Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12


The Lesson


Battle of Brandywine.

Battle of Brandywine.

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 general?
  • 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

  • List qualities they believe made George Washington an effective military leader.
  • Discuss some difficulties Washington faced as Commander-in-Chief.
  • Discuss how Washington responded to the difficulties he faced as the leader of the Continental Army

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. Powers

Before students research the battles included in this lesson, take time to review, if necessary, the basic strategic advantages and disadvantages held by both sides in the conflict. Remind the class that England in 1776 was the world's greatest naval power. Show the class a map of the eastern United States, Atlantic Ocean, and England. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each side, such as those listed below, as well as any others.

  • English advantages
    • Superior naval power
    • Large, professional fighting force
    • Greater manufacturing capabilities
    • Wealth of the country
    • Support from loyalists within the colonies
  • English disadvantages
    • Distance from England to the colonies for re-supply, transporting troops, and communication
    • Lack of motivation of professional soldiers compared to the Patriots
    • Lack of motivation among the citizens of England to finance a long, costly war
    • Hesitancy to abandon traditional tactics not well suited for the conditions in America
    • Overconfidence
  • Patriot advantages
    • Fighting on familiar ground
    • Motivation of soldiers defending the homeland
    • Flexibility of tactics
    • Many colonists skilled with rifles, despite lack of military training
    • Leadership of George Washington
  • Patriot disadvantages
    • Lack of a trained fighting force
    • Difficulties in recruiting and, especially, keeping soldiers beyond short enlistment periods
    • Presence of loyalists to the British crown
    • Lack of supplies
    • A long coastline with major cities vulnerable to attack from the sea
    • Lack of naval power

Remind students to keep these advantages and disadvantages in mind as they read about how Washington dealt with the problems he encountered.

Divide the class into small groups. Ask students to compare the first set of Washington's Instructions (June 20, 1775), on the EDSITEment resource American Memory, to the section of the Journals of the Continental Congress for Friday, December 27, 1776, also on American Memory, in which Congress expanded Washington's powers. If desired, use the handout "Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789," on pages 3-6 of the Master PDF, to assign parts of the latter document to each of four groups.

Each group should make a list of the differences between the first set of Washington's Instructions (June 20, 1775) and the instructions and powers granted on Friday, December 27, 1776. If desired, students can use the chart "Congress Expands Washington's Powers," on page 7 of the Master PDF, in making the comparison. What problems with the army in its first year and a half of operation were indicated by the instructions? Underlying the trust indicated by Congress in giving Washington enhanced powers was a belief that he had the leadership qualities to follow through. What qualities of leadership were required? Remind students that they are only speculating at this point as to the qualities of leadership to be required of Washington.

In the next activity, students will see the practical things Washington had to do day after day to keep the Continental Army going. It must be noted, however, that the respect the men had for Washington, based on his personal charisma, was also a very important factor.

Activity 2. Problems

Share this quote from the Diary of Albigence Waldo, Surgeon at Valley Forge, 1777 on From Revolution to Reconstruction, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library:

See the poor Soldier, when in health—with what cheerfulness he meets his foes and encounters every hardship—if barefoot, he labours thro' the Mud and Cold with a Song in his mouth extolling War and Washington—if his food be bad, he eats it notwithstanding with seeming content—blesses God for a good Stomach and Whistles it into digestion.

Now assign small student groups one or two of the selections below from Washington's wartime correspondence, looking for indications of the problems he faced and the qualities and actions he relied on to overcome them. Documents may suggest answers to any or all of the following:

  • What kinds of problems was the Continental Army facing?
  • How did supply problems affect the running of the Continental Army?
  • How did Washington attempt to solve the supply problems?
  • What indications of long-range planning or lack thereof do you find? Indications of military strategy?
  • What issues arose regarding the relationship between military and civil authority?
  • What is the tone of Washington's letters to Congress? To civil authorities? To correspondents in the military?
  • What can you determine or hypothesize about the recipient of each letter? What was the purpose of the letter? What circumstances led Washington to write at this time? What results did Washington hope for?

Each group is to select one or more quotes from its assigned letters indicating difficulties with which Washington had to deal and leadership qualities he demonstrated. Make note of the date and location. Assign group members to summarize their document(s), read the quote(s) the group chose, and briefly explain to the class what the document(s) indicates about problems Washington faced or the leadership he demonstrated.

A complete list of the following documents, suitable for distribution to students, is available in the handout "Annotated Excerpts from Lesson Two Documents" on pages 8-17 of the Master PDF. Full-text versions are available by clicking on the links below. Unless otherwise noted, all documents are from the PBS website Liberty! The American Revolution, a link from the EDSITEment resource American Memory.

NOTE: In lieu of using the documents listed above, if desired, student groups can browse through letters and select documents on their own from these EDSITEment resources:

When all the groups have prepared summaries, selected quotes, had a group member (or members) practice reading them, and prepared their conclusions about the leadership qualities demonstrated, have students share their information in chronological order. When all documents have been shared, discuss conclusions students can derive from the accumulated information. What problems Washington faced were particularly persistent? How well was Washington able to deal with the variety and quantity of problems he faced? What can you learn from the various locations from which Washington wrote?


Have students complete the second chart—"George Washington: Commander-in-Chief"—in the handout "The Qualities of a Good Military Leader According to Socrates" on page 2 of the Master PDF, or have them use the Interactive Version. Discuss the results. In what ways had Washington become a better leader since his first military command?

Extending The Lesson

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2 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)
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Using primary sources
  • MMS (AL)