Something different this time. George Washington, while one of the pre-eminent founding fathers, is often underappreciated. Especially as a military commander, Washington is often judged by the number of battles he won or lost; he lost far more than he won. Many historians and authors depict him anywhere from a mediocre officer who was simply lucky, or at worst being a bumbling fool, the war having been lost by the British rather than won by the Americans. I have never really adhered to these views of Washington, especially after having studied the American Revolution, its battles and its leadership. The British had their fair share of problems, it’s true, but they were also a capable fighting force. In Dave Palmer’s book, however, Washington is examined in the light of the context of the times, his appreciation of the big picture, and his flexibility during the various phases of the war as it progressed. Palmer brings insight on Washington’s superb capabilities as a strategist and how he kept the revolution and the country alive through 7 years of hard war. I highly recommend this book.
The first section of Palmer’s book discusses the immediate 18th century historical context of developing wartime strategy, essentially a nice overview of what strategy was before the Napoleonic era and before Clausewitz wrote his famous On War. In short, he says that grand strategy prescribes why we fight, strategy prescribes where and whether we fight, and tactics prescribes how to fight once the battle is joined. This is simplified, but serves us well.
Palmer also briefly reviews warfare in the 18th century, calling this chapter The Prussian Shadow. By that he means linear warfare, as practiced in the 1700’s, with muskets, bayonets, aristocratic officers and the dregs of society making up the rank and file, and maneuver instead of fighting, culminated in the efficiency of the system of Frederick the Great. However, while this style of warfare was in vogue in Europe, there was the possibility that there would be changes in the colonies due to the environment, people, and goals of the combatants.
Chapter 3 then talks about the “meager setting,” the environment where the war would be fought. The geography often dictates how campaigns will be conducted, and America was no different. Palmer notes the land itself, the sparse population, the distances involved in moving armies and communicating with each other, and the ruggedness of the colonists. In order to understand why Washington and his British counterparts acted the way they did sometimes requires us to examine the setting of the war.
Also impacting the strategy and campaigns was the view from London and the view from Philadelphia, and Palmer dives into the politics, public sentiments from each side about the struggle, and the impact of the civilian sector and politics on the conduct of war. The British had five strategic options, and in time they would try all five. But it was interesting that Palmer notes the problems with running the war from across the Atlantic, hard in the 21st century, but nearly impossible in 1776. With regards to the colonial strategy, Palmer concludes that “George Washington’s voice was predominant in articulating patriot strategy. Therefore, when we speak of American strategy, we mean, in the main, Washington’s strategy. It was he who executed it and, in most instances, planned it.”
Finally, concluding the first section about the setting and context, Palmer articulates the goals for the war in the first place. What did the colonials hope to achieve? Palmer states that there were two ultimate goals for the Americans, independence as a nation, and territorial expansion. Throughout the war, Palmer shows how Washington always kept these goals in front of him with regards to strategy and decision making. Ultimately, the Americans succeeded completely with the first goal of independence, and moderately but more than they expected with regards to the second goal.
The second section is called Strategy Executed. Palmer in this section goes into more detail to prove his thesis. Essentially, he shows how the war itself passed through four different and distinct phases, each presenting quite different circumstances that demanded very different military responses. Palmer demonstrates how Washington consciously recognized each phase as it occurred and shaped his campaigns accordingly.
The four phases were: April 1775 – June 1776, called Run all Risques, during which the patriots had much to gain but little to lose; consequently, they were on the offensive much of the time. Every little victory meant a morale boost to the fledgling rebellion. Phase two was called A Choice of Difficulties, from July 1776 – December 1777. In this phase, the country had declared its independence, and had much to lose. They had a smaller army versus a larger British foe. In this phase, Washington had to hit the British only when he could make it hurt, while keeping his army intact to fight for another year or two. It was mainly defensive, with hit and run tactics, with a few opportunities to strike. Phase three was called One Great Vigorous Effort, from January 1778 – October 1781, where Washington, now with help from the French, was looking to find those opportunities to end the war. This phase culminated in the battle of Yorktown. Finally, the last phase was The Art of Negotiation, from November 1781 – December 1783. In this phase Washington showed himself to be more than a general. He understood that the war wasn’t over yet, and the army had to remain intact to negotiate from a position of strength, even as the Congress and population called for their immediate disbandment. Washington literally saved the revolution during this phase.
In his conclusion, Palmer states that, “In the Revolutionary War, some seasons demanded victory, others the avoidance of defeat. The watchword on some days was audacity, on others it was caution. Washington always seemed to know which was appropriate.” This is probably why there are varied assessments from historians about Washington and his generalship. Unless one understands the phases of the Revolutionary War, it is hard to understand the genius of Washington. Palmer makes his case clearly and emphatically.