There was above all, one reason and one reason only why the American states won their independence. Brilliant actors plied their craft on the world stage, rugged and tough warriors on all sides faced battle bravely. But all of it would count for nothing if not for the actions, the courage, and the indomitable grit and willpower of George Washington, whose steady hand and patient determination birthed the nation. Washington’s career, even starting as a 21-year-old surveyor, displayed something I wrote at the beginning of Stumped – that the most decisive test and important aspect of leadership isn’t raw intelligence or what you know. Instead, it consists of your abilities to have a firm grasp of your objectives, to motivate your subordinates to be their best selves and to be useful agents in helping you achieve those objectives, and your capability of recognizing talent when you see it and putting it into action in the most useful possible way.
These were qualities that George Washington possessed in the greatest degree of excellence. He set the example, walked on the front lines, stood in the trenches, and was visibly the one leading the way.
I’ll focus on three particular instances of George Washington’s leadership abilities, all of which were crucial toward winning the Revolution and displayed his talents in the highest way.
The Trenton-Princeton Campaign
Nowhere was American morale lower than in the closing months of 1776. Thomas Paine wrote that it was the time that tried men’s souls, and he was right. Despite starting the year off on a high note by forcing the redcoats to evacuate Boston and declaring independence at the start of July, the second half of the year went overwhelmingly well for the British, smashing the Continental Army in New York and handing it defeat after defeat afterward. Desertions abounded. The army was rapidly evaporating. By December, George Washington had only around 2,500 troops at his command from a force of over 10,000 that summer. To make matters worse, the one-year enlistments of most of his remaining troops was set to expire in days, and who would want to enlist again to be part of such a miserable, losing, and by now thoroughly uninspiring cause?
George Washington knew something needed to change, and fast. But what could he do? It was the dead of winter, the British were in high spirits, and his army appeared to be finished. It was reported by a friend that Washington wrote a note with three simple words – victory or death.
This was a man prepared to go all the way. There was no turning back. There would be no moderation. George Washington was going to fight to the last to keep the patriot cause afloat or sink beneath the waves with it. This had the benefit of casting off all doubt and potential acts of self-sabotage from his mind. Now he needed to inspire his troops.
What next occurred was an incredibly complex operation, and George Washington rose to the occasion there as well. He noticed that the British and their Hessian mercenaries were feeling superior enough in themselves and in the fact that the campaigning season was over to take it easy, to get complacent. He would use this as essentially a springboard to apply a variation of Robert Greene’s 21st law of power by seeming weaker than his mark. George Washington’s target was the Hessian-held stronghold of Trenton, New Jersey.
That he was able to organize this operation and motivate his soldiers to follow it through in such conditions is remarkable in itself, but that wasn’t the end of it. To get to Trenton, he would need to make a crossing of the freezing Delaware River, and would have to do it so as to achieve total surprise. To achieve that surprise, he would organize the crossing at night.
A nighttime crossing of a body of water is considered one of the most difficult maneuvers in military operations, and it must have been doubly so for Washington’s battered, demoralized remnant of an army. Fortunately for Washington, he had someone with experience in the area and allowed that man to shine. His name was John Glover, a general in the Continental Army who had expertly set in motion the evacuation of Long Island in August, which was also a nighttime crossing of a body of water. John Glover had been a fisherman before the war, and now he was one among many whose odd assortment of peacetime talents made a difference in a fight with the greatest power on Earth, the British Empire. With this trusted subordinate, George Washington had less to fear about the most daunting challenge of all, a very welcome circumstance.
A few of Washington’s troops froze to death, and he knew he had to keep everyone moving or more would follow. Some of them indeed left bloody footprints in the snow, because boots were often hard to come by in the Continental Army due to supply problems. These were hard and dogged men, and George Washington guided them in the right direction. The surprise gambit worked. The garrison at Trenton had no idea of Washington’s intentions and the battle quickly ended without a hitch. The entire Hessian garrison was captured while the Americans suffered only a few casualties.
A week later, George Washington won another victory, this time over the redcoats themselves, at Princeton, ambushing Lord Cornwallis’ rearguard. During that confrontation, George Washington rode between the lines while both sides were shooting at each other in order to rally his men.
This was an open display to all sides that George Washington was the man in charge, the man who would take command of the battle space and his army, which he would pledge his life to, and not simply expect his soldiers to pledge their lives to him. It was something that they wouldn’t forget.
These two victories – two of the three that he would actually wind up winning in the war, in fact, were decisive in that, militarily, they gave the Patriot cause some much-needed breathing room. They allowed Washington and the Continental Army to dominate the space of New Jersey and forced the redcoats back toward New York. Yet, their morale boost was immensely more important. No one wants to be part of a losing cause, and had Washington not taken these actions in that transition from 1776 to 1777, the Continental Army would have almost certainly dissolved and with it, the rebel dynamis, the will to fight. In The Virtues of War, Steven Pressfield, with the voice of Alexander the Great, describes dynamis:
This army has succeeded because of qualities of warriorship in its individual soldiers, specifically that property expressed by the Greek word dynamis, “the will to fight.” No general of this or any age has veeb so favored by fortune as I, to lead such men, possessed of such warlike spirit, imbued with such resources of self-enterprise, committed so to their commanders and to their call.
From the time I was a child, it was acknowledged that Philip’s Macedonians were the fiercest fighters on earth. Not only because they were individually tough, reared in this harsh and flinty land, or that my father and his great generals Parmenio and Antipater had drilled them to thoroughgoing professionalism, so that in discipline and cohesion, speed and mobility, tactics and weaponry, they surpassed all the militia armies of Greece and the royal and conscript levies of Asia, but also because they were possessed of such dynamis, such will to fight, born of their poverty and their hatred of the contempt with which their rivals had held them before Philip came, that it could be said truly of this force, as of none save the Spartans before them, that in action they never asked how many were the enemy but only where were they.
Under the patient, steady, and appropriately bold hand of George Washington, the the American dynamis was born, emerging from the womb in those cold December to January days. He had turned a losing cause into one that seemed to have the ability to win in the span of a few days. Most of his part-time soldiers reenlisted, and new recruits came in throughout 1777.
Now George Washington would be tasked with ensuring the survival of the infant American dynamis.
Washington faced problems of a different sort as 1777 drew to a close and 1778 dawned. While not as bleak as the situation a year prior (the Continental Army had won a great and decisive victory at Saratoga which would bring France into the war, and generally held its own throughout the year), the army, which George Washington knew by now was the foundation of the Revolution, its beating heart that must be preserved at all costs, again faced disintegration. This was due to a logistical nightmare.
The British had captured Philadelphia in the previous year’s campaigning. Being the seat of government and largest city in the country at the time, this threw the rebel cause into some organizational disarray. The supplies to the Continental Army simply slowed to a trickle, and in the cold, the suffering was made even worse.
Many officers simply went home, taking advantage of their status to leave for the winter. Not George Washington. Though he had far more comfortable lodging in a stone house, he worked tirelessly on behalf of his men. All of his efforts were devoted to keeping them alive, and he did whatever he could to requisition the necessities for their sustenance.
The men were starving. Smallpox had broken out. Discipline was breaking down. Something needed to be done fast.
First, to slow the smallpox, George Washington took advantage of the new technique of innoculation, whereby a small amount of puss from an infected man was put in the wound a a healthy man. This was undoubtedly very scary to all involved, and it’s a testament to Washington’s leadership that he managed to do this, when more than 99 people out of 100 had no idea about the concept of innoculation. Though some men died as this technique was obviously crude, it worked for the most part.
The food problem was far more tricky, and George Washington simply did what he could. The men took notice. They began to grow extremely devoted to him. They saw him fighting for them when most others weren’t.
Things began to get better when General Frederick Augustus Baron von Steuben showed up in camp. He was neither a general nor a baron. In fact, he never rose beyond the rank of captain prior to his participation in the Revolutionary War. Nevertheless, George Washington knew talent when he saw it, and von Steuben had talents that he desperately needed.
von Steuben got to work immediately, not only teaching the Continental Army the advanced European battle tactics he’d experienced in the Prussian army, but also significantly improving sanitation and hygiene at Valley Forge:
The dynamis of the American soldier was increasing. He was growing more skilled, and thus more confident. Yet, this wouldn’t have been possible if George Washington hadn’t busted his ass off, using something close to magic to keep his army together once again.
The winter of 1779-80 at Morristown, New Jersey, was far worse than the one at Valley Forge, but there was perhaps an important difference even so – Washington now had a proven track record as someone who could keep ailing men alive, and instill discipline within them. Though there were mutinies throughout the latter period of the war, and 1780 would be the darkest year, George Washington’s control over the army was at that point uncontested. No one even thought of trying to topple him, and he rode out all the other storms.
The Newburgh Conspiracy
1783 looked pretty good for the Americans. Fighting had stalled since the stunning victory at Yorktown, Virginia, where the southern British forces under Cornwallis were captured with the help of the French fleet and French soldiers. All that remained was a formal treaty of peace, which was slow in coming.
Nevertheless, the challenges for George Washington didn’t stop.
In early 1783, a group of officers in the Continental Army plotted. They were deeply unhappy over their pay that was long overdue. There was talk about taking military action against the Continental Congress. George Washington knew all about it, and knew that it would set a horrendous precedent that would seriously threaten everything he and his men – those very men – had fought for.
Washington addressed his men on the principles they had fought for, but then he cleverly abandoned argument and went straight for persuasion. Winning through his actions and not argument, George Washington produced a letter from his pocket, remarked that he couldn’t read it, and so produced something else – a pair of spectacles. The officers hadn’t ever seen him wear glasses before. Saying that he’d grown “blind as well as grey in service to my country,” he read the letter. This visual act moved the men in the room to tears, as they certainly knew everything he’d given to the cause. They wouldn’t be able to live with the shame of having betrayed him, and the conspiracy instantly dissolved on the spot.
This small bit of theatrics on the part of George Washington may very well have been the crucial precedent that helped to prevent the nascent United States from developing a political culture that would lead to an unstable banana republic with chaotic coups as a feature of its politics.
George Washington wasn’t a military genius. He wasn’t the smartest guy in the room or the most highly educated. But he was a genius where it mattered – the art of leadership. He knew how to pick the right people for the task that needed to be completed, and how to make use of theatrics and deception to get to the objective. Above all, he knew the intricacies of morale and how to keep men motivated to do what needed to be done. He knew that he himself must visibly sacrifice as much or more than the men, and that he needed to be seen as their leader through his deeds, not his titles.
It was his indomitable dynamis, his will to fight, upon which all those other things rested. Anyone else would have given up when faced with his challenges. He didn’t. And because of that, he not only won his undying glory, but forged the nation that we live in today.
Want to learn more about these traits of leadership and how to motivate men? Pick up a copy of Stumped.