- Military Genius? The Generalship of George Washington
A plethora of recent biographies of George Washington include popular works by best-selling authors such as Ron Chernow and Joe Ellis, all part of a continued trend of writing on the Founding Fathers that was dubbed Founders’ Chic in 2001. Stephen Brumwell does not attempt to justify another addition to this corpus, but his book is different in its virtually exclusive focus upon the military career of Washington from the French and Indian War to the 1790s. With distinguished exceptions like those of Dave R. Palmer and Ed Lengel, there are remarkably few such studies. Brumwell is a specialist in military history who wrote a widely acclaimed earlier book on the Seven Years War, Redcoats: The British Soldier and War in the Americas, 1755–1763 (Cambridge, England, 2002). His book is one of the first by a British author on Washington since Marcus Cunliffe’s George Washington: Man and Monument (1959).
Brumwell is now an independent writer whose military biography is written in an engaging narrative style and intended for a broad audience. He rarely makes overt authorial judgments on his subject with the exception of the period of Washington’s early command during the French and Indian War. Washington emerges as a very flawed junior commander in that war, but one who learned from his mistakes to become a successful leader during the American Revolution. Brumwell leaves the reader in no doubt that Washington exceeded orders and helped spark the war on the frontier that was the prelude to a general conflagration known in Europe as the Seven Years War. Although the precise sequence of events as to who fired first is open to question, Washington’s “own journal and likewise his reports to Dinwiddie, leave no doubt that he approached” a force of thirty French troops in a rocky glen “with hostile intent” (p. 54). The dozen or so who escaped him insisted that they were on a diplomatic mission. At Fort Necessity, Washington experienced a “humiliating defeat” motivated by the personal desire of Captain Louis Coulon de Villiers to revenge the death of his younger brother during Washington’s [End Page 405] earlier skirmish with the French. Far from diminishing his image, “these same events only enhanced Washington’s reputation as a man of honor in the eyes of his countrymen” (p. 63). In Britain, his actions “had simply reinforced the prejudice against [the] ‘amateur’ colonial” (p. 65). Aiding the growth of his reputation—both pro and con—was the fact that the young Washington was a self-promoter who published a pamphlet version, in both Williamsburg and London, of his journal of the expedition to the Ohio. Its contents were then reprinted or excerpted in magazines and newspapers.
Later in the war, Washington gave military advice to the British that betrayed his preference for Virginia’s interest over Pennsylvania’s, as he “worked assiduously to convince Bouquet, and through him Forbes, that Braddock’s Road remained the best route forward.” It caused a rift with the British commanders, which “dealt a damaging blow to his reputation as a trustworthy officer worthy of the king’s commission, and he had no one but himself to blame” (p. 131). After 1755, “while in command of the troops defending Virginia’s frontiers, Washington showed poor judgment in spending far too long away from his men” who “endured danger and hardship while he pursued his own selfish career objectives, enjoying the comforts of Williamsburg, Philadelphia, and Boston” (p. 159).
As if to reinforce his military failings in this period, the book makes a rare detour into his personal life to remind us of his failed suit of Sally Fairfax, to whom he wrote when already engaged to Martha, professing himself a “votary of Love” for Sally. In case she failed to take the hint, he wrote again saying that, rather than lead his forthcoming campaign, he would prefer to play the role of Juba in his favorite play Cato “to such a...