11 AHMP: General Washington’s Inspirational Leadership
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 discuss those questions and more 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 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. The following record from the Journals of the Continental Congress reads as follows:
“The president from the chair informed Geo: Washington Esqr. that he had the order of the Congress to acq[ain]t him, that the Congress had by a unanimous vote made choice of him to be general and com[mander] in chief to take the supreme command of the forces raised and to be raised, in defence of American Liberty, and desired his acceptance of it. Whereupon Colonel Washington, standing in his place, spoke as follows:
Tho’ I am truly sensible of the high Honour done me, in this Appointment, yet I feel great distress, from a consciousness that my abilities and military experience may not be equal to the extensive and important Trust: However, as the Congress desire it, I will enter upon the momentous duty, and exert every power I possess in their service, and for support of the glorious cause. I beg they will accept my most cordial thanks for this distinguished testimony of their approbation.
But, lest some unlucky event should happen, unfavourable to my reputation, I beg it may be remembered, by every Gentleman in the room, that I, this day, declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the Command I am honored with.
As to pay, Sir, I beg leave to assure the Congress, that, as no pecuniary consideration could have tempted me to have accepted this arduous employment, at the expence of my domestic ease and happiness, I do not wish to make any proffit from it. I will keep an exact Account of my expences. Those, I doubt not, they will discharge, and that is all I desire.’”
Also, on that day, the Congress authorized and funded two Major generals, eight Brigadier generals, one adjutant General, a Commissary general of stores and provision, one quarter master general, a pay master general, a chief engineer and two assistants, a chief Engineer and assistants, three aid de camps, a secretary to the general, a secretary to the Major general, and a commissary of the musters.
You might think that is a top heavy structure for a newly established armed forces. However, that day the Congress also set forth an enlistment oath for soldiers, as well as a series of troop movements designed to leave no doubt that the colonies were working together in their campaign against Britain. The enlistment oath was as follows: “I have, this day, voluntarily enlisted myself, as a soldier, in the American continental army, for one year, unless sooner discharged: And I do bind myself to conform, in all instances, to such rules and regulations, as are, or shall be, established for the government of the said Army.”
Although George Washington only asked to be reimbursed for his expenses, salaries were set for most of the other positions. John Adams thought the pay was unnecessarily high and later said, “The pay which has been voted to all the officers, which the Continental Congress intends to choose, is so large, that I fear our people will think it extravagant and be uneasy. Mr. Adams, Mr. Paine, and myself, used our utmost endeavors to reduce it, but in vain….Those ideas of equality, which are so agreeable to us natives of New England, are very disagreeable to many gentlemen in the other colonies. They had a great opinion of the high importance of a continental general, and were determined to place him in an elevated point of light. They think the Massachusetts establishment too high for the privates, and too low for the officers, and they would have their own way.”
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, himself, 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; I found part of our Army on two Hills, (called Winter and Prospect Hills) about a Mile and a quarter from the enemy on Bunker’s Hill, in a very insecure state; I found another part of the Army at this Village; and a third part at Roxbury, guarding the Entrance in and out of Boston. My whole time, since I came here, has been Imployed in throwing up Lines of Defence at these three several places; to secure, in the first Instance, our own Troops from any attempts of the Enemy; and, in the next, to cut off all Communication between their troops and the Country; For to do this, and to prevent them from penetrating into the Country with Fire and Sword, and to harass them if they do, is all that is expected of me; and if effected, must totally overthrow the designs of Administration, as the whole Force of Great Britain in the Town and Harbour of Boston can answer no other end, than to sink her under the disgrace and weight of the expense. Their Force, including Marines, Tories, &c., are computed, from the best accounts I can get, at about 12,000 Men27; ours, including Sick absent, &c., at about 16,000; but then we have a Cemi Circle of Eight or Nine Miles, to guard to every part of which we are obliged to be equally attentive; whilst they, situated as it were in the Center of the Cemicircle, can bend their whole Force (having the entire command of the Water), against any one part of it with equal facility; This renders our Situation not very agreeable, though necessary; however, by incessant labour (Sundays not excepted), we are in a much better posture of defence than when I first came.”
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 end of the enlistment period of his soldiers. 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? The soldiers had signed a term of enlistment for only one year. Many had not anticipated that joining their service would cause them to serve in an area far away from their families. 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: “As the time is just at hand, when the Massachusetts, New Hampshire & Rhode Island Troops (not again inlisted) will be released from their present Engagement, the General recommends to them to consider, what may be the Consequence of their abrupt departure from the lines; should any Accident happen to them, before the New Army gets greater Strenght, they not only fix eternal disgrace upon themselves as Soldiers, but inevitable Ruin perhaps upon their Country & families.”
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; The General flatters himself, that a laudable Spirit of emulation, will now take place, and pervade the whole of it;1 without such a Spirit, few Officers have ever arrived to any degree of Reputation, nor did any Army ever become formidable: His Excellency hopes that the Importance of the great Cause we are engaged in, will be deeply impressed upon every Man’s mind, and wishes it to be considered, that an Army without Order, Regularity & Discipline, is no better than a Commission’d Mob; Let us therefore, when every thing dear and valuable to Freemen is at stake; when our unnatural Parent is threat’ning of us with destruction from every quarter, endeavour by all the Skill and Discipline in our power, to acquire that knowledge, and conduct, which is necessary in War—Our men are brave and good; Men who with pleasure it is observed, are addicted to fewer Vices than are commonly found in Armies; but it is Subordination & Discipline (the Life and Soul of an Army) which next under providence, is to make us formidable to our enemies, honorable in ourselves, and respected in the world; and herein is to be shewn the Goodness of the Officer.” Washington had requested that those who would be leaving remain for one month, and that local militia groups fill in the gaps until the new troops could be trained. Despite Washington’s optimistic tone, the memoir’s of General William Heath recalled that soldiers numbering in the hundreds and thousands chose to leave as soon as possible.
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.
Who was Joseph Reed, and why would Washington confide in him? Joseph Reed was a Pennsvanian statesman and attorney who served as a delegate to the Continental Congress, and signed the Articles of Confederation. He had the interesting title as the President of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council, which was something akin to the governor of the colony during the American Revolution. In 1775, he closed his law practice, and became a colonel in the Continental Army at the request of George Washington. He eventually became a trusted part of Washington’s inner circle.
The portion of his letter to Reed upon which I would like to focus reads as follows:
“It is easier to conceive than to describe the situation of my mind for some time past, and my feelings under our present circumstances. Search the vast volumes of history through, and I much question whether a case similar to ours is to be found; to wit, to maintain a post against the flower of the British troops for six months together, without —, and at the end of them to have one army disbanded and another to raise within the same distance of a reinforced enemy. It is too much to attempt. What may be the final issue of the last manœuvre, time only can tell. I wish this month was well over our heads. The same desire of retiring into a chimney-corner seized the troops of New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, (so soon as their time expired,) as had worked upon those of Connecticut, notwithstanding many of them made a tender of their services to continue, till the lines could be sufficiently strengthened. We are now left with a good deal less than half raised regiments, and about five thousand militia, who only stand ingaged to the middle of this month; when, according to custom, they will depart, let the necessity of their stay be never so urgent. Thus it is, that for more than two months past, I have scarcely immerged from one difficulty before I have [been] 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:
“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.”
Incidentally, Both the letters to Reed and Hancock mentioned a document circulating throughout Boston that was the speech which King George III gave to Parliament on October 27, 1775: In that speech, King George stated: “”Those who have long too successfully laboured to inflame my people in America by gross misrepresentations, and to infuse into their minds a system of opinions, repugnant to the true constitution of the colonies, and to their subordinate relation to Great-Britain, now openly avow their revolt, hostility and rebellion. They have raised troops, and are collecting a naval force; they have seized the public revenue, and assumed to themselves legislative, executive and judicial powers, which they already exercise in the most arbitrary manner, over the persons and property of their fellow-subjects: And altho’ many of these unhappy people may still retain their loyalty, and may be too wise not to see the fatal consequence of this usurpation, and wish to resist it, yet the torrent of violence has been strong enough to compel their acquiescence, till a sufficient force shall appear to support them The authors and promoters of this desperate conspiracy have, in the conduct of it, derived great advantage from the difference of our intentions and theirs. They meant only to amuse by vague expressions of attachment to the Parent State, and the strongest protestations of loyalty to me, whilst they were preparing for a general revolt.”
Although it appears that the King’s following thought had not truly gelled in the mind of most colonists, he contended, “The rebellious war now levied is become more general, and is manifestly carried on for the purpose of establishing an independent empire. “ After announcing additional forces, both at sea and on land, would be sent because the cost to the British empire would be too high because of the commercial advantages in the colonies which had been defended “at much expence of blood and treasure, “the King went onto say, “When the unhappy and deluded multitude, against whom this force will be directed, shall become sensible of their error, I shall be ready to receive the misled with tenderness and mercy!”
Of those comments, Washington commented to Hancock: “As It is possible your may not yet have received his majesties most gracious speech, I do myself the honour to Inclose one, of many, which were sent out of Boston yesterday. It is full of rancour & resentment, and explicitly holds forth his Royal will to be, that vigorous measures must be pursued to deprive us of our constitutional rights & liberties—These measures, whatever they be, I hope will be opposed by more vigorous ones, and rendered unavailing and fruitless, tho santified and authorized by the name of majesty; a name which ought to promote the blessings of his people & not their oppression.”
Washington’s comments about King George were much more sarcastic to Reed: “We are at length favourd with a sight of his Majesty’s most gracious Speech, breathing sentiments of tenderness & compassion for his deluded American Subjects; the Eccho is not yet come to hand; but we know what it must be; and as Lord North said, & we ought to have believed (& acted accordingly) we now know the ultimatum of British Justice.”
One has to wonder if George Washington had begun to consider that a separation from Britain was the only true remedy to British tyranny?
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 more than 175,000 men serving at one point or another during the Revolution, it is difficult to paint a picture of the “typical solider.” Additionally, the interest in and time devoted to record keeping 200 years ago was far different than it is today. With all of that said, here are some facts that are known about those who served in the Continental Army. Many soldiers were as young as 15, but men as old as 60 were also allowed to enlist. Often the second, third, or fourth son enlisted in hopes that the oldest male in the family would survive to inherit property. Many were poor and possessed few employable skills, but there records indicate that 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. It is unknown how many of them endured such suffering primarily because of the belief that they would someday enjoy individual sovereignty after the relief from governmental tyranny.
On the 17th of March, 1776 came another important victory for the newly established Continental Army. Washington wrote to John Hancock, who was the President of the Continental Congress at that time, two days later:
“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. I beg leave to congratulate you Sir, and the Honorable Congress on this happy event, and particularly as it was effected without endangering the Lives and property of the remaining unhappy Inhabitants.
I have great reason to imagine their flight was precipitated by the appearance of a Work which I had ordered to be thrown up last Saturday night, on an eminence at Dorchester, which lay nearest to Boston Neck called Newks Hill. The Town although it has suffered greatly, is not in so bad a state as I expected to find it, and I have a particular pleasure in being able to inform you Sir, that your House has received no damage worth mentioning, your furniture is in tolerable Order and the family pictures are all left entire and untouched. Captn. Cazneau takes charge of the whole until he receives further Orders from you.”
The victory was so significant that the Congress passed the following resolution on March 25th: “That the thanks of this Congress, in their own name, and in the name of the thirtten United Colonies, whom they represent, be presented to his excellencey, General Washington, and the officers and soldiers under his comman, for their wise and spirited conduct in the siege and acquisition of Boston; and that a medal of gold be struck in commemoration of this great event and presented to his Excellencey; and that a committee of three be appointed to prepare a letter of thanks, and a proper decive for the medal.” The committee included John Adams, John Jay, and Stephen Hopkins.”
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. After all, it was so significant that Congress had created a coin to give Washington in thanks for the victory.
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.
Of course, there were loyalists of Irish descent who joined the ranks of the British Army. Also, members of two regiments, known as the Volunteers of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Volunteers had actually served with the Continental Army and then, as they say, “jump ship.” However, Luke Gardier, who would someday become Lord Mountjoy, gave a speech in Parliament after the war ended which credited the Irish for Britain’s loss: “America was lost by Irish emigrants … I am assured from the best authority, the major part of the American Army was composed of Irish and that the Irish language was as commonly spoken in the American ranks as English, I am also informed it was their valor that determined the contest …“
From the Battle at Lexington to that day in 1780, the Irish had been a significant force. It is estimated that approximately 150 of the men who fought at Lexington were of Irish descent. There were so many that purportedly the British leader, Major Pitcairn, declared that they would drive both the Yankees and Irish to cover. 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.”
The Irish, or those of Irish decent, truly were the backbone of the Continental Army. 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. John Barry, who was often referred to as the “Father of the American Navy,” was born in County Wexford, Ireland. In addition, more than a quarter of the Continental Army had Irish roots. For example, Henry Knox, famous for securing 50 canons for the Continental Cause at Fort Ticonderoga, had parents who immigrated from Northern Ireland. Fifty percent or more of some regiments were made up of men who were born in Ireland or had Irish parents. British General Clinton described the Irish immigrants as: General Clinton wrote, “Our most serious antagonists.” The Irish people themselves were known to be quite supportive of the colonial effort to separate from Great Britain.
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.
Washington’s General Orders on March 16th were as follows:
“The general congratulates the army on the very interesting proceedings of the parliament of Ireland and the inhabitants of that country which have been lately communicated; not only as they appear calculated to remove those heavy and tyrannical oppressions on their trade but to restore to a brave and generous people their ancient rights and freedom and by their operations to promote the cause of America. Desirous of impressing upon the minds of the army, transactions so important in their nature, the general directs that all fatigue and working parties cease for tomorrow the seventeenth, a day held in particular regard by the people of the nation.”
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 Pennsylvania Division must have had 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. Washington wrote to the President of the Society “I accept with singular pleasure the Ensign of so worthy a Fraternity as that of the Sons of St. Patrick in this City, a Society distinguished for the firm adherence of its Members to the glorious cause in which we are embarked. Give me leave to assure you. Sir, that I shall never cast my eyes on the Badge with which I am honoured, but with a grateful remembrance of the polite and affectionate manner in which it was presented.”
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.
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