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What did Washington learn about leadership from his travels and challenges during the American Revolution?

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Source 1: George Washington in the American Revolution

Read As you read this secondary source, think about Washington as a commander.

A Call for Leadership

After the battles of Lexington and Concord, the colonial forces, needed a commander. Members of the Second Continental Congress realized that the New England colonies could not fight the British alone. At the time, the colonial army was made up of state militias that were not very well prepared for fighting. The Congress decided to unite the all of the state militias into a single force called the Continental Army. George Washington would command the Continental Army. Since Washington was from Virginia, this decision meant that Virginia would be involved in the war. This decision also made sense because of Washington’s experience in combat.

Washington in Command

During the war, Washington and his troops traveled as far north as Fort Crown Point in northern New York. They traveled as far south as Yorktown in southern Virginia. They fought battles in the countryside and in major cities. As the war went on, Washington’s perspective on the troops changed considerably. In a letter from 1775, he described the soldiers from Massachusetts as “an exceeding dirty & nasty people.” But in a letter written after the war, he praised the patience, virtue, and determination of the troops that fought for independence.

Shortly after he took over as leader, Washington ordered a bombardment of enemy forces in Boston that drove the British out of the city. However, this victory was followed by a long and costly campaign to defend New York City. Washington knew that losing New York City to the British could cut off the line of communication between rebel forces in New England and the rest of the colonies. Washington and General Charles Lee developed a detailed plan to defend the city, but the campaign ended in a series of retreats for the Continental Army.

During the retreat, British General Charles Cornwallis decided to halt his troops from attacking Washington’s men as they crossed the Hackensack River. This proved to be a mistake. Once the Continental Army made it safely across the Hackensack River, Washington put the failed New York campaign behind him. He planned a surprise attack on Trenton, New Jersey. This attack would be a benefit for the Continental Army.

Image credit: George Washington by Charles Willson Peale, commemorating the victory at Princeton, c. 1780-1782 (United States Senate)

A Turning Point at Valley Forge

Another important time in the war came during the winter of 1777 to 1778. Washington and his troops at camped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Washington chose Valley Forge for several reasons. One reason was its location at the top of a plateau protected by hills. Another reason was that it was close to Philadelphia, which was occupied by the British. From the camp, the Continental Army could keep an eye on the British troops. During this winter, lack of food and decent clothing were serious concerns. Rain battered the wooden huts the men built for themselves to keep warm. But Washington put the time at Valley Forge to good use. The troops received valuable training from two experienced European military commanders—the Marquis de Lafayette and Baron Friedrich von Steuben. Washington also used his leadership skills to forge strong alliances with other officers and to ease the concerns of delegates from Congress who visited the camp. Through hard work and grit, Washington and his troops left Valley Forge stronger and more unified than when they arrived.

What Do You Think?

What do the details in this text tell you about George Washington? Look closely at the portrait. What impression of Washington do you get from it? Put this information together and think about what you now know about George Washington.

Source 2: The Letters of General Washington

Read As you read the following two excerpts from George Washington’s letters, take note of how he views people. The first letter is to his cousin. The second letter is to the states.

Excerpt from Washington’s letter to Lund Washington, 20 August 1775

“…The People of [Massachusetts] have obtained a Character which they by no means deserved—their Officers generally speaking are the most indifferent kind of People I ever saw. I have already broke one Colo. and five Captain’s for Cowardice, & for drawing more Pay & Provision’s than they had Men in their Companies. there is two more Colos. now under arrest, & to be tried for the same Offences—in short they are by no means such Troops, in any respect, as you are led to believe of them from the Accts which are published, but I need not make myself Enemies among them, by this declaration, although it is consistent with truth. I daresay the Men would fight very well (if properly Officered) although they are an exceeding dirty & nasty people. had they been properly conducted at Bunkers Hill (on the 17th of June) or those that were there properly supported, the Regulars would have met with a shameful defeat; & a much more considerable loss than they did, which is now known to be exactly 1057 Killed & Wounded—it was for their behaviour on that occasion that the above Officers were broke, for I never spared one that was accused of Cowardice but brot ’em to immediate Tryal.”

This image shows part of the letter George Washington wrote to his cousin, Lund Washington, on August 20, 1775.

Check Your Understanding

General Washington complains about the bad behavior of the Massachusetts militiamen. Washington describes how some of the colonels are guilty of cowardice and stealing. He claims that if the men had better officers, they would be capable of fighting well. However, he notes that the men are dirty and nasty. He blames the officers for what happened at Bunker Hill. If the Massachusetts soldiers had had better officers, Washington says, the British would have met with a shameful defeat.

Excerpt from Washington’s circular letter to the states, 8 June 1783

“…In less time & with much less expence than has been incurred, the War might have been brought to the same happy, conclusion if the resources of the Continent could have been properly drawn forth—that the distresses and disappointments, which have very often occurred, have in too many instances resulted more from a want of energy in the Continental Government, than a deficiency of means in the particular States—That the inefficacy of measures, arising from the want of an adequate authority in the supreme Power, from a failure of punctuality in others, while it tended to damp the Zeal of those which where more willing to exert themselves, served also to accumulate the expences of the War and to frustrate the best concerted plans; and that the discouragement, occasioned by the complicated difficulties & embarrassments in which our affairs were by this means involved, would have long ago produced the dissolution of any Army, less patient, less virtuous and less persevering than that which I have had the honor to Command. But while I mention these things, which are notorious facts, as the defects of our Federal Constitution, particularly in the prosecution of a War, I beg it may be understood, that as I have ever taken a pleasure in gratefully acknowledging the assistance and support I have derived from every class of Citizens, so shall I always be happy to do justice to the unparralled exertions of the individual States on many interesting occasions.”

This image shows part of Washington's letter to the states. The letter was printed with other materials to be handed out.

Check Your Understanding

Washington claims that the colonial government is to blame for the Revolutionary War stretching on so long and for being so expensive. Such a poorly run government, Washington says, would have discouraged an army less patient and honorable than theirs. Despite the flaws of the government, Washington is grateful for the assistance and support of citizens from every social class.

What Do You Think?

Compare Washington’s views of the Massachusetts soldiers in the 1775 letter with his views of the soldiers he “had the honor to Command” in the letter from 1783. How did his views change over the course of the war? Did he have views of any other members of society?

Source 3: Two Landscape Drawings from the American Revolution

Inspect  Key battles during the American Revolution were fought as far south as Savannah, Georgia, and as far north as Quebec, Canada. The war was waged in large cities such as New York City and rural locations such as Freeman’s Farm in Saratoga County, New York. Examine the two primary source drawings below. Consider how the different landscapes might have impacted soldiers.

The fighting during the Battle of Freeman's Farm took place in a rural location in Saratoga County, New York, 1777. The British won the skirmish at Freeman's Farm, but they sustained heavy losses. The terrain would have been similar to what can be seen in the above drawing.

The New York Campaign was long and costly for the Continental Army. This drawing shows British troops marching down a street in New York City in 1778.

What Do You Think?

Look at the two drawings and compare the locations. How would a soldier’s experience in a city be different from what he might experience in a rural setting? Point to details in the art that support your thinking.

What did you find out?

What did Washington learn about leadership from his travels and challenges during the American Revolution? Download worksheet

Think about the texts and images you just investigated. What do you think Washington learned from his travels and challenges during the American Revolution? How did this prepare him to be a leader?

Think about what you have learned. How does this information connect to the Essential Question, How did George Washington's travels help him when he became president?

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Focus Question 1

How did George Washington's experiences in the Ohio River Valley as a young man prepare him to become a leader?

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Focus Question 3

What did Washington learn about the country and its people during his tours of the states?

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