Generalissimo Washington: How He Crushed the Spirit of Liberty


This article is excerpted from Conceived in Liberty, Volume IV, chapters 8 and 41.

Washington Transforms the Army

In June of 1775, George Washington was appointed Major General and elected by Congress to be commander in chief of the American revolutionary forces. Although he took up his tasks energetically, Washington accomplished nothing militarily for the remainder of the year and more, nor did he try. His only campaign in 1775 was internal rather than external; it was directed against the American army as he found it, and was designed to extirpate the spirit of liberty pervading this unusually individualistic and democratic army of militiamen. In short, Washington set out to transform a people’s army, uniquely suited for a libertarian revolution, into another orthodox and despotically ruled statist force after the familiar European model.

His primary aim was to crush the individualistic and democratic spirit of the American forces. For one thing, the officers of the militia were elected by their own men, and the discipline of repeated elections kept the officers from forming an aristocratic ruling caste typical of European armies of the period. The officers often drew little more pay than their men, and there were no hierarchical distinctions of rank imposed between officers and men. As a consequence, officers could not enforce their wills coercively on the soldiery. This New England equality horrified Washington’s conservative and highly aristocratic soul.

To introduce a hierarchy of ruling caste, Washington insisted on distinctive decorations of dress in accordance with minute gradations of rank. As one observer phrased it: “New lords, new laws. … The strictest government is taking place, and great distinction is made between officers and soldier. Everyone is made to know his place and keep it.” Despite the great expense involved, he also tried to stamp out individuality in the army by forcing uniforms upon them; but the scarcity of cloth made this plan unfeasible.

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At least as important as distinctions in decoration was the introduction of extensive inequality in pay. Led by Washington and the other aristocratic southern delegates, and over the objections of Massachusetts, the Congress insisted on fixing a pay scale for generals and other officers considerably higher than that of the rank and file.

In addition to imposing a web of hierarchy on the Continental Army, Washington crushed liberty within by replacing individual responsibility by iron despotism and coercion. Severe and brutal punishments were imposed upon those soldiers whose sense of altruism failed to override their instinct for self-preservation. Furloughs were curtailed and girlfriends of soldiers were expelled from camp; above all, lengthy floggings were introduced for all practices that Washington considered esthetically or morally offensive. He even had the temerity to urge Congress to raise the maximum number of strikes of the lash from 39 to the enormous number of 500; fortunately, Congress refused.

In a few short months, Washington had succeeded in extirpating a zealous, happy, individualistic people’s army, and transforming it into yet another statist army, filled with bored, resentful, and even mutinous soldiery. The only thing he could not do was force the troops to continue in camp after their terms of enlistment were up at the end of the year, and by now the soldiers were longing for home. In addition to all other factors, Americans were not geared – nor should they have been – for a lengthy conflict of position and attrition; they were not professional soldiers, and they were needed at their homes and jobs and on their farms. Had they been a frankly guerrilla army, there would have been no conflict between these roles.

As the end of 1775 drew near, then, Washington’s main preoccupation was in forging a new army to replace the 17,000 men whose terms of enlistment were about to expire. His problems were aggravated by Congress’s refusal to pay the bounties for enlistment New Englanders were used to receiving; instead caste distinctions were widened even further by raising officers’ pay, while privates’ pay remained the same. Only 3,500 of the old army agreed to reenlist; for the rest, very short-term enlistments of Massachusetts and New Hampshire men filled the gap until new enlistees finally swelled the total to about 10,000.

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As might have been expected, the wealthy and aristocratic Washington, free from money worries, had little understanding of the economic plight of his soldiery. In contrast to the legends about his compassion, Washington railed about the defecting troops as being possessed of a “dirty mercenary spirit” and of “basely deserting the cause of their country.”[1]

A particularly colorful addition to the New England troops in the Continental Army, during the summer of 1775, was a detachment of nine enlisted companies of expert riflemen from the back-country frontier of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, five of them from Pennsylvania. There were over 1,400 of these riflemen in all. The bulk of them were hardy Ulster Scot frontiersmen, wearing hunting outfits bearing the motto Liberty or Death and employing the unique “Kentucky rifle,” invented by Pennsylvania German gunsmiths. This long-barreled rifle was uniquely suited for guerrilla warfare. It shot more accurately and over a far longer range than the shorter musket in general use, but it did not reload rapidly, and hence was not useful for orthodox, open-field, positional or linear volley warfare.

It is not surprising that these backwoodsmen proved even more individualistic and less tolerant of coercion than the New Englanders. When they terrorized British sentries with their sniping, Washington forbade such seemingly disorganized practice which spent ammunition. Whenever a rifleman was imprisoned for infringing one of Washington’s arbitrary but cherished rules, his comrades would break into the prison and set him free. On one occasion, virtually an entire Pennsylvania company mutinied to try to free one of their own, and several regiments were needed to disarm and convict the Pennsylvanians, whose penalty consisted of less than a week’s pay. The riflemen, however, were not so much unfit for any military service as they were “by nature and by experience, totally unfitted for inactive life in camp.” When the opportunity came for action for which they were suited, they were to serve admirably.[2]

Winter at Valley Forge

In December of 1777, Washington sensibly prepared to take his battered and half-fed men into winter quarters, rather than endure the rigors of another winter campaign as they had done the previous year. He favored quarters at Wilmington, where supplies would be plentiful and the weather mild. Furthermore, Delaware and Maryland could be guarded, and American boats could harass British shipping on the Delaware. The officers favored this plan; but in deference to Pennsylvania’s howls against letting the British army ravage the countryside, and at the suggestion of Wayne, Washington weakly and unfortunately decided to winter on the icy slopes of Valley Forge, to the west of Philadelphia. Few worse locations for obtaining supplies could have been selected than this ravaged area. Generals James Varnum and “Baron” deKalb were particularly vehement at “wintering in this desert.”

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On December 19, Washington’s army, short of food and water, poorly sheltered, and terribly short of shoes and other clothing, staggered into the ill-conceived camp at Valley Forge. In these conditions, disease spread like wildfire through the camp. To obtain food, both the American and British forces sent foraging parties to confiscate cattle and other supplies from the hapless citizens. By the spring of 1778, massive desertions had reduced Washington’s army to five or six thousand men. Greene was appointed quartermaster general in the emergency, and he was able to scrape up and confiscate enough provisions to last the army through the winter.

During the campaigns of 1777 a suspicion began to well up among many Americans that Horatio Gates was an excellent general and Washington a miserable one, and that maybe something should be done about it. In Congress, forced to meet in the small town of York, Pennsylvania, it was the men of the American Left that were restive, notably Joseph Lovell and Sam Adams of Massachusetts. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a leading Pennsylvania liberal and chief physician in Washington’s army, urged his replacement by “a Gates, Lee, or Conway,” Thomas Conway being a capable Irish-born French general recently commissioned in the Continental Army. In November 1777, Congress advanced a step toward erecting a professional bureaucracy by creating a five-man Board of War, not composed of members of Congress, to supervise the army. As chairman of the board, Congress appointed the hero Gates, who was then too ill for field command. This apparent attempt to downgrade Washington and elevate Gates never got underway, in fact never reached the stature of an organized campaign. Indeed, no one in Congress ever proposed the replacement of Washington or even the curtailing of his powers.

Two major factors contributed to the crushing of any murmurs of dissent against the commander in chief. One was Washington’s ruthless use of an indiscretion he discovered – a letter critical of him sent by Gates to Conway. Washington and his influential friends immediately conjured up a nonexistent widespread “plot,” the mythical “Conway Cabal,” supposedly designed to scuttle Washington. Both Rush and Conway were soon forced out of the army by the vindictive Washington.

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Conway’s fall (and subsequent emigration) and Gates’s decline were also spurred by a madcap plan Gates had for another expedition to invade Canada and possibly take Montreal. This proposed expedition was to be independent of Washington’s command, and was to be headed by the vain young French Catholic volunteer, the Marquis de Lafayette, in a rather farfetched scheme to appeal to the French Canadian masses. But Lafayette, ever worshipful of his patron Washington, refused to be independent of his commander in chief, and bitterly denounced the supposed conspirator Conway as responsible for an intrigue against Washington. When the proposed expedition fell through in March 1778, the failure hastened the demise of all incipient opposition to Washington. The Board of War fell into a decline, and Gates, in virtual disgrace, and subject to Washington’s continuing vengeance, was assigned a tiny and innocuous command on the Hudson highlands.

Thus, history had dealt in high irony with the victors at Saratoga. Gates, after the winter of 1777–78, was relegated out of the action, to a minor command; Arnold, seriously wounded and crippled at Bemis Heights, was never again to bear arms for the United States; and Schuyler, who, for all his faults, had after all harried and delayed Burgoyne in his march from Skenesboro, was in disgrace, suspected – with some justice – of treason. He too was never again to serve in the army; though eventually acquitted at court-martial for his actions at Ticonderoga, he left the army shortly after. Of the main victors over Burgoyne, only Daniel Morgan was to continue in action – and even he was soon to be treated shabbily by George Washington. Meanwhile, Washington, the architect of defeat, surmounted a flurry of opposition and continued more firmly in command than ever.

As if the ragged soldiers at Valley Forge did not have enough troubles, they were to be further plagued by the arrival, in February, of a mendacious Prussian braggart and soldier of fortune calling himself “Baron von Steuben.” Actually, Captain Steuben was neither a baron nor, as he claimed, a Prussian general; but he managed quickly to be elevated to the post of inspector general of the Continental Army. Steuben set about to Prussianize the American army, and so now the hapless soldiery suffered the infliction of the whole structure of petty and meaningless routine designed to stamp out individuality and transform the free and responsible soldier into an automaton subject to the will of his rulers.

Ever since he had embarked on the Philadelphia campaign, Washington had grown ever further away from the guerrilla tactics that had won him victory at Trenton (and had defeated Burgoyne). Washington had no desire to become a guerrilla chieftain; to his aristocratic temper the only path to glory was through open, frontal combat as practiced by the great states of Europe. Washington had tried this formula, and lost dismally at Brandywine and at Germantown, but this experience taught him no real lessons. He was delighted to have Steuben continue the process he himself had begun in the first year of war of imposing petty enslavement upon a body of free men. Until recently, historians have rhapsodized uncritically over the benefits of Steuben’s training, of the enormous difference in the army’s performance. But Washington’s and his army’s performance was equally undistinguished before and after Steuben; any differences were scarcely visible.

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In the midst of this Prussianizing of the American army, Charles Lee was released in a prisoner exchange in early April. While Washington and Steuben were taking the army in an ever more European direction, Lee in captivity was moving the other way – pursuing his insights into a fullfledged and elaborated proposal for guerrilla warfare. He presented his plan to Congress, as a “Plan for the Formation of the American Army.”

Bitterly attacking Steuben’s training of the army according to the “European Plan,” Lee charged that fighting British regulars on their own terms was madness and courted crushing defeat: “If the Americans are servilely kept to the European Plan, they will … be laugh’d at as a bad army by their enemy, and defeated in every [encounter]… . [The idea] that a decisive action in fair ground may be risqued is talking nonsense.” Instead, he declared that “a plan of defense, harassing and impeding can alone succeed,” particularly if based on the rough terrain west of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. He also urged the use of cavalry and of light infantry (in the manner of Dan Morgan), both forces highly mobile and eminently suitable for the guerrilla strategy.

This strategic plan was ignored both by Congress and by Washington, all eagerly attuned to the new fashion of Prussianizing and to the attractions of a “real” army. Lee made himself further disliked by expressing yearnings for a negotiated peace, with full autonomy for America within the British Empire. During his year in captivity, it seems he had partially reverted to the position of the English Whigs. He did not realize that the United States was now totally committed to independence, and that peace terms that would have been satisfactory three years earlier would no longer do. Too much should not be made of this, however; General Sullivan, in his earlier term of captivity, had also been temporarily persuaded of similar views.

On reaching camp in late May, Lee soon embittered Washington by scorning Washington’s abilities, and praising Gates’s in a letter to his friend Benjamin Rush. He did succeed, however, in having Steuben’s powers curtailed. He also increased his unpopularity by objecting to – though reluctantly taking – a loyalty oath of allegiance to the United States and repudiating Great Britain, an oath forced upon every officer in the army. The old scourge of the Tories, the coercer of loyalty oaths, seemed to be growing soft.

During the winter of 1777–78, Howe lost his last opportunity to crush Washington’s army. Only twenty miles away, and drilling for open combat, it would have been easy prey. But Howe and his troops remained in Philadelphia: while the Americans froze, starved, and drilled, they reveled and partied, luxuriously enjoying the victuals, wine, and women of Philadelphia.

On May 18, Washington, chafing at the inactivity, sent out a force of 2,200 men – one-third of his army – for a reconnaissance in force against the British. He placed in command of this pointless foray the Marquis de Lafayette, who was apparently being rewarded for his assiduous flattery of the commander in chief. Now he could have his own command and end his pouting; but 2,200 men seems an extravagant price for soothing Washington’s protégé.

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Lafayette advanced to Barren Hill, only two miles north of the British lines, and settled down to wait. He did not have to wait long. Howe, about to be replaced by Clinton as commander in chief, was determined to end his term on a triumphal note by capturing the young Frenchman. But Lafayette, nearly surrounded, managed to elude the enemy with his troops and to speed back home without fighting a major battle.

Upon the collapse of Burgoyne, General Howe – joined by his brother – submitted his resignation. After furious objections by Howe’s well-placed friends and relatives, Germain replaced him with General Clinton, who assumed command in mid-May. With the end of Howe’s term, the last chance for a quick crushing of the American forces had gone, for France was entering the war on the American side. For Britain, the character of the war had now unpleasantly changed; from trying to teach a lesson to revolutionaries, Britain now faced an international, trans-Atlantic, even a worldwide conflict.

The first thing to do was end the occupation of Philadelphia, which at best had been a waste of time. Howe had thought of Philadelphia as equivalent to a European capital: the hub and nerve center of administrative, commercial, political, and military life. But in a decentralized people’s war such as the Americans were waging, there was no fixed nerve center; indeed, there was scarcely any central government at all. All this gave the Americans a flexibility and an ability to absorb invading armies in a manner highly statified Europe could not understand.


[1] Willard M. Wallace, Appeal to Arms: A Military History of the American Revolution (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1951), pp. 54–55.

[2] Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 1:108.

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