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After fighting broke out in the American Revolutionary War in April 1775, George Washington was appointed as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.

Washington appeared before the Second Continental Congress in military uniform, signaling that he was prepared for war. Congress created the Continental Army on June 14; the next day it selected Washington as commander-in-chief. There was no serious rival to his experience and confident leadership, let alone his base in the largest colony. Massachusetts delegate John Adams nominated Washington, believing that appointing a southerner to lead what was at this stage primarily an army of northerners would help unite the colonies. Washington reluctantly accepted, declaring "with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the Command I [am] honored with."[1] He asked for no pay other than reimbursement of his expenses.

New York and New JerseyEdit


George Washington assumed command of the colonial forces in Boston in July 1775, during the ongoing siege of Boston. Realizing his army's desperate shortage of gunpowder, Washington asked for new sources. British arsenals were raided (including some in the West Indies) and some manufacturing was attempted; a barely adequate supply (about 2.5 million pounds) was obtained by the end of 1776, mostly from France. [2]

Washington reorganized the army during the long standoff, and forced the British to withdraw by putting artillery on Dorchester Heights overlooking the city. The British evacuated Boston and Washington moved his army to New York City. In August 1776, British General William Howe launched a massive naval and land campaign to capture New York designed to seize New York City and offer a negotiated settlement. The Americans were committed to independence, but Washington was unable to hold New York. Defeated at the Battle of Long Island on August 27, he barely managed to escape with most of his forces to the mainland. Several other defeats sent Washington scrambling across New Jersey, leaving the future of the Continental Army in doubt. On the night of December 25, 1776, Washington staged a counterattack, leading the American forces across the Delaware River to capture nearly 1,000 Hessians in Trenton, New Jersey. Washington followed up the assault with a surprise attack on British forces at Princeton. These unexpected victories after a series of losses recaptured New Jersey, drove the British back to the New York City area, and gave a dramatic boost to Revolutionary morale.

Philadelphia and Valley ForgeEdit

In 1777, the British launched two uncoordinated attacks. The first was an invasion by General John Burgoyne down the Hudson River from Canada designed to reach New York City and cut off New England. Simultaneously, Howe left New York City and attacked the national capital at Philadelphia. Washington's loss of Philadelphia prompted some members of Congress to discuss removing Washington from command. This episode failed after Washington's supporters rallied behind him.[3]

Washington sent General Horatio Gates and state militias to deal with Burgoyne while he moved the main Continental army south to block Howe's march on Philadelphia. However, Washington's flank was turned at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, enabling Howe to march into Philadelphia unopposed. While they occupied the American capital, British forces had become increasingly spread out at this point in the war and Washington saw an opportunity to strike after months of feigned retreats. Thus, Washington's army led a massive attack on the British garrison at the Battle of Germantown in early October. While unsuccessful, the battle left the British army badly scarred and marked the beginning of several offensively-minded moves by Washington. Meanwhile Burgoyne, out of reach from help from Howe, was trapped and forced to surrender his entire army at Saratoga. The British had gained the empty prize of Philadelphia, while losing one of their two armies. The victory caused France to enter the war as an open ally (followed by Spain and the Netherlands as allies of France), turning the Revolution into a major world-wide war in which Britain was no longer the dominant military force.

Washington's army encamped at Valley Forge in December 1777, where it stayed for the next six months. Over the winter, 2,500 men (out of 10,000) died from disease and exposure. The next spring, however, the army emerged from Valley Forge in good order, thanks in part to a full-scale training program supervised by Baron von Steuben, a veteran of the Prussian general staff.


Surrender of Lord Cornwallis

Depiction by John Trumbull of the surrender of Lord Cornwallis's army at Yorktown

French entry into the war changed the dynamics, for the British were no longer sure of command of the seas and had to worry about an invasion of their home islands. The British evacuated Philadelphia in 1778 and returned to New York City, with Washington attacking them along the way at the Battle of Monmouth; this was the last major battle in the north. The British tried a new strategy based on the assumption that most Southerners were Loyalists at heart. Ignoring the north (except for their base in New York), they tried to capture the Southern states while fighting the French elsewhere around the globe. During this time, Washington remained with his army outside New York, looking for an opportunity to strike a decisive blow while dispatching troops to other operations to the north and south. The long-awaited opportunity finally came in 1781, after a French naval victory allowed American and French forces to trap a British army in Virginia. The surrender at Yorktown on October 17, 1781 marked the end of fighting. The Treaty of Paris (1783) recognized the independence of the United States.

Washington's contribution to victory in the American Revolution was not that of a great battlefield tactician; in fact, he lost more battles than he won, and he sometimes planned operations that were too complicated for his amateur soldiers to execute. However, his overall strategy proved to be successful: keep control of 90% of the population at all times; keep the army intact, suppress the Loyalists; and avoid decisive battles except to exploit enemy mistakes (as at Saratoga and Yorktown). Washington was a military conservative: he preferred building a regular army on the European model and fighting a conventional war, and often complained about the undisciplined American militia.


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One of Washington's most important contributions as commander-in-chief was to establish the precedent that civilian-elected officials, rather than military officers, possessed ultimate authority over the military. Throughout the war, he deferred to the authority of Congress and state officials, and he relinquished his considerable military power once the fighting was over. In March 1783, Washington used his influence to disperse a group of Army officers who had threatened to confront Congress regarding their back pay. Washington disbanded his army and announced his intent to resign from public life in his "Farewell Orders to the Armies of the United States." The document was written at his final wartime headquarters, a house on the outskirts of Princeton owned by the widow Berrien (later to be called Rockingham), but was sent to be read to the assembled troops at the fort of West Point on November 2.[4] A few days later, the British evacuated New York City, and Washington and the governor took possession of the city; at Fraunces Tavern in the city on December 4, he formally bade his officers farewell. On December 23, 1783, Washington resigned his commission as commander-in-chief to the Congress of the Confederation.

Washington's retirement to Mount Vernon was short-lived. He was persuaded to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, and he was unanimously elected president of the Convention. For the most part, he did not participate in the debates involved (though he did participate in voting for or against the various articles), but his prestige was great enough to maintain collegiality and to keep the delegates at their labors. The delegates designed the presidency with Washington in mind, and allowed him to define the office once elected. After the Convention, his support convinced many, including the Virginia legislature, to vote for ratification; all 13 states did ratify the new Constitution.

See alsoEdit



  1. Ellis, p. 70.
  2. Orlando W. Stephenson, "The Supply of Gunpowder in 1776," American Historical Review, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Jan., 1925), pp. 271-281 in JSTOR
  3. Fleming, T: "Washington's Secret War: the Hidden History of Valley Forge.", Smithsonian Books, 2005
  4. George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 3b Varick Transcripts. Library of Congress. Accessed on May 22, 2006.


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