The 250th anniversary of America’s War of Independence is fast approaching. So, it seems appropriate to take yet another look at George Washington’s wartime leadership. Doing so will highlight three lessons contemporary military professionals need to understand: war as a unitary phenomenon; the two forms of wartime leadership—warfighting and war-waging; and the proper civil-military relationship.
Let’s start with what seems like a simple, straightforward question: When did the Revolutionary War begin and end? The answer that it started in 1775 in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, and ended in 1781 in Yorktown, Virginia, might be satisfactory in a high school history class, but it’s not for a military professional. For this answer applies only to the major combat operations, the fighting phase of the war.
Merrill Jensen, author of The Founding of a Nation: A History of the American Revolution, 1763–1776, puts the beginning of the Revolution at 1763, for example. So does Don Higginbotham in his classic work, The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policies and Practice, 1763–1789. In other words, the war began before the fighting started. In fact, the Revolution was almost over when Washington left the Second Continental Congress in June 1775 to assume command of the Continental Army in Boston. Adopting the Declaration of Independence in July 1776 ended the political revolution, but the major fighting that took place from 1775 through 1781 was necessary to secure independence from a British monarchy that did not just give it to us.
Washington’s leadership in that prefighting phase of the war was crucial. David Stewart in George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father and Robert O’Connell’s Revolutionary: George Washington at War both demonstrate Washington’s role first in Virginia’s House of Burgesses, then as a leader in helping create and enforce the extralegal movement—initially in Virginia, then in coordination with other Colonies—to place economic and political pressure on Britain in opposition to the series of taxes, economic restrictions and political injustices that Parliament imposed on the Colonies in a series of acts, from the Stamp Act of 1765 through the Intolerable Acts of 1774.
In this period, Washington was the leader of the Fairfax County Nonimportation Association, a leader of the Virginia Nonimportation Association, a member of several Virginia congresses and conventions called once the House of Burgesses was dismissed by the royal governor, and a delegate to both Continental Congresses—all extralegal bodies. Washington’s leadership at this time played an important role not only in his selection as commander in chief by the Second Continental Congress, but also in his relationship with the Continental and Provincial Congresses, and in his decision-making as he conducted the war.
Further, the Battle of Yorktown did not end the war. It ended major fighting, but major obstacles had to be removed before the war was over—that is, before America’s strategic aim of independence could be achieved.
First, the British army in America had to be contained in cantonment areas and prevented from interrupting America’s turn at its new normal. Provincial militias and the Continental regulars—both under Washington’s command per Congress’ June 19, 1775, commission to him—played important roles in addressing this obstacle.
Second, peace negotiations in Paris had to be completed. While this was primarily a diplomatic effort, the state of the Continental Army and Washington’s leadership played important roles in reaching the final agreement.
Third, the Continental Army had to be paid and disbanded. This was no easy task as Army officers contemplated mutiny in Newburgh, New York, and threatened to force Congress to resolve the Army’s grievances. Had the mutineers executed their plan, a military dictatorship, even if temporary, could have resulted. Washington’s leadership played a crucial role both in preventing such a travesty and in getting justice from Congress.
Source of Legitimacy
The now independent nation also needed a legally legitimate government. During the war, Congress derived its legitimacy from three primary sources: its persuasive powers relative to each colony’s legislature; its success in navigating the fighting—to include raising and sustaining the Continental Army; and its bringing the war to a close. As a new nation, it needed a solid legal foundation. That foundation first came from the Articles of Confederation, ratified on March 1, 1781, then from the U.S. Constitution, ratified when New Hampshire became the ninth state to accept it on June 21, 1788. Washington had resigned his military commission on Dec. 23, 1783, but his final wartime service was presiding over the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in 1787.
All this argues for understanding war as a unitary phenomenon as the first important lesson for today’s military professional. Fighting may have a discrete beginning and end, but wars do not. Even though military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote after Washington’s death, this short description of America’s War of Independence corroborates Clausewitz’s claims in On War that: “War Is Never an Isolated Act,” “War Does Not Consist of a Single Short Blow” and “war is … a true political instrument.” A contemporary military professional must understand war as a unitary phenomenon, not in a narrow, binary sense as just the fighting phase.
Developing both warfighting and war-waging skills is the second important lesson for a contemporary military professional. As a junior leader, developing one’s warfighting capacity naturally takes precedence. Washington, for example, had extensive experience in close combat. He led Americans during the French and Indian War. He saw battle close-up in the wilderness of Virginia, Pennsylvania and the Ohio Country—ambushes and hand-to-hand combat with club and tomahawk. He saw success and failure. He had to surrender his force at Fort Necessity. He came home after the failed Fort Duquesne campaign of Maj. Gen. Edward Braddock, but then returned to serve Gen. John Forbes in his successful campaign to take that fort from the French. And he led the Virginia Regiment spread across several outposts on the frontier. He knew what it took to lead under adverse conditions—bad weather, at the end of poor supply lines and in the face of death at the hand of a determined enemy.
Among other books, Washington’s fighting experiences are well-documented in Peter Stark’s Young Washington: How Wilderness and War Forged America’s Founding Father. They are also detailed in several books describing specific battles of the Revolutionary War, such as Victor Brooks’ The Boston Campaign, April 1775–March 1776; David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing; and Volume 4 of Douglas Southall Freeman’s George Washington: A Biography: Leader of the Revolution.
Washington also had a good sense of warfighting at the operational level of war, of campaigning and developing theater strategy, moving and supplying a force in the field and constant focus on political aims. Of course, the operational level of war was not formally recognized in the 18th century, but that does not mean it didn’t exist. Washington had to connect individual battles into campaigns that contributed to the overall political purpose of the war. He had to adapt as the war unfolded, as initiative shifted back and forth between the British to the colonists, as unpredicted opportunities presented themselves and as circumstances required changes in overall strategy.
An excellent book describing this aspect of Washington’s wartime leadership is George Washington’s Military Genius by Dave Palmer. In his book, Palmer outlines how Washington adapted his tactics and strategy four times during the Revolutionary War, each time in response to changes in military and political realities.
Washington started with an offensive approach in Boston. Then, he shifted to a defensive strategy, a “war of posts” and a protracted approach.
When the French joined the war with both substantial land and naval forces, Washington shifted again: to an approach that sought a decisive campaign. Finally, after Yorktown during the post-fighting crises, he had to husband the Army but use it to contain the residual British forces.
“Through all four phases,” Palmer writes, “Washington recognized what had to be done, and he did it. … 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. … [I]n all the years of the war … Washington [n]ever lost sight of the objectives for which he was fighting.”
Fighting in Context
While warfighting leadership is necessary, it is not sufficient. As a leader advances in rank and responsibility—starting at the colonel level and especially among the general officer corps—war-waging skills come to the fore, not to replace warfighting capacity, but to place fighting in its proper context.
Washington exhibited all three core war-waging skills:
- Identify the war’s aims and align campaigns with those aims to increase the probability of successfully achieving them.
- Make initial decisions, then adapt those decisions as the war unfolds and bring the war to a successful end.
- Maintain the legitimacy of the war in the eyes of one’s citizenry.
Waging a war, however, is a shared responsibility between senior political and military leaders, where military leaders are subordinate to political. This is the third lesson for contemporary military professionals.
Washington was a master leader at this level. From start to finish, he knew he was subordinate to Congress. Congress was explicit about subordination in both Washington’s commission of June 19, 1775, and in its written instructions to him. Washington’s actions during the war were a testament to his fidelity to civil control. But subordination had an element of mutuality, for in its appointment of Washington as commander in chief, as recorded in Volume II of the Journal of the Continental Congress, Congress itself pledged that “they will maintain and assist him, and adhere to him, the said George Washington, Esq., with their lives and fortunes in the same cause.”
Washington corresponded frequently and sometimes left the field to consult face to face with Congress. This is how he participated in the civil-military decision-making process; he reported on the enemy situation as well as the status of the Continental Army, he advised, he presented options and his analysis of those options; he presented his case and argued—sometimes forcefully; but he was not petulant and did not threaten.
The Congress-Washington relationship was not based upon some arbitrary line between “political functions” and “military functions.” Nor was it congressional “principals” ordering military “agents,” then monitoring their agents to make sure they did what Congress wanted the way Congress wanted it done. Congress was clear in its commission that it held the final decision authority; in this, their relationship was unequal.
But Congress also was clear that Washington was an important part of helping make and execute whatever decision it took, and in this aspect, the relationship often appeared more as one among equals. There was an evident mutuality in the senior-subordinate relationship during the Revolutionary War, one that recognized that both political and military leaders needed each other in prosecuting something as serious as using citizens’ lives in war.
As Congress grew to trust in Washington’s judgment, the scope of his decision authority expanded, but he never lost sight of Congress’ role as governing him and the Army. A nation governed as envisioned in the Declaration of Independence required such a subordinate but mutually respectful relationship. Washington’s leadership in this regard contributed as much to attaining the war’s political aims as did his leadership in each phase of the war.
Certainly, there are many dissimilar elements in Washington’s case and that of today’s military professionals. There was no executive branch, for example. So Congress and Washington each sometimes fulfilled those duties.
Also, Washington did not benefit from a professional military education, but he was a voracious practical reader. As Ellen McCallister Clark explained in her 1995 monograph, General Washington’s reading list: Ten books that shaped the Continental Army, Washington augmented his experiences with a thorough self-education and reading program. Furthermore, Washington embedded the habit of reading into the Continental Army’s officer corps.
There’s a lot to learn from Washington’s example—lessons that are evident in today’s doctrinal discussions of war, in the analysis of the past 20 years of wartime leadership and in current civil-military relationship discussions. America’s War of Independence may be in the nation’s past, but Washington’s wartime leadership remains a relevant case study.
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Lt. Gen. James Dubik, U.S. Army retired, a former commander of Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, is a senior fellow of the Association of the U.S. Army. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and is the author of Just War Reconsidered: Strategy, Ethics, and Theory.