Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze (battle of Trenton).
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?
Share with the class a brief summary of Washington's early military career with the Virginia Regiment, starting in 1753, such as the account in Life Before the Presidency on the EDSITEment-reviewed website The American President. Begin reading at the words "Lawrence had commanded a local militia" and end with the words "the farm he had inherited from his half-brother Lawrence." (For a more detailed account of Washington's early military career read George Washington: Making of a Military Leader.) After students have read these documents, use the following discussion questions to guide their review of the material:
Now read with the class the letter from the 1st Virginia Regiment to George Washington, December 31, 1758, given to Washington upon his retirement from military service. If desired, read instead the Address of the Officers of the Virginia Regiment Excerpt.
… tactics … is only a small part of generalship. For a general must also be capable of furnishing military equipment and providing supplies for the men; he must be resourceful, active, careful, hardy and quick-witted; he must be both gentle and brutal, at once straightforward and designing, capable of both caution and surprise, lavish and rapacious, generous and mean, skilful in defense and attack; and there are many other qualifications, some natural, some acquired, that are necessary to one who would succeed as a general.
—Attributed to Socrates in The Memorabilia (3.1.5–3.1.6) by Xenophon on the EDSITEment resource The Perseus Digital Library
The essay Life Before the Presidency on the EDSITEment-reviewed website The American President describes Washington's earliest military experiences as "disastrous." He went on to modest success—at best—before he retired in 1758. Yet, the same article states that though Washington hesitated to accept the commission as Commander-in-Chief because of "the misadventures against the French and Native Americans," he was chosen by the Continental Congress to be Commander-in-Chief because the "leadership and charisma of the tall, quiet, stately Virginian was unsurpassed." Attempting to resolve this apparent disconnect is the impetus behind this lesson. Defining or proving "leadership and charisma" is difficult. But like so many other things, when you see it, you know it. This lesson asks, "Did Washington's early military career prepare him for the role of Commander-in-Chief?" (NOTE: Unless otherwise stated, all resources used in this lesson are from the EDSITEment resource American Memory.) Review with students the qualities listed on the charts in the handout "The Qualities of a Good Military Leader According to Socrates" on pages 1–4 of the Master PDF. They can alternately use the Interactive Version. Which qualities are likely to be learned through military training or experience? Which are purely personal qualities a person either has or does not have? Do the students agree with the list? Allow them to add to or subtract from the chart now and as you proceed through the unit.
If the students require background on the events leading to the American Revolution and Washington's commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, share with the class relevant information from the class text or another source, such as "The Seeds of Revolution" section of Life Before the Presidency on the EDSITEment resource The American President.
Read with the class Washington's Commission.
Read together Washington Accepting His Commission. What personal qualities do Washington's words demonstrate? In what way? (NOTE: Congress made sure of Washington Accepting His Commission [June 1775] before officially issuing Washington's Commission and Washington's Instructions. This explains how he could have accepted the commission before it was issued officially on June 17, 1775. However, here students will read the documents in the more logical order.)
Finally, read together Washington's Instructions.
Have students complete the first chart—"George Washington's Early Military Experience"— in the handout "The Qualities of a Good Military Leader According to Socrates" on page 1 of the Master PDF. Discuss the results. What signs were there in his early career that Washington would become an effective military leader? In what ways did he show in his military career up to 1758 that he was learning from experience?
2 class periods