GEORGE WASHINGTON 1732 - 1799  (G2, G3a, G3b)

xxxxxGeorge Washington, the first president of the United States, gained his fighting experience during the French and Indian War in the 1750s and 1760s, when leader of the Virginia militia. As a member of the local legislature he opposed Britain's colonial policy, and when the American War of Independence broke out in 1775, he was appointed commander of the continental armies. With a shortage of experienced fighters and insufficient arms, food and clothing for his men, his problems were immense, but he showed a great deal of courage and determination and, despite severe hardship, kept the army together as a fighting force. He gained Boston from the British in 1776, but then lost New York and was driven into Pennsylvania. From here he won victories at Trenton and Princeton, but then suffered reverses at Brandywine and Germantown. When the British withdrew to the north, he took up a position outside New York and it was from here that he moved his forces to Yorktown, besieged the city, and received the British surrender in 1781. As we shall see, he re-entered politics in 1787 and became the nation's first president in 1789 (G3b).

XxxxxThe “father” of the United States was George Washington, commander of the American forces during the War of American Independence, and the nation's first president. He began his fighting career during the French and Indian War, beginning in 1754, when he was leader of the Virginia militia. As a member of the local colonial legislature, he fiercely opposed the British government's policy towards its American colonies, and attended the Continental Congress, convened in 1774 to petition King George III and the British parliament. When war with the mother country eventually broke out in 1775, he was appointed commander in chief of the Continental armies and, despite many reverses, problems and harrowing times, led his “country” to victory with the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781.

xxxxxWashington was born at Wakefield Farm, Westmoreland County, Virginia (illustrated). His family was well connected locally, and known for its pride and tradition. After his father's death in 1743, he moved to Mount Vernon, a large estate in Fairfax County, where Lawrence, his eldest half-brother, had made his home. He had little formal education, but showed a flair for practical mathematics and, as a tall, well-built young man, he enjoyed the outdoor life. He worked as a land surveyor from the age of 15 until, in 1752, he inherited the vast estate at Mount Vernon (illustrated below) on the death of his half-brother Lawrence and his only child, Sarah. He then settled down to manage the estate and to enjoy such gentlemanly pursuits as racing and hunting. In 1754 he took part in skirmishes with the French over the right of settlement in the Ohio Valley, but his baptism under fire was hardly a success. His small, untrained force was besieged in Fort Necessity and forced to surrender. However, appointed as a colonel in August 1755 to command the Virginia militia, he defended the state well during the French and Indian War (an off-shoot of the Seven Years’ War), and in late 1758 took part in the British capture of Fort Duquesne - renamed Fort Pitt. The experience gained during the fighting at this time proved of immense value to him.

xxxxxIn January 1759 he married a rich widow, Martha Custis, and became one of the wealthiest and influential men in the state. In the previous year he had been elected to the House of Burgesses, the local legislature, and it was here in the late 1760s and early 70s that he began to voice his support in the dispute brewing between the colonists and the British government. It was on the strength of this opposition to British policies that in 1774 he was elected as one of the state's delegates to the first Continental Congress. We are told that a this point, anticipating the possible course of events, he began to buy arms and ammunition for the defence of Virginia. At the Second Continental Congress in 1775, with a clash of arms having already taken place at Lexington and Concord, he was unanimously appointed commander in chief of the colonial armies, taking over his post in June of that year. He faced a formidable task. Whilst the colonies were now loosely united in a common cause, they could muster but a makeshift military force. During the next six years he had to face up to treachery amongst his own generals - notably the defection of Benedict Arnold and an attempt to overthrow him in 1777 - and he was constantly short of men and the needs of a professional army - arms, ammunition, food and clothing.

xxxxxHe met with marked success at the opening of his campaign. Having gained occupation of the Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston, and brought up cannon from Fort Ticonderoga - a feat in itself - he forced the British to evacuate the port in March 1776 and move their forces to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Further south, however, he was driven out of New York and had to retreat across New Jersey into Pennsylvania. From here he managed to regain some military advantage. In a daring and brilliant assault, carried out on the night of Christmas Day, 1776, he crossed the icy Delaware River (illustrated) and captured Trenton in a surprise attack. Then, a few days into the New Year, he defeated British troops at Princeton. These two victories did much to restore patriot morale and bring in more recruits, but later in the year he suffered reverses at Brandywine and Germantown. With the coming of winter, his army, reduced to little more than 11,000, suffered great hardship at their camp at Valley Forge, just 20 miles from Philadelphia - then in the hands of the British. It was during these winter months, amid appalling conditions of hardship, and when his fortunes were at their lowest ebb, that an attempt was made by some members of the Continental Congress and a number of his senior army officers - notably Conway Cabal - to have him replaced by General Horatio Gates. Fortunately for the colonists the attempt failed.

xxxxxAnd despite the atrocious conditions, the months at Valley Forge were put to good use. A training programme was introduced to instil discipline among the men and improve their skill at arms. Furthermore, news from another front raised hopes. In October of 1777 an entire British army, moving south from Canada and having been constantly harassed by guerrilla tactics, was soundly defeated at two battles near Saratoga and forced to surrender. These victories brought the French into the conflict - now convinced that the colonist could win their fight - and, for the Americans, this proved the turning point of the war. On land, the colonists would have the assistance of a professional army, whilst at sea the British could no longer depend upon complete command.

xxxxxIn response, the British pulled out of Philadelphia to concentrate their forces in the north, and Washington was able to wreak havoc among their army on the march, particularly at Monmouth, a battle in which his personal intervention helped save the day (illustrated). Then taking up his position at White Plains, just outside New York, Washington waited for the inevitable showdown. It came in 1781 when General Charles Cornwallis (1738-1805), “tired of marching about the countryside”, withdrew his army to Virginia and concentrated his forces at Yorktown to await reinforcements.

xxxxxBut with a squadron of 36 French ships blocking the harbour, these reinforcements never came. In the meantime Washington hurried south, meeting up with the French, and laid siege to Yorktown. Unable to break out on land, and with no escape by sea, Cornwallis was forced to surrender in October 1781. The war was to drag on for another two years, but the fighting was virtually over. On the 19th October, the day of the formal surrender, Washington informed Congress of the victory, giving credit for the success “to every Officer and Soldier in the combined Army in this Occasion”. A few days later he resigned as commander-in-chief.

xxxxxWithout doubt, Washington played a pivotal role in the ultimate success of the American rebellion. Few men of his time, if any, were equal to his discipline, determination and sense of duty, nor his ability to inspire his men and fight for their welfare. It was only by such attributes that he kept the Continental army together, so often were his men deprived of the basic requirements of a fighting force. And nowhere can his sheer courage, dedication and persistence in adversity be seen than during the dreadful winter months at Valley Forge.

xxxxxAs a military man he was not a great tactician. He made a number of serious blunders - some of which might well have been fatal against a more persistent enemy - and in his opening engagements he tended to take the enemy head-on instead of using a more subtle, indirect approach. Nevertheless, he showed much courage and daring - as in his attack on Trenton - and he was a capable strategist, as can be seen in his capture of Boston early on, and his rapid deployment of troops to ensure victory at Yorktown. Furthermore, the battlefield aside, he possessed an astute understanding of the political struggle that was being waged in the Continental Congress, and in his handling of this volatile situation no man could have done better.

xxxxxFollowing the settlement at the Peace of Paris in 1783, Washington retired to Mount Vernon in Virginia, but four years later he re-entered politics and, as we shall see, was elected the first president of the United States in 1789 (G3b).

xxxxxIncidentally, thexfamous and highly romanticized painting showing Washington crossing the Delaware (illustrated above) is by the German-American artist Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868). It was painted and exhibited in the Capitol, Washington, in 1851. ......

xxxxx...... George Washington was of British descent. His great-grandfather, John Washington, migrated from Sulgrave, a small Manor in Northamptonshire, after falling foul of Cromwell's regime. He settled in Virginia in 1657, and here he did well for himself, acquiring some land and becoming a member of the local colonial legislature. His son, Lawrence, had a son, Augustine, born in 1694, and he was the father of George Washington. ......

xxxxx...... Sadly, the famous story about the young George hacking down a cherry tree and then confessing to the deed - “Father I cannot tell a lie” - has no foundation in fact. Information about Washington's boyhood is very scarce indeed, so this “episode” was probably used to fill the gap. Having said that, in later life he was regarded by all as an upright, honest man, so the story simply confirms his status as the symbol of American virtue. The tale was written by a reverend gentleman named Mason Locke Weems (1759-1825), and appeared in his book Life of Washington, published in Philadelphia in 1800. It seems that Weems was a rather colourful character who went about the countryside preaching and selling books, including his own.


Washington: miniature by the British/American painter Robert Field (1769-1819), 1800 – Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut. Birthplace: wood engraving by two American artists, Benson Lossing (1813-1891) and William Barritt (born c1822) - contained in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, February 1856. Mount Vernon: date and artist unknown – Image Library, U.S. National Archives, Washington. Delaware: by the German/American painter Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868), 1851 – Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Valley Forge: by the American artist Tompkins Harrison Matteson (1813-1884) – Shelburne Public Library, New York. Monmouth: by the German/American painter Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868), 1854. – Monmouth County Historical Association, Freehold, New Jersey. Washington: by the American painter Charles Wilson Peale (1741-1827), 1781 – Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut. Confession: engraving by the American artist George Gorgas White (1835-1898), after the work by the American artist John C. McRae (active 1850-1880), 1867 – Library of Congress, Washington.