American Revolution: General George Washington - A Military Profile

George Washington during the American Revolution
General George Washington. Public Domain

George Washington - Early Life:

Born February 22, 1732 along Popes Creek in Virginia, George Washington was the son of Augustine and Mary Washington. A successful tobacco planter, Augustine also became involved in several mining ventures and served as Justice of the Westmoreland County Court. Beginning at a young age, George Washington began spending most of his time at Ferry Farm near Fredericksburg, VA.

One of several children, Washington lost his father at age eleven. As a result, he attended school locally and was taught by tutors rather than following his older brothers to England to enroll at the Appleby School. Leaving school at fifteen, Washington considered a career in the Royal Navy, but was blocked by his mother.

In 1748, Washington developed an interest in surveying and later obtained his license from the College of William and Mary. A year later, Washington used his family's connections to the powerful Fairfax clan to obtain the position of surveyor of newly-formed Culpeper County. This proved a lucrative post and allowed him to begin buying land in the Shenandoah Valley. The early years of Washington's work also saw him employed by the Ohio Company to survey land in western Virginia. His career was also aided by his half-brother Lawrence who commanded the Virginia militia. Using these ties, the 6'2" Washington came to the attention of Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie.

Following Lawrence's death in 1752, Washington was made a major in the militia by Dinwiddie and assigned as one of four district adjutants.

George Washington - French & Indian War:

In 1753, French forces began moving into the Ohio Country which was claimed by Virginia and the other English colonies. Responding to these incursions, Dinwiddie dispatched Washington north with a letter instructing the French to depart.

Meeting with key Native American leaders en route, Washington delivered the letter to Fort Le Boeuf that December. Receiving the Virginian, the French commander, Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre, announced that his forces would not withdraw. Returning to Virginia, Washington's journal from the expedition was published on Dinwiddie's order and helped him gain recognition throughout the colony. A year later, Washington was placed command of a construction party and sent north to aid in building a fort at the Forks of the Ohio.

Assisted by the Mingo chief Half-King, Washington moved through the wilderness. Along the way, he learned that a large French force was already at the forks constructing Fort Duquesne. Establishing a base camp at Great Meadows, Washington attacked a French scouting party led by Ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, at the Battle of Jumonville Glen on May 28, 1754. This attack prompted a response and a large French force moved south to deal with Washington. Constructing Fort Necessity, Washington was reinforced as he prepared to meet this new threat.  In the resulting Battle of Great Meadows on July 3, his command was beaten and ultimately forced to surrender. Following the defeat, Washington and his men were permitted to return to Virginia.

These engagements began the the French & Indian War and led to the arrival of additional British troops in Virginia. In 1755, Washington joined Major General Edward Braddock's advance on Fort Duquesne as a volunteer aide to the general.  In this role, he was present when Braddock was badly defeated and killed at the Battle of the Monongahela that July. Despite the failure of the campaign, Washington performed well during the battle and worked tirelessly to rally British and colonial forces.  In recognition of this, he received command of the Virginia Regiment. In this role he proved a strict officer and trainer. Leading the regiment, he vigorously defended the frontier against the Native Americans and later took part in the Forbes Expedition which captured Fort Duquesne in 1758.

George Washington - Peacetime:

In 1758, Washington resigned his commission and retired from the regiment.

Returning to private life, he married the wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis on January 6, 1759, and took up residence at Mount Vernon, a plantation he had inherited from Lawrence. With his newly obtained means, Washington began expanding his real estate holdings and greatly expanded the plantation. This also saw him diversify its operations to include milling, fishing, textiles, and distilling. Though he never had children of his own, he aided in raising Martha's son and daughter from her previous marriage. As a one of the colony's wealthiest men, Washington began serving in the House of Burgesses in 1758.

George Washington - Moving to Revolution:

Over the next decade, Washington grew his business interests and influence. Though he disliked the 1765 Stamp Act, he did not begin publicly opposing British taxes until 1769 when he organized a boycott in response to the Townshend Acts. With the introduction of the Intolerable Acts following the 1774 Boston Tea Party, Washington commented that the legislation was "an invasion of our rights and privileges." As the situation with Britain deteriorated, he chaired the meeting at which the Fairfax Resolves were passed and was selected to represent Virginia at the First Continental Congress. With the Battles of Lexington & Concord in April 1775 and the beginning of the American Revolution, Washington began attending meetings of the Second Continental Congress in his military uniform.

George Washington - Leading the Army:

With the Siege of Boston ongoing, Congress formed the Continental Army on June 14, 1775. Due to his experience, prestige, and Virginia roots, Washington was nominated as commander in chief by John Adams. Accepting reluctantly, he rode north to take command. Arriving at Cambridge, MA, he found the army badly disorganized and lacking supplies. Establishing his headquarters at the Benjamin Wadsworth House, he worked to organize his men, obtain needed munitions, and improve the fortifications around Boston. He also dispatched Colonel Henry Knox to Fort Ticonderoga to bring the installation's guns to Boston.

In a massive effort, Knox completed this mission and Washington was able to emplace these guns on Dorchester Heights in March 1776. This action forced the British to abandon the city.  

George Washington - Keeping an Army Together:

Recognizing that New York would likely be the next British target, Washington moved south in 1776. Opposed by General William Howe and Vice Admiral Richard Howe, Washington was forced from the city after being flanked and defeated at Long Island in August. In the wake of the defeat, his army narrowly escaped back to Manhattan from its fortifications in Brooklyn. Though he won a victory at Harlem Heights, a string of defeats, including at White Plains, saw Washington driven north then west across New Jersey. Crossing the Delaware, Washington's situation was desperate as his army was badly reduced and enlistments were expiring. Needing a victory to bolster spirits, Washington conducted a daring attack on Trenton on Christmas night.

George Washington - Moving Towards Victory:

Capturing the town's Hessian garrison, Washington followed up this triumph with a victory at Princeton a few days later before entering winter quarters. Rebuilding the army through 1777, Washington marched south to block British efforts against the American capital of Philadelphia. Meeting Howe on September 11, he again flanked and beaten at the Battle of Brandywine. The city fell shortly after the fighting. Seeking to turn the tide, Washington mounted counterattack in October but was narrowly defeated at Germantown. Withdrawing to Valley Forge for the winter, Washington embarked on a massive training program which was overseen by Baron Von Steuben. During this period, he was forced to endure intrigues such as the Conway Cabal, in which officers sought to have him removed and replaced with Major General Horatio Gates.

Emerging from Valley Forge, Washington began a pursuit of the British as they withdrew to New York. Attacking at the Battle of Monmouth, the Americans fought the British to a standstill. The fighting saw Washington at the front working tirelessly to rally his men. Pursuing the British, Washington settled into a loose siege of New York as the focus of the fighting shifted to the southern colonies. As commander in chief, Washington worked to direct operations on the other fronts from his headquarters. Joined by French forces in 1781, Washington moved south and besieged Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown. Receiving the British surrender on October 19, the battle effectively ended the war. Returning to New York, Washington endured another year of struggling to keep the army together amid a lack of funds and supplies.

George Washington - Later Life:

With the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the war came to an end. Though immensely popular and in position to become dictator if he desired, Washington resigned his commission at Annapolis, MD on December 23, 1783, confirming the precedent of civilian authority over the military. In later years, Washington would serve as president of the Constitutional Convention and as the first President of the United States. As a military man, Washington's true value came as an inspirational leader who proved capable of keeping the army together and maintaining resistance during the darkest days of the conflict. A key symbol of the American Revolution, Washington's ability command respect was only surpassed by his willingness to cede power back to the people. When he learned of Washington's resignation, King George III stated "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world."