Was George Washington a great general? It sounds like a preposterous question. After all, he won the Revolutionary War.
But like anyone, the general had his strengths and weaknesses.
“Washington was a great strategic leader who was very good at seeing the big picture and playing the long game,” says Adrienne Harrison, PhD, senior historian at Battlefield Leadership and a former assistant professor of American history at the U.S. Military Academy. “But tactically, he was terrible, and he never got better as the war went on.”
Fortunately, says Harrison, Washington would come to realize he didn’t need to win every battle to win the war. In fact, he actually lost more battles than he won.
“He tried early on to win the big, decisive battle on Long Island in August 1776, and he failed miserably,” she says. “It was way beyond his expertise and certainly that of any of his subordinates. He lost and ended up retreating in the middle of the night.”
Washington the Tactician…Not So Much
Washington’s biggest weakness was as a tactician. Although his bravery was never questioned – he would often put himself at risk on the front lines – he wasn’t good at directing troops and taking charge of battle planning as the fight unfolded.
“Washington liked overly complicated plans that hinged on precision timing,” Harrison says. “He lost a lot of battles because of that, which some historians criticize him for.”
Take his boldest and perhaps most famous military maneuver – the crossing of the Delaware River and attack on Trenton.
“Washington’s tactical plan called for a simultaneous, three-pronged river crossing,” according to Harrison. “The three forces would then have to march different distances to Trenton but arrive on time to attack from multiple sides and cut off the possible Hessian escape routes. He had a precise timeline laid out with a completely unrealistic goal for how quickly the crossing itself could be completed.”
As we now know, Washington quickly got behind schedule and had no idea that two of his three prongs couldn’t make it across the river due to bad weather.
“At a time when not everyone had a reliable timepiece, it seems strange that he planned a night operation down to specific hours the way he did,” Harrison explains. “Even today, despite all of the Army’s night vision and communication equipment, night operations are fraught with higher risk. Back then, it was nearly impossible under the best of weather conditions. Not only did Washington plan this operation, but he pressed ahead with it even when a Nor’easter blew in.”
Washington and his men were fortunate that the Hessians mistook an earlier patrol for being the main attack, because Hessian Colonel Rall knew an attack was coming. However, he didn’t think highly of the Americans and when the patrol was mistaken for the attack, he canceled the morning patrol on December 26.
“If Rall had acted differently, Washington would not have had such an easy time taking Trenton,” Harrison says. “Tactically speaking, it’s impossible to say the attack would have failed if the Hessians had been prepared, but if the attack had failed, history would have condemned Washington for extraordinarily bad judgment as a result. Luckily for him, he won, so it’s a lesson instead of his successful risk-taking when his back was up against a wall and there were no other acceptable options.”
Washington’s Strengths Carried the Day
Despite his tactical shortcomings, Washington had many strengths.
“Washington turned running into an art form,” Harrison says with a chuckle. “He was good at escaping, but he hated doing it. He wanted the big victory, but he knew after Long Island that he couldn’t do that. He didn’t have the skill set, and neither did his army.”
To win, Washington realized he had to drag the war out and make it so expensive for the British that they would eventually tire of it and go home. Smaller battles became his strategy, which wasn’t common at the time.
“Most generals wanted the decisive victory or to capture the enemy’s capital,” Harrison says. “That’s why the British were so fixated on Philadelphia. They figured it was game over if they could capture Congress. But the Americans just left. The British would learn that European war rules didn’t apply in America.”
Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River and the subsequent Battle of Trenton, despite its intricacies, is a good example of his strategy. In the larger scope of the war, it was a very small battle – only 2,000 Americans versus 300 Hessians. “But it forced the British to stay where they were and chase after him,” Harrison says. “Washington didn’t let himself get completely annihilated again.”
This approach to battle and to the overall war showed Washington as an innovator on the strategic side.
Brilliance Beyond Military Strategy
Like many great leaders, Washington was an excellent judge of character. This strength proved invaluable to winning the war.
“He was very good at assembling a ‘military family’ around himself,” Harrison says. “His advisors, subordinates, staff officers, commanders…they were all intelligent and experienced. Some were rivals who wanted his job, but Washington recognized they had skills and experience he didn’t.”
Washington valued input and colleagues who would argue against him. In that way, he was like Abraham Lincoln who famously assembled a “cabinet of rivals.” During councils of war, Washington would propose ideas and then let his staff pick those ideas apart.
“He was deliberate in his decision making,” Harrison explains. “He would let them argue, but then he expected his orders would be obeyed once he made a decision. Today’s modern generals are still taught that, and good politicians and presidents do that.”
Ultimately, says Harrison, Washington is remembered and revered more for his leadership skills than his tactical skills.
“His win/lose record wasn’t good, but the ultimate win was that he triumphed in the war,” she says. “There are some very valid criticisms of his skills, but his place in the ‘great leader’ camp is secure.”