Friday, November 30, 2007

Book Review: George Washington - A Military Life

If you are an American, and learned American history the way it was taught to me, you might be inclined to believe that George Washington chopped down some cherry tree, and then told his father "I Cannot tell a lie. I chopped down the cherry tree." (which was made up by Washington's first biographer, Parson Weems, who lived only two miles from our home)

Depending on when you went to school, you might have been taught that Washington was a great man or a horrible man for having been a slave owner. Again, depending on when or where you went to school, you might believe that George Washington was an incredible blunderer or a strategic and tactical genius, who was as brilliant as Napoleon and George Patton all at once.

No matter what you learned, it is likely that whatever you learned was a bunch of crap.

For centuries, different people, for different reasons, have portrayed Washington as an unstained demigod, while others have reported him to be either a dummy or a nefarious character who is just shy of Satan. It's a real shame, because the real Washington, the man, is a very interesting character WITHOUT all of the embellishment.

In his book, General George Washington - A Military Life, author Edward Lengel strips away the history as reported by people with agendas. He brings the facts of Washington's life, as they pertain to his military experiences.

Here, we see Washington as a teenager, who longs for a life in the uniformed service of the British Crown. He first tries to emulate his older half-brother, who secures him a place as a Midshipman on a British man of war. He was thwarted in this by his very formidable mother, but his dream of serving the crown in uniform went un-extinguished.

After the Death of his half-brother and his wife, nine years later, Washington inherited Mount Vernon, which became his home for the rest of his life, and embarked on the rest of his military career.

At the age of 21, Washington was appointed adjutant, with the rank of Major, in the Virginia militia, and only a few years later, was appointed to the Colonelcy of the 1st Virginia regiment, as they were raised for service against the French, who were encroaching upon British claims to the Ohio Valley in the area that later became Pittsburgh.

We see Washington at his very best and at his worst throughout the French & Indian wars, and the long period between those years and the period immediately preceding the American Revolution. We see the Washington as the only American born militia officer with enough military experience and combat experience, selected by the Continental Congress to lead the as yet unformed American army against the experienced troops of the British Army.

(Washington, seen here as Colonel of the Virginia militia, circa 1772)

During the book, Lengel isn't afraid to discuss Washington's successes nor is he afraid to skewer sacred cows when he talks about Washington's failings as a General.

After reading this very frank, but very fair assessment of Washington's military career, one can only come to the conclusion that General George Washington, taken warts and all, was indeed the person that James Thomas Flexner deemed as "The Indispensable Man"

Washington was neither genius, nor blunderer. He was a man, a soldier, and a politician. He was a good field commander, a real fighter, and brave in the face of the enemy. He never lost his nerve on the battlefield.

The history of the military art screams that Washington's strategy in general was, unbeknownst to him, absolutely correct in that he didn't often try to do things that were beoynd his resources against a better trained, better armed, and better provisioned army.

He might not have been 12 feet tall, but he was the man of the moment, and was equal to the challencge.

Kudos to Lengel for a great book on such an important figure in our history.

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