soldiers. The oath that they had taken was only for one year of service, and many of them had not realized they would be taken far away from their families. What would happen to “the Cause?” Remember, this was before the Declaration of Independence had been written. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense would not be distributed to the public for several weeks. The colonial effort remained as opposition to British tyranny rather than a quest for independence. Washington, no doubt, had concerns. How many would re-enlist? Would the British notice a mass migration from the area, and take the opportunity to attack?
In his General Orders issued on December 28, 1775, it seems he almost plead to his soldiers that would be leaving of the catostrphic consequences that could ensue if they all left at once on January 1st . He asked that they remain until those newly enlisted soldiers were trained, for if they left “they not only fix eternal disgrace upon themselves as Soldiers, but inevitable Ruin perhaps upon their Country & families.” His plea appears to have fallen on deaf ears as the memoirs of General William Heath recalled that soldiers numbering in the hundreds and thousands chose to leave as soon as possible.
On January 1, 1776, George Washington issued another General Order from his Head Quarters in Cambridge. This one with a much more upbeat tone, and for the first time naming his army: “This day giving commencement to the new-army, which, in every point of View is entirely Continental;” He stressed the need for regularity and discipline to his Continental Army and promised the army would become great as order was established.
Although the colonists’ had success during the fall of 1775, a letter written to Joseph Reed on January 4, 1776 reveals the level of Washington’s concern about the future of what he had recently named for the first time as a “Continental” army. Reed, who had closed his law practice in 1775 at Washington’s request, had been named as a colonel and was one of Washington’s inner circle. Washington spoke of the dire situation as one army disbanded and another one formed so close to the British troops. He was unsure how it would end but wished that January had come and gone. Although Washington had spoken at length in his General Orders about the need for a well ordered army, the numbers of soldiers had so dwindled that he even lamented that 5000 or so militia members would soon leave as well. “I have scarcely immerged from one difficulty before I have plunged into another. How it will end, God in his great goodness will direct. I am thankful for his protection to this time. We are told that we shall soon get the army completed, but I have been told so many things which have never come to pass, that I distrust every thing.”
On that same day, he also wrote to John Hancock who then headed the Continental Congress.
“It is not in the pages of History perhaps, to furnish a case like ours; to maintain a post within Musket Shot of the Enemy for Six months together, without— and at the same time to disband one Army and recruit another, within that distance, of Twenty odd British regiments, is more probably than ever was attempted; But if we succeed as well in the last, as we have heretofore in the first, I shall think it the most fortunate event of my whole life.”
Despite his trepidations, Washington began to organize his troops, and continued to motivate those who served under him. His efforts soon bore fruit. Washington’s troops soon ended British authority in North Carolina with their victory over “the regulars” (as the British troops were often called, in the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge. But although the regiments of the army became more disciplined and well-functioning, the life of a foot soldier in the Continental Army was difficult to say the least.
What do we know about the soldiers of the Continental Army? With far less interest in record keeping than today and more than 175,000 men serving at one point or another, it is difficult to paint a picture of the “typical solider.” With that said, here are some facts we know: Many soldiers were as young as 15, but men as old as 60 were also allowed to enlist. Often the oldest male in the family remained at home in hopes that he would survive to inherit property. Many were poor and possessed few employable skills, but some men of means fought as well. Indentured servants or apprentices sometimes served instead of their masters. Others enlisted after being paid a “bonus” to do so. British deserters sometimes enlisted to prove their allegiance. A large number of German and Irish immigrants joined the ranks of enlisted men. It is estimated that 5,000 black men, free or enslaved, were of service as well.
It is far easier to describe the sacrifice made by the soldiers of the Continental Army because those records have survived. 1,500 men simply disappeared. 8,000 others were seriously wounded. More than 25,000 men died from injuries on the battle field, communicable diseases, or as a result of being held by the British. The soldiers who survived were often hungry, in need of clothing, or lived on the promise that what was owed to them would be paid at time in the future. When they were paid, it was often with Continental dollars or land in unsettled territory such as the Ohio Valley. Yet, it is because of these men that our country exists today.
On the 17th of March, 1776 came another important victory for the newly established Continental Army. Washington wrote again to John Hancock:
“It is with the greatest pleasure I inform you that on Sunday last the 17th. Instant, about 9th O’Clock in the forenoon the Ministerial Army evacuated the Town of Boston, and that the Forces of the United Colonies are now in actual Possession thereof.” Washington was also able to inform Hancock that his own home and the contents thereof had be left untouched by the British.
The victory was so significant that the Congress decided to strike a gold medal to give to Washington.
Let’s fast forward to several years later and focus a truly brilliant inspirational moment of leadership by George Washington. The spring months of 1780 had brought little relief from the ravages of what may have been the worst winter of the 1700’s. Washington, and his troops, spent the winter at Morrison, New Jersey. Supplies had been so scarce that Continental foot soldiers sometimes nourished themselves with tree bark. Many of them marched on frozen ground without shoes. They slept huddled together in log huts barely sheltered from the more than two dozen winter storms which had pelted them with snow. It is amazing that most of them survived the bitter cold with so little protection and basic necessities.
Despite the severity of the conditions, Washington gave his troops only one day off during that winter of 1780. In fact, the holiday was the first day off that the soldiers had enjoyed in over a year. You might be surprised to learn which holiday Washington felt would be both meaningful and motivational. The date he chose was March 17th, and it was not chosen by accident.
You might assume that it was somehow linked to the anniversary of the British Evacuation from Boston.
However, it was not that glorious victory upon which Washington based the day of rest for the Continental Army. Washington knew that a holiday on St. Patrick’s Day would be meaningful for many of those whom were willing to sacrifice all under his command. You see a significant portion of the Continental Army was either Irish or of Irish descent.
During the triumph in Boston in 1776, George Washington named John Sullivan the officer of the day, and the password for the guards on duty was “St. Patrick.”
Seven of the eleven brigades that were with Washington in Morristown, New Jersey were led by generals who were born in Ireland themselves or had parents who were born on the grand Emerald Isle.
It is thus, no stretch of the imagination to understand why George Washington would give his badly battled Continental Army the day off on St. Patrick’s Day, 1780.
Although Washington cautioned his troops that “the celebration of the day will not be attended with the least rioting or disorder,” it was reported that the Pennsylvania Division were treated to “a hogshead of rum” by their commander. A hogshead was a unit of measurement of the time that equates to approximately 64 gallons. The donation by their commander certainly assured that it would be quite a celebration.
In 1782, Washington was named an honorary member of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick because of the holiday he gave his troops in honor of Saint Patrick.
We owe a debt of gratitude not only to the motivational commander-in-chief, but to those of Irish descent who fought in the American Revolution and all other conflicts which have assured our freedom.
Until next time, this is Dr. Susan Rempel encouraging you to remain motivated, informed, and engaged in the political process.