The printed word, as much as the trials of battle, forged George Washington the soldier and was central to his efforts to create disciplined, effective armies.

U1897.1.1 George Washington as First Colonel in the Virginia Regiment, Charles Willson Peale, oil on canvas, 1772. Gift of George Washington Custis Lee, University Collections of Art and History, Washington & Lee University, Lexington, VirginiaThe war stories told by his half-brother, Lawrence Washington, an officer in the Virginia militia likely ignited Washington’s interest in a military career, but printed histories may have also inspired him. One of the earliest books he purchased, at age 15, was A Panegyrick to the memory of his Grace Frederick, late Duke of Schonberg, a celebration of the exploits of a 17th-century German soldier.

As commander of the Virginia Regiment during the French and Indian War (1755–1758) and later as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army (1775–1783), Washington took a studious approach to war and urged his men to do likewise. Unruly subordinates, unresponsive superiors, and his own inexperience spurred him to seek counsel from the writings of ancient and modern warriors. He instructed his officers, both in his official orders and private letters, to study military treatises. When morale was low, he deployed the powerful words of pamphleteers and playwrights to buoy the army’s spirits and rekindle their commitment to the cause.  

Washington's Military Heroes

Upon his return to Mount Vernon in 1759, at the conclusion of his French and Indian War service, George Washington envisioned the mansion’s central passage as a hall of honor, where he hoped to display the great commanders of history. Writing to his London agents in 1760, he requested bronze-painted plaster busts of six men:

  • Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar: two ancient heroes
  • Charles XII of Sweden and Frederick the Great of Prussia: two kings known for their military expertise and enlightened policies
  • Prince Eugène of Savoy and the Duke of Marlborough of England: two strategic geniuses, who had fought together during the War of the Spanish Succession

Washington's agents were unable to find the busts and Washington abandoned the plan, seeking out his heroes in print instead. His later book purchases included Voltaire’s History of Charles XII of Sweden, three histories of Frederick the Great, and the Prussian Evolutions in Actual Engagements.

Heroic Feats and Stirring Speeches

Cato, A Tragedy, by Joseph Addison, 1700 (Edinburgh, J. Wood) Duke University Libraries.

Cato, A Tragedy, by Joseph Addison, 1700 (Edinburgh, J. Wood) Duke University Libraries.

At critical points throughout his military career, George Washington found inspiration and encouragement in historical, political, and poetic writings. When he was discouraged by defeats suffered in the French and Indian War, he looked to the heroic examples of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, as portrayed in the history of Alexander by Roman writer Quintus Curtius Rufus and Caesar’s Commentaries, works that were over 1,700 years old in Washington’s day.

Later, when rations, pay, and supplies were scarce during the Revolution, Washington ordered Thomas Paine’s stirring manifesto, The Crisis, read to the troops. And when news of the French alliance arrived after the harsh winter at Valley Forge, he celebrated with the performance of Cato, a popular play that embodied the struggle against tyranny.

Virtue Surmounts All Difficulties

Washington owned a set of five oversized prints depicting the triumphs of Alexander the Great. Surging with dramatic energy, this print captures the climactic moment when Alexander is saved from an enemy blow by the timely intervention of his officer, Cleitus. The title attributes Alexander's victory to his virtue as much as his military genius.

Virtue Surmounts All Difficulties (Crossing of the River Granicus, 334 BCE) Engraved by Pieter Stevens van Gunst, Netherlands, ca. 1720, MVLA, Gift of Annie Burr Jennings, Vice Regent for Connecticut, 1936 [W-717/D]

William Fairfax to George Washington, May 13-14, 1756, Courtesy of the Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

William Fairfax to George Washington, May 13-14, 1756, Courtesy of the Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

A letter from William Fairfax, Washington's patron and neighbor, indicated that Washington had read two important classical works chronicling the exploits of the ancient Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great and the Roman commander Julius Caesar: Quintus Curtius Rufus's De Rebus gestis, Alexandri Magni and Julius Caesar's Commentarii de bello Gallico, both of which were available in English translations. 

You have therein read of greater Fatigues, Murmurings, Mutinys and Defections, than will probably come to your Share tho' if any of those Casualtys [sic] should interrupt your Quiet I doubt not but You would bear them with equal Magnamity [sic] [as] those Heroes remarkably did.

William Fairfax to George Washington, May 13-14, 1756

Fairfax himself may have loaned Washington copies, as none of Washington's surviving accounts indicated that he owned either of these works, and they do not appear on the inventory taken after his death. 

Campfire Studies

A Treatise of Military Discipline; In which is Laid down and Explained, The Duty of the Officer and Soldier, By Humphrey Bland, 1734 (London: S. Buckley) MVLA, purchase, 1956 [ML-82-D]

A Treatise of Military Discipline; In which is Laid down and Explained, The Duty of the Officer and Soldier, By Humphrey Bland, 1734 (London: S. Buckley) MVLA, purchase, 1956 [ML-82-D]

In both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, George Washington faced the frustrating task of transforming liberty-loving colonists into disciplined soldiers. Officers were often as unfamiliar with the basic commands as their troops, and Washington urged them to read military manuals. One Hessian soldier recalled with surprise the books found in the captured bags of American officers: “This was a true indication that the officers of this army studied the art of war while in camp.”

Library on the Potomac

George Washington's collection of books took over forty years of concerted, calculated efforts to assemble.

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Take Note!

Take Note!

The content on this page was adapted from Take Note! George Washington the Reader, an exhibition on view in the Donald W. Reynolds Museum & Education Center from 2013–2014 and the exhibition catalogue.

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