Was George Washington actually a pretty mediocre military leader?

I offer this in response to manhattan’s request for good questions in GQ to counter all the bong threads. I’m not claiming it’s a brilliant question, but I did a quick search and it doesn’t seem to have been discussed before. (By the way, manny, I hope you enjoy the break.)

I’ve been doing some reading on George Washington, and it seems to me that his military skills, specifically his battle strategies, weren’t all that hot. The few battles and skirmishes in which he prevailed seem to have been guided by luck, or sometimes by an idea proposed by somebody else. Example: The artillery that proved so useful at the siege of Boston was remembered and retrieved by Henry Knox. Up until then, Washington had apparently been content to sit for weeks and weeks.

There are many more examples of battles that were lost because of poor planning on Washington’s part. Boston itself was, according to what I’ve read, a victory snatched from the jaws of disaster; Washington had planned to sail troops into the port and catch the Brits in a pincer move, an absurdly complicated strategy that was luckily abandoned, apparently, due to poor weather. I also get the impression that Washington sidelined the long-distance sharpshooters, who had been picking off British officers at extreme ranges, because he didn’t find that style of fighting to be “proper.” At any rate, after Boston came a series of defeats: Long Island, Germantown, White Plains, and so on. The dumbest move, it seems to me, was his mid-retreat decision to beef up Fort Washington at the northern tip of Manhattan Island. The rest of the island and the surrounding waterways were British-controlled, its strategic value was questionable, and its full complement of more than two thousand men was quickly, easily, and predictably captured.

But by the same token, even with defeat after defeat (with the exceptions of Trenton and Princeton), he managed for the most part to hold the army together. And, of course, he won the battle that counted, at Yorktown, though it goes without saying that the arrival of the French was the decisive factor there. If he truly had been a bad general, he would have been removed, or his army would have deserted him in droves, or both.

But then I read about Fort Necessity. This was during the French and Indian war, well before the Revolution, when Washington was still a Colonel. He apparently decided to situate this fort at the bottom of a valley, with steep hills on both sides. The French/Indian forces could sit on these hills and look down into the fort. What’s more, when it started raining, the water ran down the hills to the bottom of the valley and flooded the fort. Result: Rapid surrender. Now, I’m no expert, but this just seems like a really basic error in strategy, a total lack of forethought – you don’t put a fort at low ground with higher elevations all around.

So what’s the scoop? Has Washington’s military acumen been exaggerated, or was he on the downside of a series of narrow bad-luck squeakers? Or maybe his strategy all along was simply to outlast the bastards by whatever means necessary, knowing that eventually they’d get sick and tired and go home? What’s the deal?

Not being a real historian I can only contribute my two cents here… I think it’s an interesting question since the myth is that he was a brilliant general… but I’ve not heard much to back that up.

Compared to say, Gen. Eisenhower or even Gen. Patton, I don’t think he would really stand up. Even compared to other 18th century generals. What he was, I think, was a ralleying point for all of the revolutionaries. The troops loved him and would do anything he asked them… whether it made sense or not. He had charisma and charm and everyone BELIEVED he would save the day. Why else would the army have put up with freezing their cans off in Valley Forge?

A related question is that if we agree that he was at best a mediocre but extremely popular general how did the British lose the war? Everyone talks about jungle warfare versus “archaic” British fighting tactics and the fact that the French jumped in at a critical time… but is it really that simple? Was he just lucky? Were the British just too far away from their supply lines and doomed to failure sooner or later?

It would be nice to go back in time and view the events as they happend so we didn’t have to wade through 200+ years of historical interpretations…

“Was George Washington a mediocre military leader?” As Barry Farber used to say, the most important words in the English language are “compared to what?”

Look, there MAY still be a handful of old-fashioned grade-school history books that made Washington out to be the greatest man and most brilliant military strategist of all time. If so, those books are not to be taken seriously. On the other hand, every wiseacre who learns a little history fancies himself smarter than the giants of the past, and feels qualified to denigrate them.

Washington’s record as a general is far from unblemished. His record as a commander was mixed, both in the Revolutionary War and in the French & Indian War. Even those who admired him greatly weren’t always in awe of him as a strategist (John Adams apparently called him “that great muttonhead,” on occasion).

On the other hand,one must ask: if George Washington was NOT a great general, who was? Napoleon (ha- that idiot invaded Russia, and left himself overextended!)? Robert E. Lee (moron- he took big gambles at places like Antietam and Gettysburg, wasting men he couldn’t afford to lose)? Douglas MacArthur (phooey- the jerk ignored warnings about Chinese intervention in Korea)? Eisenhower (yeah right- that moron was caught off-guard at the Battle of the Bulge, and was LUCKY that the Normandy invasion wasn’t a fiasco)? You get the idea. Folks, war is a messy, bloody, dangerous, unpredictable business, even under the best of circumstances. No matter how brilliant a commmander is, no matter how well he plans, no matter how well he prepares, things can and do go horribly wrong.

In almost every one of his novels, Tom Clancy reminds the reader, “All of history’s greatest blunders have been made by brilliant men. That’s because nobody trusts a fool with the kind of important decisions that could lead to disaster.” Nobody says you have to treat George Washington as perfect, or as sacrosanct. I merely suggest that he deserves a LOT more respect than the OP gives him.

After all, despite all his failings and mistakes, he WON! As Jim Rome would say… “SCOREBOARD!”