American Heroes: George Washington – An Example of Leadership

“To say that George Washington was a rare gift would be an understatement. He was not just the right man at the right time– he was the only man who could have accomplished what he did, only to walk away from the power that he had forged.”

I am a huge fan of history. Not the boring history that I had to study throughout school, but the history that teaches us lessons about the future. I believe in the phrase that those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it. In fact, when I taught JROTC, I often tried to work a historical reference into the lesson plan. I have never understood the things that most history teachers make you memorize. Who cares about the who and when? To me, it is all about understanding the what, how, and why, and the way that their lessons interweave into our modern society.

For example, I remember studying the cotton gin in high school. It was patented in 1794 by Eli Whitney and removed seeds from picked cotton fibers. What lesson is gleaned from this, and who cares about the year and Eli Whitney himself? The lesson is that the cotton gin was enormously successful, but when Whitney attempted to market it the plantation owners were able to circumvent the patent laws and produce their own cotton gins. The net result was that Whitney did not make any significant money.

So why should we care? This event happened over 220 years ago; what possible relevance can it have? How about this– always make sure that you protect your investment and be wary of giving away the secrets before securing a contract. Additionally, the discovery of this process increased the proliferation of slaves throughout the south. It is important to recognize the impact of unintended consequences.

I wanted to write some articles on American military heroes and what we should learn from their examples. Granted, life lessons are often only visible in hindsight, such as the cotton gin leading to an increased reliance on slavery. Whitney could not have known that would be a consequence, but by studying parts of the past, maybe we can develop a guide to our future.

In this regard, there is no one else that I could possibly begin with other than George Washington. As a man, general, and American, George Washington is truly remarkable. He was born on 22 February 1732 in Virginia to a wealthy farming family. He was given a commission into the Virginia Militia as a Major and was actually looking towards a commission in the British Army, which is rather ironic given his future endeavors.

It was the French-Indian War that created the rest of this story, for without this war we may still have been a colony. In this conflict, the British and French were fighting over North America territories. Washington was sent to deliver a message to the French in the Ohio Valley, essentially telling them to leave. After meeting with the French commander, Washington was given a written response to return to the Virginia Governor. Upon his return, he presented both the response and a written account of his exploits traversing the mountainous terrain in the middle of the winter. This account was subsequently published both in the colonies and in Britain, making Washington a virtual hero on both continents at the young age of 21.

Washington was sent back with a small force to make it clear to the French that the English claimed the Ohio Valley as well. Washington eventually caught up with a French unit and shots were exchanged, thus starting the French-Indian War. The war ended up continuing between the French and English in Europe as well, putting Great Britain into quite a bit of debt.

During the war, a divide started to appear between the colonials and the Americans. It was a divide that would actually cause George Washington to resign from the military for a period of time . The British stopped paying American officers and determined that British forces would outrank the American militia regardless of the rank held by either side. Being a Colonel who was combat-tested and proven, George Washington found this particularly distasteful. While he would return to service and even accept a promotion as Commander of all Virginia Forces, he would never come to idolize the British military again. He retired as a Brigadier General prior to the end of the war, returning to his family farm.

Yet for all of his frustration with the British Officers, he actually owed them immensely. By working side by side with them for years, he became exceptionally knowledgeable on British tactics. He knew their strengths and weaknesses, and most importantly had to endure their hubris, seeing firsthand how their arrogance affected their decisions. In addition to learning about his future enemy in the British, he learned about his future ally in the French. Having been forced to negotiate with the French, he would later use that rapport to negotiate help in the form of training and equipment.

After the war, Great Britain found itself deep in war debt, and reached out to America to alleviate that obligation. There were many years and events that led up to the eventual start of the Revolution. To summarize, the King heavily taxed the colonists. The colonists were upset that they would pay such heavy taxes to the crown, yet were allowed no voice in the government. In addition, as the situation in the colonies deteriorated, the British army became more brutal and authoritarian. They would enter into the homes of the colonists, who were then forced to feed and house them.

Finally, the Americans had enough and the Continental Congress formed. Given his knowledge of warfare and the enemy they were about to face, George Washington was the only intelligent choice for the Commander of the Continental Army. He was appointed to this position on 14 June 1775 and quickly made his way to Massachusetts to take command of his forces.

The first engagement occurred on 19 April 1775 and had become known as “the Shot Heard Around the World.” The British had learned that the Americans had a supply depot that would be easy pickings, and quickly decided to move to secure the supplies. The Americans, due to an incredible network of spies, discovered the plans in time to not only move the supplies, but prepare for an attack. The British met the Colonial Army at Lexington in the morning and quickly overtook them due to superior numbers. In Concord, the Colonials reformed and countered the British, routing them back to Boston with the help of reinforcements.

What many do not realize is how close the Americans were to losing the war at every turn. Washington found himself in command of troops with little to no military training; even more alarming is the fact that he had few supplies to support him. This was a fact that he kept to himself and a very few other trusted advisors, fearing that their precarious situation would quickly lead to the Army disappearing.

Washington knew that he was out numbered and out-supplied. He endeavored not to engage the British Army in direct combat, choosing instead to constantly harass with small and quickly mobile elements. He also conducted warfare that was, during the colonial times, barbaric. His troops would intentionally target the officers with sharpshooters (predecessors to our modern snipers), which was considered uncivilized.

On occasions where Washington’s forces conducted force-on-force engagements, he typically lost. In fact, he was virtually overrun at Brooklyn Heights in August 1776, and if not for an overnight escape assisted by cover of fog, he would have lost his entire Army. At the end of 1776, the war was all but over. Washington was well aware of this and bet his Army on a single battle. He needed a win in order to reinvigorate the cause, and he determined that battle would be on Christmas Day 1776. This battle became immortalized in the painting of Washington leading his Army by boats over the frozen Delaware River in the middle of winter. Once he landed, he marched his Army into Trenton, picking up citizen Soldiers along the way who were eager to strike out against the British oppressors. Washington’s surprise attack succeeded, engendering a renewed sense of commitment.

Washington continued to lead his forces with tactical intuition and the ability to provoke a prodigious sense of loyalty until the French came into the picture in 1778. This finally gave the colonists the supplies and sea power it so desperately needed.

Along with these accomplishments, Washington had other strokes of absolute genius. Chief amongst these was the fact that he secretly inoculated his forces against smallpox, a major killer during the war. This kept numerous Soldiers in the war during key engagements who undoubtedly would have fallen ill otherwise.

He also learned of a military coup within his forces. He called his Officers together and spoke of the sacrifices they had made together; his sacrifices specifically. As a result, his troops abandoned the coup out of sheer loyalty to their leader. Additionally, he had ordered that prisoners of war would be treated fairly and not subjected to torture. This was in stark contrast with the British, but he made it clear that this nation he was creating would be one of compassion.

What makes him a national hero, however, has little to do with these accomplishments. What truly makes him the most worthy of all Americans for our highest accolades is a little-known event that occurred on 23 December 1783. It was on this date that Washington again determined the fate of the fledgling dream of freedom by freely resigning as the Commander in Chief of the Colonial Army.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, with the powers that Congress had given him and the loyalty of both the military and public, it is little-doubted that he could have easily taken control of the government. Yet so strong was his belief in the country he had fought so hard to create that he turned his back on this power to go back to the life of a farmer. This decision was one of tremendous gravity. Even the King of England, George III, could not believe this resolve, stating, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” Washington would do this a second time in 1796 when he declared that he would not seek a third presidential term.

To say that George Washington was a rare gift would be an understatement. He was not just the right man at the right time– he was the only man who could have accomplished what he did, only to walk away from the power that he had forged. George Washington proved himself to be the noblest of men. He is the one who established the peaceful transfer of power from one president to another. He did this without being boastful; it was the country, not the man, that mattered.

There is a lesson there for future leaders of our country to take.


Matthew Wadler

Matthew Wadler is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and U.S. Army veteran. Matt served in the Army for 20 years as both enlisted and officer before retiring. His service includes time as Military Police, Field Artillery, Adjutant General, and Recruiting. His deployments include Somalia and two tours to Afghanistan. His formal education includes a master’s degree in HR Management. He is a strong supporter of the constitution and advocate for the military and veteran communities. Follow Matthew on Twitter @MatthewWadler.

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