George Washington #1

I still feel like even in his day, George Washington was shrouded in the fog of the founding of the country.

He was a person that didn't have the lofty ideals Jefferson had and he didn't have the mind of Adams, but he knew how to get the job done and do his part for his country.

Without the generalship of Washington, it's hard to believe that the American revolution could have been won. The most impressive thing to me is that Washington turned down the crown and sceptre and title of King and gave up power after only 8 years. He was truly a Sulla for his times.

I'm fascinated with how men like Washington felt after the revolution. In the 10 or so years leading up to the actual fighting (what Adams called the real revolution), men like Washington must surely have thought of themselves as Englishmen who were being treated like second class citizens.

After they actually broke away and formed their own country, how did they identify themselves? Imagine if you lived in St. Louis or something and then someday it became part of Canada... Would you really feel Canadian?

To me, George Washington is the Romulus for the American conscience and even though he was a living, breathing man, at least part of him is a folk hero for the ages.


The Rest of the Revolutionary War

The book I read just focused on the early Revolutionary War, so I'm somewhat limited in my knowledge of the later war, but here's what I was surprised by from the programs/lectures I've listened to:

1) When Freedom Fries flew in the face of Tyranny

France joined the Revolutionaries in fighting the British. Their main contribution was naval support of New York. They also contributed a large amount of troops that marched against the British in the final part of the war.

With the French Navy patrolling the river and ocean around NYC, they were able to bombard the strongholds of the British and allow the Americans to set up defensive positions outside the city. The ironic thing about this is that the British found themselves in the same position as the Americans in the early days of the war, defending territory that is largely indefensible because of the accessibility of its waterways.

Were in not for Ben Franklin's diplomacy in France , the Revolution may have been lost. As a kid, I don't remember learning that they played such an important role.

2) More trouble with Winter

George Washington endeared himself to his troops in the horrible winter at Valley Forge where many of his troops died of the cold or malnutrition by staying there the entire winter while most of the senior officers took leave and returned to their families. Were it not for his dogged determination in supplying the troops with provisions, the revolution may well have been lost.

3) The Southerners

Part of the war took place in the south, in Georgia where the British tried to take advantage of the much stronger loyalist sentiment there.

This was surprising to me only because I had no idea that there were colonists living in Georgia this early in American history!

4) George Washington: Sensitive Man

After the war was won and before George Washington was president, years of peace negotiations took place. Not knowing whether the British would accept these terms, the American Army had to stay encamped for years.

Since there was no longer a 'hot war' - the various territories in the US underfunded or refused to fund this Army as they had greatly exhausted their resources during the several years of war that proceeded the peace. This led to understandable anger and resentment in the officer class and at one point, some of them actually threatened to march on the continental congress.

Legend says that when George Washington addressed them, he took out his speech he had prepared and as he put his glasses on (they had never seen him wear glasses) he said "excuse me gentlemen, for I have grown blind as well as old in the service of my country"

The rebellious officers were so moved, many started to cry and they dropped the talk of rebellion.

I hope you enjoyed this three part "Uncle John's Bathroom Reader" version of the Revolutionary War.


The Winter of the Revolutionary War

Winter of 1776/77 saw a continuation of hardships. The weather on many days was very cold and George Washington's troops started to suffer from the elements and the constant flight from the British.

The provisions started to run low for both armies and morale became a problem as the shoes started to be worn bare and the soldiers left bloody footprints in the snow during their forced marches.

Several things did however start to work in the Americans favor though.

Popular support for the rebel cause started to increase as the British ran low on supplies and started aggressive 'foraging' of the residents' belongings to supply their army with food for the men and hay for their horses. The fact that some loyalists had their food supplies foraged started to erode support for the British even in Tory households.

Under George Washington's leadership - the underdog army of the Americans made a couple amazing attacks on the Hessian forces stationed across the frozen Delaware river. Washington actually crossed the Delaware River twice in horrible conditions, once during a Nor'easter and fought the ice flows to bring a minimal force to attack the unsuspecting Hessian legions. The element of surprise helped the small force of hungry and tired Americans route the German Hessians from their defensive positrons.

The Americans conducted constant guerrilla raids against the encamped British causing them to stay on constant alert with clothes on and bags packed. This constant threat of assassination diminished the morale and effectiveness of the British army. (I don't even need to make modern day comparisons- we can figure this one out)

There was also a successful attack on Trenton, NJ which drove the garrison of British from their fortifications.

The combination of increasing morale of the American army from the string of victories, perceived feeling of fighting for their country, strategy of attacks on vulnerable British positions, interruption of the British supply chains and the fatigue of the British army which was constantly under threat of attack started to turn the tide of war in Washington's favor.


The Early Days of the War

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the beginning of the Revolution after the British returned to America did not go well.

The beginning of the war did though, at least from an insurgency perspective- the battle of Lexinton and Concord (shot heard round the world) saw around 1000 troops trying to arrest some American revolutionaries. This insighted the American militias to lay siege to Boston in the battle of Bunker Hill. The British repulsed the revolutionaries but lost one sixth of their 6000 troop garrison in the process.

The Americans captured Montreal and George Washington in charge of the new continental army forced the British to retreat to Novia Scotia.

Democracy was in the air. But the British were going to send reinforcements and they were going to be angry.

There were philosophers, merchants and back country riflemen who formed a loose militia of ideas/self interest that was tasked with rebelling the most powerful, organized standing army and mercenaries in the world.

The continental congress decided to try and secure New York. Anyone who's been to NYC knows that there's the Hudson, the East River and the Atlantic Ocean all surrounding the city, so you can imagine that it wasn't real realistic to expect the rebel militia, being without a Navy, to prevent the British from landing.

Land they did on Staten Island (a few miles from where we now live in Bayridge, Brooklyn) without resistance. They set up camp, secured the island and organized immediately. 35,000 troops in all as well as the German Hessian mercenaries they hired touched down on the island.

Being such an experienced army, the British were well acquainted with the necessity of sanitation and managing the provisions/water supply- so they had little trouble in the first few months with the main problems that armies of the time had- dysentery, malaria, and other 'dirty' diseases.

The Americans set up their main camp in Brooklyn and not being equipped with the knowledge the British had, started very soon to suffer from various ailments that made a portion of the army ineffective for fighting.

The thing I didn't realize is that the Howe Brothers (one ran the army, the other the British Navy) made a bunch of attempts to win the 'hearts and minds' of the American people by trying to rally the loyalist, offer amnesty to the rebels etc. (sound familiar?)

He was not successful in this endeavor and the fighting started. There were many battles fought, but overall, it was a route of the American Revolutionaries and the British took over NYC nearly ending the revolution right there. The British also took Long Island and NJ in very short order.

Only George Washington's military experience and determination could keep the 'cause' alive.


The American Militia

The most amazing thing about the success in the founding of this country is the fact that an unprofessional citizen militia repelled the most powerful military in the world.

The closest situation I can think of in modern times would be if Sarah Palin's husband's 'Secession' party faced and then repelled the American Military to go on to establish the Republic of Alaska.

The problems of a fuzzy chain of command and lack of basic resources such as blankets and adequate rations at certain points of the war were compounded by the extreme differences in the philosophical views of the various participants in the war over just what Liberty was.

Members of the 'gentleman class' such as George Washington wanted to create some sort of parliamentary system independent of Great Britain, but certainly not the radical Athenian Democracy patriots such as Thomas Paine wanted. Slaves took Liberty to mean their divine right to be free and fought both on the British/Loyalist and the rebel side. Merchants took liberty to mean an end to crushing tariffs and the ability to have commerce benefit them and their community.

There were of course advantages the American Militia had, a perceived moral superiority, familiarity with the terrain, a supportive citizenry (non loyalists at least) but the single greatest advantage it had was the Atlantic ocean. Throughout history, the protection of the supply line and ability to relieve troops has been the greatest decider of who is victorious in war. The difficulty of moving large amounts of troops and supplies over the Atlantic made it necessary for the British to try and have a quick and decisive victory. The longer the war drug on, the more it would be to the advantage of the American rebels.

George Washington was a successful military man, having served in the Virginia militia in the French and Indian Wars. He was a practical man just what the future nation needed.

Although there was a Continental Congress that gave George Washington vague command over a small federal Army, this was certainly not the professional standing Army we have now with paid soldiers.


The Hessian Army joins the mix

Reading: "Washington's Crossing" David Hackett Fischer

Before I started reading this book I had no idea that the British were actively trying to contract other states to help them fight in the American rebellion but indeed they did.

The British had the most effective Army and Navy in the world but were very stretched from recent fighting on five continents. The sun literally never set on the British Empire and they wanted more than the 35,000 troops they had mustered to put down the rebellion.

They tried to hire out part of the Russian army from Catharine the Great, but she refused. They tried to get the Netherlands to let them rent their Scottish brigade, but they refused as well. The Prussians were also courted, but did not agree to lend their services.

Finally, the British turned to Hesse-Cassel, a small state in what is now in central Germany. In this period, continental Europe was in a constant state of War. The small European states maintained large armies for defense of their territory and rented them out for a high price when they were not in use.

The Hessians were a very effective fighting force, sort of like the special forces or Spartans of their time. The 'soldier trade' was one of the biggest industries in their impoverished area of Germany at the time.

The Hessian Army was not run the same way the British army was. While the British army used a combination of reward and punishment in training it's officers, the Hessian army was drilled by brute discipline. This made them more aggressive fighters and prisoners, including Americans were not spared when captured.

I still can't get over two things:

1) Nations of the 1700's would rent out entire sections of their military forces.
2) It wasn't just the British George Washington's militias were fighting.

On the first point, I know that in ancient times, this practice was common and some empires (the Carthaginians especially) had their militaries made up almost exclusively of mercenaries, but I didn't think that this practice continued in the Western World after the age of Nation States.

I had always thought that nations went to war with/against each other for treaties, expansion etc., but I did not believe that a king would 'rent' his military out.

On the second point, I mean come on- isn't this supposed to just be the 'good' Americans against the 'bad' British?

I never learned the 'World War' perspective in school.


Early Revolutionary War- The British Army

Reading: "Washington's Crossing" David Hackett Fischer

When I was younger and learned of the Revolutionary War, my main memory of the war is the famous painting - 'Washington's Crossing'. All of you have seen it- Washington standing triumphantly on a boat crossing the icy Delaware River.

The main theme of the war that I remember is the British Troops were stuffy and ill prepared for the hardy American frontiersman and were slaughtered by a smaller force that didn't march in lockstep and used the natural terrain to their advantage.

While it's true, that Americans certainly did use terrain and unconventional tactics as any insurgent force would, the idea of the British Redcoats being unprepared for total war is a joke.

During this period the British military forces were without rival. They had come off a string of successes in the French and Indian War and the Seven Years' War in Europe. They had destroyed every adversary that they had faced.

The British Army was organized into regiments which largely would operate independently of each other and were responsible for their own recruiting, training and general specializations. There were Scottish Regiments (recently subjugated to Britain at the time) who still spoke Gaelic, there was a regiment called the Green Feathers (later the Green Hats and later still the Green Berets) and many other regiments that specialized in various types of warfare.

This is very similar to the Roman 'Century' method where Legions would often operate independent of each other so they could work in separate parts of the empire. Having autonomy builds on soldiers having a stake in the fighting and speeds decision making.

The British were a professional, volunteer army. Their average general at the time had 30 years of Military experience while the American Generals had an average of two years of experience.

The early outcome of the war was predictable, stunning defeat after defeat for Washington's Army. The Americans did have a strong advantage though since the definition of victory for the British had to be total victory, while the definition for victory for the rebels had to be avoiding total loss.

The British were not going to be easy to defeat, and they had mercenaries... but that's another post.

Welcome to my blog

Thanks to all who have chosen to stop by. My wife and I are undertaking a project where we're going to read one book on all 44 presidents.

I'm going to post my thoughts on the Presidents, try and point out what wasn't previously known to me and try and find historical parallels during classical periods of history.

What will I gain from this?

Maybe some perspective, maybe a chance to be the 'Political Scientist' my degree asserts I am, maybe find a poor man's universal theory in American history.