Happy Birthday, George

Victor at Princeton, British flags underfoot. By Charles Vincent Peale. Image: Senate.gov.

Washington, of course.

Since holidays promoting Washington and Lincoln were compressed into a single Presidents’ Day, a day that some would have honor Martin Van Buren and US Grant as well, to free up a day for Rodney King, many Americans have lost touch with George Washington.

And that’s a shame.

This page is an excellent appreciation of some of Washington’s gifts in the political realm. Here, though, we’d like to mention just one of his many gifts as a military officer: he was a great selector, motivator and promoter of subordinates.

This shows up in things like his invention of the Purple Heart Medal, the first and the oldest still-awarded military medal in the world; in his constant battle to keep motivated, armed men in his ranks; and in his perception of talent another might miss.

The best example of this Washingtonian talent-scouting was probably Henry Knox. Knox was a young bookseller, whose hobby was reading books about military affairs. He knew all about artillery — at least, as much knowledge as could be gained from words on paper, and serving in a ragtag colonial militia unit. Which, to be sure, was more than anyone else in the nascent Continental Army of 1775. It couldn’t have been his gun-handling skills — he was short a couple of fingers from a negligent discharge — so the book knowledge is probably why Washington made him commander of the artillery — a prestigious post, perhaps, except there was no artillery.

So working on a general task order, Knox took a party to Fort Ticonderoga, recently captured by Ethan Allen, and recovered the artillery therein. Knox’s movement of the artillery pieces from Ticonderoga to the bluffs at¬†Dorchester overlooking Boston was one of the greatedt, most conseqential military marches, ever. Sixty tons of artillery, powder and shot were manhandled for 300 nearly trackless wilderness miles on sleds drawn by oxen — and men. When the British woke up in Boston, to see those cannon looming over them, they set sail for New York and leave the city to Washington — and Knox.

Knox watched his wife’s parents sail off with those ships and he, and she, never saw them again. But he was devoted to liberty, and she to him, to the consternation of her Loyalist parents. Would today’s Army have noticed and promoted Henry Knox? Our famous general of the hour, David Petraeus, would have dismissed him on sight as a podgy butterball; these days ability takes a back seat to what Shakespeare called “that lean and hungry look.” This is said not to diminish Petraeus’s talents, but to hail Washington’s.

Washington is the sort of man, then, who could spot the talent of Henry Knox, a doughy, bookish man who would repay ¬†Washington’s trust with steadfast loyalty and serve as the first President’s first Secretary of War. Whereas Petraeus’s rangy Rangers seemed to be racing, chasing, stumbling and tumbling over one another to bad-mouth him to the press. He could have done with a Henry Knox, whether he wanted one or not.

Washington is sometimes considered an irregular or guerilla reader by the general public, and that is one more marker of how the study of him has been deprecated, for it is remote from the truth. Washington’s focus from day one was to build a regular army that could stand against the British, a seemingly impossible task, an organizational moonshot. But he did it, and his correspondence shows his preoccupation with logistical issues — matters that today’s commander could delegate with confidence to his G-1 and G-4 staff officers. He was also a capable strategist and tactician, not only putting the British Army at a tactical disadvantage by clever maneuver, but even outflanking and forcing redeployments of the Royal Navy, the major arm of the then-dominent world power.

He was also able to turn the terrain to his advantage. It may be that people think of Washington, the man who aspired most surely to lead straight ranks of disciplined regulars, as a guerilla because of his boldness in the field. Most Americans can recognize the heroic painting of Washington crossing the Delaware, but sadly, few know the story of the battles of Trenton and Princeton. Few know the story of the night withdrawal across then-rural Manhattan Island under the guns of the Royal Navy. And hardly anybody knows the story of Henry Knox, told above.

And in the end, his greatest contribution, as the political story linked above noted, and the one that truly shocked his adversary George III, was that, when his time was up he went back to his farm. “If he does that, he will be the greatest man ever!” George is reported to have exclaimed. Perhaps the King was right.

So let’s raise a glass to George Washington, a man whose brilliance has been so cast aside by the boomer generation and their rejection of all that is old and true, and worship of all immediate novelty. His is the character upon which this entire nation stands, and that it has stood so long and so well is one measure of his solidity.