Having crafted the Continental Army out of the ragtag New England militias which had gathered in Massachusetts, Congress found itself in need of a commander-in-chief – but it soon realised that there were few suitable candidates, and certainly no ‘stand out’ leaders. John Hancock, Boston’s richest merchant and at the time president of the second Continental Congress, rather fancied himself in the role. But Hancock was no soldier, and his hopes were thwarted anyway when John Adams rose in Congress to nominate George Washington. The gentleman-farmer from Virginia accepted the nomination with a polite nod. It is hard to see why he would not have accepted, since he had turned up in his rarely-worn colonel’s uniform, as if to advertise his qualifications to those present.
Washington was appointed by Congress on June 15 and accepted, stating that he didn’t think himself worthy of the honour bestowed upon him. There were clear reasons for his appointment and they were not entirely military. It’s true that Washington was one of the few colonists with active military experience – but his service in the Virginia militia was also littered with blunders and indiscretions. He had, after all, started the French and Indian War almost single-handedly. Washington had also applied for a commission in the regular British army but this was declined, prompting him to write several appeals and angry letters about the decision. The fact he was selected as commander despite some glaring military failures shows the quality – or rather the lack – of alternative candidates. But Washington’s status as a Virginian was perhaps the more telling factor: his appointment was in part an attempt to involve his home colony, with many delegates from New England wanting to draw the powerful southern colonies into the revolutionary cause.
A historian’s view:
“Militarily, George Washington, who had spent the early months of the war educating Congress about army matters, had received an education himself. He learned his much smaller army, unencumbered by numerous regiments of soldiers and long lines of supply wagons clogging up the roads, could move much faster than its opponents. It could attack more rapidly than the British and it could retreat quicker, keeping men alive to fight future battles. The army’s ability to escape was just as important as its ability to attack. Guerilla warfare would be the hallmark of the army for several years. Washington’s men could not defeat the British in classing head-to-head fighting, as had been proven in New York, but they could win battles if fought unconventionally, with daybreak assaults, sneak attacks and trickery.”
Regardless of any doubts about his suitability, it is certain that the Revolutionary War would have taken a different course without Washington at the helm. Though he developed a reputation as being stubborn, irascible, difficult to work with and of elitist values, Washington also had a knowing grasp of the problems that faced the Continental Army specifically and the American Revolution generally. Though frustrated at the lack of discipline and military tone within the army, rather than leaving the matter to others Washington rolled up his sleeves and got busy. He took on roles that were normally the job of more junior officers: issuing daily orders, training men, taking drill. Washington was always writing to Congress, pleading for more money, supplies, horses and especially more men (the refusal of Congress to extend terms of enlistment beyond twelve months was a constant problem).
Though aggressive by nature he knew that facing a professional British army in a pitched battle was going to be disastrous for the fledgeling continental forces, so he carefully avoided this tactic through most of the war. With America possessing only two national institutions – Congress and the Army – the destruction of one or the other would have spelt the end for the revolution; the Continental Army had to be kept intact at all costs. Most of the army’s engagements, at least before the arrival of French troops and naval forces, were skirmishes or small-scale battles. The Battle of Trenton – more an ambush than a pitched battle – was an example of Washington having to break with traditional methods of warfare to attain success.