Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 4: Leadership in Victory: One Last Measure of the Man

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown.

Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown.

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

George Washington's early military career (1754-1758)—during the Seven Years' War—was not uniformly successful. In his first battle, he and his men were ambushed and forced to surrender Fort Necessity on the Pennsylvania frontier. Washington's reputation for leadership and courage was based on his actions in another defeat at the hands of the French. In that battle, at Fort Duquesne (1755, often called the "Battle of the Wilderness" or "Braddock's Defeat"), Washington had two horses shot from under him and eventually had to assume command from the mortally wounded General Edward Braddock. Washington led the surviving British and Colonial soldiers on a successful retreat.

Later (1775-1783), Washington would lead the Patriots to a surprising victory over Great Britain, "…the best-trained, best-equipped fighting force in the Western world. …Although he lost most of his battles with the British, year after year he held his ragtag, hungry army together"—from the EDSITEment resource The American President.

What combination of experience, strategy, and personal characteristics enabled Washington to succeed as a military leader?

Guiding Questions

  • What qualities made George Washington an effective military leader?
  • How were the responsibilities of the Commander-in-Chief affected by conditions during the Revolutionary War?
  • How did Washington's responses to these challenges demonstrate his ability to handle a wide range of problems?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to

  • List qualities they believe made George Washington an effective military leader.
  • Discuss some difficulties Washington faced as Commander-in-Chief.
  • Summarize briefly the Newburgh Conspiracy.
  • Describe Washington's response to the Newburgh Conspiracy.

It was almost expected in the world of the late 18th century that the leader of a great military victory would be amply rewarded. But Washington refused any such reward. According to America's First Hero on the EDSITEment resource The American President:

The very fact that he [Washington] refused to hold on to his military authority or to seek political or financial reward for his years of service astonished the country. And when word of it reached King George III of England he exclaimed, "If true, then he is the greatest man in the world."

Two incidents after the Battle of Yorktown—but before a peace treaty was signed officially declaring an end to hostilities—tested Washington's resolve to refuse power in exchange for his military leadership. Keep in mind that, at this point, the army had not disbanded and had not been paid as promised. This combination of inactivity and injustice can easily breed dissatisfaction.

Background

It was almost expected in the world of the late 18th century that the leader of a great military victory would be amply rewarded. But Washington refused any such reward. According to America's First Hero on the EDSITEment resource The American President:

The very fact that he [Washington] refused to hold on to his military authority or to seek political or financial reward for his years of service astonished the country. And when word of it reached King George III of England he exclaimed, "If true, then he is the greatest man in the world."

Two incidents after the Battle of Yorktown—but before a peace treaty was signed officially declaring an end to hostilities—tested Washington's resolve to refuse power in exchange for his military leadership. Keep in mind that, at this point, the army had not disbanded and had not been paid as promised. This combination of inactivity and injustice can easily breed dissatisfaction.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Download the Master PDF. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of any handouts you plan to use in class.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. The Nicola Letter and Washington's Response

The first test of Washington's resolve came in a letter (and a series of observations appended to the letter) from one of his officers, Lewis Nicola, dated May 22, 1782. (NOTE: The letter is available in the George Washington Papers collection on the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory, but unfortunately has not been transcribed. Interested students might want to try to do some transcribing, but this would be an extension, not part of this lesson. Click here for the Beginning of Nicola's Letter.)

Nicola began his observations by briefly noting "the injuries the troops have received" in financial matters—that is, the soldiers had not been paid what they were owed. (If desired, see the Beginning of Nicola's Observations.) He concluded by saying "this war must have shown to all, but especially to military men in particular, the weakness of republicks." In other words—in the most extreme interpretation of Nicola's remarks, and apparently the meaning Washington derived—the country would be better off with Washington as king. (If desired, see the End of Nicola's Observations.)

Share with the class the audio background information on Lewis Nicola's letter, Larry Arn on Lewis Nicola's Letter to Washington and Washington's Response, on the PBS website Liberty! The American Revolution, a link from American Memory.

Read with students Washington's Letter to Lewis Nicola, also available on Liberty! The American Revolution. What was Washington's response to Nicola's suggestion? Did he leave any room for a reconsideration of Nicola's suggestion? Did he show sympathy for the plight of the soldiers? Where in the letter, if at all, did Washington speak with respect? Disrespect? How would the students describe the overall tone of Washington's response? If the students were assigned to plan a dramatic reading of the speech by the best actor in the class, what recommendations would they make for the reading of any particular portion of the text?

If desired, listen to the reading of the speech by Charlton Heston. How does Heston's reading compare to the plan the students made?

Activity 2. The Newburgh Conspiracy

In March of 1783, an anonymous petition—sometimes attributed to Major John Armstrong—appeared as part of what has become known as the Newburgh Conspiracy (also called the Newburgh Mutiny). The author referred to the valid complaints of the soldiers, who had not been paid even after they had written to Congress about their grievances.

Washington had recognized the problem long before, and had, in fact, written to Armstrong in January of 1783:

The Army, as usual, are without Pay; and a great part of the Soldiery without Shirts; and tho' the patience of them is equally thread bear [sic], the States seem perfectly indifferent to their cries.
—From George Washington to John Armstrong, January 10, 1783 on the EDSITEment resource American Memory

The anonymous petition's most crucial passage contained a not-so-veiled threat that the army could bypass the normal civil authority and request that Washington lead what would be tantamount to a military dictatorship. The author told the soldiers they did not need to feel powerless despite the failure of Congress to act on their grievances:

…in any political event, the army has its alternative. If peace, that nothing shall separate you from your arms but death; if war, that courting the auspices [help], and inviting the directions of your illustrious leader, you will retire to some unsettled country, smile in your turn, and "mock when their fear cometh on."
—From The Newburgh Address on Archiving Early America, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library

In other words, if peace came, soldiers could keep their weapons ("nothing shall separate you from your arms but death") and use force to defy civil authority to get what they wanted. (Remember that Washington himself had expended a great deal of energy during the war trying to get the civil authorities to keep their commitments to the military, such as fulfilling quotas for men. As Commander-in-Chief, he had been a victim of the conflict between these two powers, yet came down squarely for civilian control.) If war were to continue, the army could leave the country undefended ("retire to some unsettled country"). In that case, the army would invite its "illustrious leader" to command it. When Congress—inevitably, the conspirators assumed—eventually begged the army to return, the army would have great power and, should he choose to participate when invited, Washington would have absolute command of that power.

If desired, share additional information about the Newburgh Conspiracy from the class text or from a source such as the essay about Washington's Life Before the Presidency on the EDSITEment resource The American President.

The Gilder Lehman Document Collection: George Washington, Revolutionary War Years, part of the PBS website Liberty! The American Revolution, a link from the EDSITEment resource American Memory, offers a brief audio explanation of the Newburgh Conspiracy. If desired, listen to the audio explanation with the class. Read the text of Washington's Speech to Officers at Newburgh with the class, or if you want your students to interact with the text, place students in small groups and assign specific paragraphs to each from the nine in the speech. Each group should prepare an oral interpretive reading of its paragraph(s) by one or more members of the group. In preparing the reading, students should consider:

  • How was Washington's criticism of the petition reflected in the tone and content of the speech?
  • How was Washington's relationship to the officers reflected in his content and tone? Can you tell how the officers felt about Washington?
  • In what ways did Washington show respect to the service of the officers and validate their concerns?
  • In what ways did Washington shrewdly manipulate the situation?
  • Do you think Washington planned ahead the dramatic gesture with his glasses?
  • What leadership qualities did Washington display in his handling of the Newburgh Conspiracy?

Assessment

Discuss how his handling of the Nicola letter and the Newburgh Conspiracy reflected the character and leadership qualities of George Washington.

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

1 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Colonization and Settlement (1585-1763)
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
Skills
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Map Skills
  • Using primary sources
Authors
  • MMS (AL)