Saturday, December 05, 2015

Stressful Christmas? At Least You’re Not George Washington-- A Guest Post By James Thompson

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Christmas is approaching and it’s time to get into the holiday spirit. For some, this is stressful. But cheer up! At least you’re not George Washington. That man had real problems.

I’m writing this in my cluttered but comfortable office, but 239 years ago, George Washington and 3000 of his battered Continentals were huddled in makeshift encampments on the west bank of the Delaware River. Washington had ordered them to cross the river the day before to escape an approaching British army commanded by King George’s most effective general, Lord Charles Cornwallis. The wrathful Britain and his 9,500 redcoats had chased Washington for 90 harrowing miles after forcing him to abandon Fort Lee on the Hudson River 18 days before.

A variety of demoralizing thoughts probably passed through Washington’s weary mind as he sat alone in his frigid tent. In the weeks before his retreat, he had led his army through a series of devastating defeats. In the process of losing New York, his forces had been decimated and his country’s struggle for political independence had been driven to the edge of collapse. The lives of his men and his own life were still in peril. The situation was dire to say the least.

A Most Hellish Scene

On 7 December 1776, Washington had ordered the remnant of his army to use all available means to get from the Jersey side of the Delaware to comparative safety on its Pennsylvania shore. Amazingly, artist Charles Willson Peale witnessed the spectacle. He had gone to Trenton with his Philadelphia militia to join Washington on the assumption that Washington still commanded a fighting force. Instead, he watched an exhausted, disorganized mob (which included his brother) spend its last ounces of energy to get out of harm’s way. Peale later described the event as “the most hellish scene I have ever beheld.”

Washington’s prospects were as bleak as Pennsylvania’s winter landscape. Only 15 percent of the men he commanded during the siege of Boston were still with him. Enlistments for many of these men would be up at the end of the year. Senior British commander William Howe supposed that if he left the Americans alone, they would all go home. As Washington’s army dissolved, the war would end. I suppose this idea put the King’s military commander in merry Christmas spirits.

What Howe did not factor into his calculation was the character of the American general, who I consider the greatest man in history-- a position I defend in my latest book George Washington’s Mulatto Man: Who Was Billy Lee? (Commonwealth Books of Virginia). Washington’s decisions in the last three weeks of December 1776 and the first week of 1777 illustrate the leadership qualities that earned him this exalted title. Instead of giving up in the face of overwhelming odds, said William Dwyer, Washington determined to make “a bold stroke that might save the collapsing revolution.”

Men like Peale answered Washington’s call and rallied to his side. By Christmas day, 6000 men were in his ranks. That night, on crammed barges, these intrepid men crossed back over the ice-choked Delaware. Many of us know Immanuel Leutz’s painting of Washington standing mid-ship on one of these laden vessels [above]. He is the embodiment of American spirit, defying the elements as his men force their way through the crushing ice. Pulling an oar at his knee is his faithful servant, Billy Lee. Holding the flag at his shoulder is his fellow Virginian and future President, Lieutenant James Monroe. What a scene!

The Fox Escapes

At daybreak, Washington’s patchwork army surprised and captured the Hessian garrison at Trenton. After this unlikely victory, Washington brought his men, his Hessian prisoners, and the supplies he captured back to Pennsylvania. On the 28th, he learned that Cornwallis and his army of veterans were racing to Trenton to redeem the situation. In a moment of seeming madness, Washington ordered his men back across the Delaware to meet the Englishman and his bloodthirsty legion. Dug in on the south side of Assunpink Creek, his citizen soldiers withstood three furious assaults. As darkness settled over the battlefield the afternoon of 2 January, the confident British commander suspended his attack. “We’ll bag the fox in the morning,” Cornwallis told his officers before retiring. “My lord,” his quartermaster protested, “if you trust these people tonight, you will see nothing of them in the morning.”

Visions of sugarplums-- being the honor of suppressing the American rebellion against his king-- may have danced through Cornwallis’s dreams.  But while he slept, the fox escaped. Just as William Erskine predicted, Washington stole away during the night. Marching on an unmarked “byroad,” he led his exhausted men to Princeton. There he defeated Cornwallis’s rearguard and completed his bold stroke. By doing what seemed impossible, Washington saved the imperiled American cause. He went on from there to win the American Revolution. When it was over, this unconquerable man led his countrymen in creating history’s first “government by the people.”

I find these Christmastime events a reassuring point of reference for today’s uncertain world. Perhaps you will too. Merry Christmas.

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James Thompson studied art at the Delaware Art Museum and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in philosophy from the University of Virginia. For several years, he lived across the Rivanna River from Monticello on the Shadwell farm of Jefferson's eldest daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph. Thompson cultivated his interest in the history of ideas teaching courses in philosophy, religion, and ethics and in western civilization at Strayer University in Alexandria, Va. He is the author of seven books, including The Birth of Virginia’s Aristocracy (2010), The Dubious Achievement of the First Continental Congress (2011), and Thomas Jefferson’s Enlightenment-- Paris 1785 (2014), all published by Commonwealth Books of Virginia.

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1 Comments:

At 2:39 AM, Blogger Mf Lehman said...

Washington was absolutely the indispensable man to the birth of the Republic; Vo Nguyen Giap and Ho Chi Minh rolled into one. But the Vietnamese had a militant, disciplined vanguard party of longstanding behind them. Washington built a successful revolutionary army out of chaos - no existing army, a confederal government of states each of which expected all the other states to pay for everything, really no central government to speak of - and beat the world's best soldiery with it. Throughout the war he dealt with treason, insubordination, desertion, and lack of supplies. When it was done and his officer corps considered overthrowing the turbulent Continental Congress and replacing it with a military dictatorship - to which many successful revolutions like the French have succumbed - he put in place and enforced the crucial principle of the primacy of civilian leadership, which has endured to this day. He was offered a kingship and refused it. He organized and showed all successors how to name and run a cabinet, invented the Executive Order while following the rule of law - and then retired to Mt. Vernon and freed his slaves upon his death. That is one hell of a career for a surveyor and militia colonel to achieve.

 

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