Channelling George Washington: Illusions of Victory

Historians/History




Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the seventh in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington."

"To see this country happy is so much the wish of my soul, nothing on this side of Elysium can be placed in competition with it."

"What's on your mind tonight, Mr. President?"

"The Iraqi elections.  What a triumph for democracy!  For America's perseverance! Why aren't more people applauding this news?"

"I don't know.  What's your opinion?"

"The media mavens still don't get it.  They totally lack a sense of history.  Why can't they see that every war America has ever fought began with an illusion of easy victory?  Iraq is – was – no different."

"Even the American Revolution began that way?"

"In spades."

"How did that happen?"

"We started out by believing our own propaganda.  Sam Adams and his pals wrote a totally fictional account of what happened on April 19 at Lexington and Concord and on the British retreat back to Boston.  They sold everyone the idea that the Americans were just simple farmers, minding their own business, when those awful redcoats started shooting at them.  In fact, the Americans were an embryo army that had been drilling and training for almost a year—and they outnumbered the British seven-to-one."

"That's why the Continental Congress said you didn't need a big army, and limited you to twenty thousand men?"

"Exactly. Then came that brandy-guzzling occasional genius in the word-smithing game, Tom Paine.  He wrote that very good two thirds of a book, Common Sense.  The last third should have been titled Common Nonsense."

"You liked the first two thirds, even in 1776?"

"Everyone did.  It convinced us that the British Empire was in the hands of greedy arrogant aristocrats who were out to tax us until Americans turned into dead-broke Irishmen, living in mud huts."

"That's why no one noticed Tom went off the rails in the last third of the book?"

"Everyone read that last third as if it too were gospel truth.  Tom told us the British were too broke to send a decent-sized army to America.  Their fleet was rotting away from neglect.  So Johnny Adams and his cousin Sam and their fellow Harvard know-it-alls cooked up the idea of winning the war by throwing fifty thousand men at the seven or eight thousand regulars the bankrupt Brits shipped to America.  It didn't matter whether the Americans were trained or untrained."

"Why didn't anyone question this notion?"

"That's the way it is with political illusions, especially when they're cooked up in a congress.  They're a sort of mental disease that everyone catches.  It never occurred to us that Tom Paine didn't qualify as an expert on ANYTHING, above all the finances of the British Empire."

"As you found out when you watched a very large British army disembark on Staten Island in the summer of 1776?"

"George III shipped thirty thousand men to America—the biggest army they'd ever sent overseas—with a fleet of 400 ships, including 150 men of war."

"How many men did you have?"

"I had ten thousand regulars.  And another nine thousand militia."

"What happened to your army of twenty thousand men?"

"Congress ordered me to detach ten thousand to help conquer Canada. Most of them got killed or died of disease or starvation—or both—pursuing that congressional illusion.  The Harvard know-it-alls thought if they could push the British off the continent, we'd have the war as good as won.  It made no sense in a contest with the world's biggest and best fleet, commanded by men who had perfected amphibious operations in the previous war with France and Spain—the one we call the French and Indian War."

"I can see where you've gotten your negative attitude toward Congress, Mr. President."

"I will be candid enough to admit I made some mistakes in those early battles that didn't help matters.  I was a brand new general.  After shattering defeats in the battles of Brooklyn and Kips Bay, where the militia ran away by the thousands, a lot of people were ready to capitulate.  They thought the war was lost because we were obviously never going to win a general action against an immense host that outnumbered our trained soldiers three-to-one."

"What did you do about that dismaying probability?"

"There was only one thing to do—discard that ruinous illusion.  I wrote a letter to Congress, informing them that henceforth we would NEVER seek a general action. We would NEVER put everything to the risk.  Instead we would protract the war."

"When I wrote my history of West Point, at least ten generals told me that this reversal was your claim to being a great commander."

"That's nice to hear.  I soon discovered I had to add to it a denunciation of the idea of expecting untrained militia to fight trained regulars.  As we retreated across New Jersey, I called out the state's seventeen thousand militiamen.  Only one thousand responded.  A New England general wrote me a letter, condemning the Jerseyans as cowards.  I told him he was wrong.  Their militia had not turned out because we no longer had a decent-sized regular army to look the enemy in the face.  That idea became the other linchpin of our strategy for the rest of the war."

"The war lasted eight years!"

"Most Americans have totally forgotten that awful fact."

"Were there people who disagreed with your strategy, General?"

"Oh yes.  My quartermaster general, a gifted young politician who owned a lot of property in Philadelphia, could not forgive me for not fighting to the bitter end to defend the American capital in 1777.  He found eager listeners in Congress, who had been forced to flee to York, Pennsylvania, where almost everyone spoke German and the fine dining of the Philadelphia was replaced by an endless diet featuring sauerkraut on every dish.  Mifflin and his congressional friends cooked up a nasty conspiracy to embarrass me into resigning, while our army starved at Valley Forge."

"How did you resolve that contretemps?"

"With what you and your contemporaries call political hardball.  Before it was over, General Mifflin was indicted for stealing millions of dollars from the army while he was quartermaster general.  He spent the next two or three years trying to retrieve his reputation."

"Didn't General Lee, your second command, also have some differences with you?"

"He returned from a year in captivity to announce to Congress, and anyone else that would listen, that we should retreat to Pittsburgh, disband the regular army and launch what we called a "partisan" war.  He didn't tell us that he had been secretly advising the British on what moves to make to end the war in their favor.  At the Battle of Monmouth he retreated, when he had orders to stand and fight.  A court martial board found him guilty of insubordination, among other things."

"How did it end in victory for us?"

"We stayed in the game.  I must have said or written those words a hundred times as the war dragged on.  We cannot lose if we stay in the game."

 "And the French.  They made a difference, didn't they?"

"That was Ben Franklin's great contribution—persuading them to become our allies, against their better judgment.  But we had to wait three years, while they tried to invade England, re-conquer India and recapture West Indies islands they had lost in the previous war.  Only when it became apparent that winning in America might be their only accomplishment in their long range goal of crippling the British Empire did they send the army and fleet that joined us at Yorktown for the crucial victory."

"Whew!  I'm worn out.  Can we leave America's illusions in other wars for another night?"

"I don't know what's wrong with you young fellows.  I was just warming up!"

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Jonathan Dresner - 3/21/2010

Every war? Neither the Civil War nor WWII were expected to be over soon, or easily. WWI was over quite quickly after US involvement, and there are probably a couple of dozen minor "interventions" (e.g. Panama, Grenada, Haiti, etc.) which were, in fact, short actions.

The problem with the Founders -- with originalism and hero-worship generally -- is that they were men of their time. Wonderful men of their time, in some ways, but like all cranky old men, unable to see beyond their experience as the proper lens for understanding the world. The idea that Washington's relationship with Congress should necessarily guide our entire future -- which has had few leaders of Washington's stature (or what I thought was Washington's stature before this series started) worthy of the kind of deference he would expect (and yet, survived without).