It is fashionable in our culture that enjoys debunking the accomplishments of traditional heroes to dismiss George Washington’s military successes during the American War for Independence. Washington’s “genius,” we are instructed, was sheer luck, more the result of bungling and fatigue on the part of the American commander’s British adversaries than anything else.
Not so, counters Dave Palmer, military historian and former superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy. In his closely researched study “George Washington’s Military Genius” - a revision of a work originally published in 1975 - he demonstrates that Washington was a far shrewder military strategist and tactician than many historians have perceived. The author does not use the term “military genius” lightly.
Beginning with a brief definition of terminology, Mr. Palmer demonstrates concisely but with thoroughness the crux of his argument: that Washington effectively used the forces at his command in relation to the size and condition of the British armies that opposed him, exercising both the aggression and sly caution of a fox.
He identifies four phases of the American Revolution and reveals how Washington strategized according to the demands of each. In the earliest phase of the war, beginning in 1775 when the British force in America was relatively small, the Minute Men and the Continental Army could afford to be remarkably bold - and enjoyed great success as a result. During this phase, the author notes, “Victory was everything, defeat of little consequence because the rebels had so little to lose. Washington attacked at every turn, taking the strategic offensive to the full extent of his limited powers.”
In the second phase, when the British entered the war in large numbers, Washington needed to pick his battles carefully in order to avoid the complete destruction of his army, and his plans always had orderly retreat as a key element. Facing overwhelming odds, with “victory all but impossible and defeat a distinct likelihood, not losing became the foremost goal of the Continental Army,” writes Mr. Palmer.
In the third phase, joined by French allies (with its formidable fleet of warships) and with the odds now evened, the Americans could afford to act with aggressive resolve. During this period, as Mr. Palmer says, Washington “strove mightily to coordinate allied arms in ‘one great vigorous effort.’ His strategic offensive, though greatly prolonged because of problems inherent in cooperating with a foreign fleet operating from a base thousands of miles away, resulted finally in victory at Yorktown” in 1781.
And in the fourth, with Cornwallis’ army defeated but a large, unfought British force still in the field to the north of Virginia and the possibility of America acquiring more territory from the mother country through prudent negotiation, Washington exercised calm, firm control over his own army during the peace talks that ended the war officially in 1783, sealing American independence. During this, the most delicate phase of the struggle, “Washington’s strategic stance remained an offensive one, but with the important if subtle difference that once again avoiding defeat was more important than winning a victory. Patriots had achieved much - and consequently had much to lose. They wanted more, of course, but not at the expense of ground already gained.”
“Unless one recognizes that the War of Independence wore four faces,” writes Mr. Palmer, “it is all but impossible to comprehend the genius of General Washington. In the first period, which called for audacity, he was audacious; when the second required caution, he turned cautious; as decisive victory became feasible, he thirsted for a decision; when circumstances after Yorktown required steadfastness, he became the nation’s solid anchor.” In the best sense of the word, Washington was an opportunist - a trait he shared with all the truly great generals in world history. As Mr. Palmer rightly states, through his shrewd, intuitive knowledge of employing the right strategy to face changing circumstances, Washington “outgeneraled all his opponents.”
“George Washington’s Military Genius” is filled with eye-opening knowledge of the nature of 18th-century warfare, in which armies fought in tightly massed ranks to concentrate the deadliness of their fire, muskets not being a marksman’s weapon by any means. In addition, he rightly argues that the American Revolution was one of the last of the Western world’s true “limited wars,” with armies making war on each other and leaving the civilian population alone, by and large. (The concept of unlimited war came to prominence during the American Civil War, which during its final years especially included the destruction of crops and personal property as a means of breaking the enemy’s will and destroying his material wherewithal to wage war.)
Working with the men and materiel at his command, Washington became “this nation’s preeminent strategist,” Mr. Palmer concludes, “Had he lacked any strategic ability but somehow muddled through to victory, as some claim he did, his other qualities and accomplishments would still have marked him as a great historical figure. Nevertheless, to understand him more fully, one cannot avoid studying Washington the general, which is to say, Washington the strategist.” In “George Washington’s Military Genius,” Mr. Palmer has answered the call, providing a clear, well-researched study of those martial aspects that made Washington “first in war.”
James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind” (Madison Books, 1999).