Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Meeting Notes: May 20, 2009

"The Military Leadership of George Washington," Dr. Edward Lengel

Dr. Lengel is currently at UVA where he is Associate Professor of History. He received his BA from George Mason and his MA and PHD from UVA.

He has been very much involved in the “Washington Papers Project” which has been in existence for the last forty years. The goal of this project is to gather together copies of every known Washington document in the entire world, transcribe it and publish it both in print and digital format.

So far the project has uncovered 135,000 documents, but there are huge gaps. Since 1969 sixty volumes have been published with about 500 to 700 pages each, but there are still about thirty volumes to go with about fifteen years left!

The one advantage of the digital versions is that they are fully searchable with one version being accessed by subscription and the other being accessed (if you can find it) at the Mount Vernon website.

As Dr. Lengel pointed out, this has been a tremendous challenge because George Washington left behind so many documents. He was very concerned about his place not only in history, but the importance of his place in history for the United States. He referred to his documents and so forth as a species of sacred property. It is interesting to note that on his deathbed one of his main concerns was that someone take care of preserving his papers. The trouble is that when he died, his legacy was ripped to pieces. For example, one of his descendants, Bushrod Washington, allowed a Harvard professor to take away for his use a lot of the documents. He sent back some of the documents, but many more he kept back and so when George Corbin Washington sold what was left to the Library of Congress, a whole box of documents just flatly disappeared.

When Flexner wrote his biography of Washington in the 1960’s, he didn’t think much of the Washington papers project, because he didn’t think there was much left to discover. However, much has since been accomplished.

For instance, they’re now up to approximately 1778 when Washington was encouraging the espionage network. Despite Washington’s reputation in some quarters, he loved to fight, but he also was quite a “micro-manager”, especially in terms of what he did for the espionage network. Up to that time the espionage activities were not really centralized. Just about every general had their own spies and so forth, including a “bizarre” collection of people. Washington tried to put all of this together what with his interest in invisible ink, double agents and the like.

We now get into Dr. Lengel’s main topic, having to do with Washington’s character as a leader and a manager. We generally look at the big battles as critical turning points. For example, Trenton, Princeton or perhaps Monnmouth or Yorktown or Greene’s Campaign in the South.

Dr. Lengel maintained that although these were important battles of course, they didn’t really represent the what, how and why they and George won the war and what Washington’s qualities were.

Who was Washington? People have said for many years that we need to humanize him. Since people want to humanize him, and since George was in some ways “dull and boring”, the temptation was to make things up, and to create stories out of “whole cloth”.

Dr. Lengel thinks that one of the ways to realize exactly who George Washington was, was to research George Washington’s involvement at Valley Forge. In the Fall of 1777, the US had gone through some disastrous and bleak periods. The British under Howell had sailed into the northern tip of the bay and landed at the head of Elkton Maryland. General Howell believed there were a great many loyalists in that area and that if he took Philadelphia, these loyalists would join in the cause.

Howell marched north and of course defeated Washington at the Battle of Brandywine in September of 1777. That battle was actually one of Washington’s worst efforts. For example, Howell faked him out with a feint in one direction and then an attack in the other and so in September of 1777, Howell was able to take Philadelphia.

In the Battle of Germantown, Washington had designed this effort for October of 1777. However, it was too complex and really just did not work out. Then Washington attempted to starve out Howell, but that of course also did not work.

In the meantime, Gates won his great battle at Saratoga, so Washington moved into Valley Forge.

It’s interesting to note that this was an unpopular move on Washington’s part and many people at the time thought him very stupid because they thought he was going in the wrong direction. Instead, Washington insisted that they go to Valley Forge and build huts which they had to build from scratch instead of other locations where they would have had better protection from the weather. There was also a lot of trouble because there was a supply crisis - the supply of flour was almost gone and frankly the only thing left was rotting meat and basically just misery. There was a lot of hissing and hooting and hollering and a lot of the officers were just quitting and going home. Some people felt that Washington exaggerated how bad it was in Valley Forge, but Dr. Lengel believes that Washington did not exaggerate and in fact it was really bad! The food was gone, the clothing was in tatters, people were barefoot, there were epidemics of typhus and cholera and if anyone were sent to the hospital, such amounted to a death sentence.

For example, at this time there were ten thousand to twelve thousand troops, and about two thousand of them died.

It’s interesting to note that it really wasn’t that cold in Valley Forge and the temperatures hovered around freezing. This meant that the rain and sleet and so forth turned the dirt roads to mud and that really was of course worse than if the roads had been frozen and if the roads had not turned to mud. A lot of fords and ferries were washed out. However, what did Washington do? This was a critical moment for a soldier and obviously if a soldier were to see officers faltering, then he would fall to pieces as well. That of course as I mentioned above began to happen at Valley Forge and there were a blizzard of letters from the lieutenants and colonels and so forth indicating that they had to leave for their farm, for their business and so forth and they wanted Washington to give them furloughs or if he failed to do so, they would just resign. For example one of Washington’s favorites was a William Woodford, and Washington almost had to beg him not to go. Woodford said sorry, too bad, see you later and off he went.

Of course there were people like Nathaniel Greene, who took over the quartermaster duties in March and General Von Steuben, who was great in drilling the soldiers and of course Knox.

But most of everything really was on George’s shoulders. He had created the Continental Army basically from scratch and this army really depended on one man, George Washington! It was frankly good that Washington was a micro-manager, because he took all of these duties on himself. He wrote lots of letters and orders, letters how to cut cloth when scarce, how to take care of sanitation, all about discipline, maintenance, hospitals, etc.

From all of this we begin to see what kind of mind he had. He was able to keep in his mind all of these facts and he had an extreme capacity for detail. He also was able to recognize good advice when he got it and that was helpful because he was getting all sorts of advice from so many people. Fortunately, he usually chose correctly.

It’s important that he had this critical understanding of not just what happened in battles, but he was always looking into supporting the army and how they were to survive and he dealt very often with so many people in the Congress and in states and the governors, county officials, farmers, etc. He understood that he needed to foster good relations with them all, because he really needed everyone and the whole country to support the army. Nobody was too small for him to get involved with.

It’s interesting to see what happened at the Battle of Monmouth in June of 1778. At that time the army was better equipped, and the morale was so much better. A lot of this was based on what Greene had done. Of course Charles Lee mis-managed the troops and so when Washington came up and appeared, he basically stopped the retreat single-handedly. There was electricity in the air and once they saw Washington come up, the soldiers stopped their retreat. Feelings towards all of this changed. He showed them that he cared very much for them at Valley Forge day after day. He was very visible and Dr. Lengel believes that his greatness really was the fact that he stayed so visible in so many small ways and that showed his soldiers that he really cared about them personally and about the army in particular.

The question and answer session was also quite helpful. The first question was if the men thought it was stupid for Washington to go Valley Forge, why did he insist on this? Dr. Lengel maintains that Washington understood the need to control the countryside. He wanted to be in the immediate area so that he could influence what was going on and to work constantly to cut off attempts for supplies to the British from the countryside. It’s interesting to know that he said that Washington learned a lot from the Hessians in Trenton. Lengel maintained that it’s not that the Hessians were so drunk at Trenton, but it was more that they were really isolated from the countryside and thus were vulnerable to a sudden attack.

We had to cut off the question/answer session fairly promptly because the students were away from University of Richmond and the cafeteria needed for us to be heading on. At any rate, Dr. Lengel provided a very interesting analysis of not only the Washington papers project, in which he is so very much involved, but also of course his views of George Washington and how his ability to micro-manage gave Washington a more visible and sympathic appearance to all of the solders of the Continental Army and frankly all of America.