George Washington and the Miracle at Newburgh

There are several versions of this story, but the essence is always the same.

The Yorktown Surrender

Most people think the American Revolution ended in 1781 when Cornwallis surrendered his Redcoat army to Washington in Yorktown. That is not exactly true.

George Washington accepting Lord Cornwallis’ sword. An symbolic-historic painting. Photography was decades in the future.

In October, 1781, after nearly seven years of fighting a motley bunch of American militiamen, Lord Charles Cornwallis found his British Army in an untenable situation: surrounded on three sides with his back to the Chesapeake Bay, now patrolled by the French Navy. There was no way out.

If effectively brought the British and Americans to the negotiating table, but it took nearly another two years before the war actually ended.

Since it also took weeks and months for the British to disband their armies and arrange for transportation home, the American army was still obliged to maintain its vigilance. Congress, still assembled in Philadelphia, was all but impotent, but had the good fortune in sending some of its finest (Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams) to Europe to represent what the new country could become. But Congress accomplished little else.

GW: General of a Nation

George Washington as General of the Colonial Army. The Revolutionary War would age him considerably.

Despite his ever-regretted lack of a classical education, George Washington (1732-1799) was an astute businessman of uncommon intelligence. His original espousal of American independence – back in the late 176os – was predicated on financial issues and trade. As one of the delegates to the First Continental Congress in 1774, he was notably the only delegate with actual military experience, albeit twenty years earlier.

Named Commander-in-Chief of the Colonial Army, Washington was another fortuitous choice on many fronts. Militarily, he was constantly outnumbered, outclassed and usually outperformed by the British redcoats. Occasionally he could outsmart them – but it was rare, and more likely just a good tactical retreat.

In a business and administrative sense however, he was second to none. His organization, his reporting, his attention to detail and his good judgment in selecting subordinate staff was superb. His management of his officers was excellent. He could also “out-politick”  a few grumblers determined to undermine.

Few understood better than General Washington how imperative it was to maintain sufficient forces during that interim when the formal papers were being discussed. He intuitively know that a weak and uncohesive group of thirteen ex-colonies could be easy picking for England (again) or even France in the foreseeable future.

Maintaining the Army and maintaining his command was essential. Much as he truly longed to be Cincinnatus, and much as he ached to return to Mount Vernon, he knew his physical presence was possibly the only thing holding the country together.

Poor Congress

Most historians concede that the representatives to Congress during the late years of the Revolutionary War could be considered the “second string” team. The thirteen separate colonies, now separate states, behaved exactly the way earlier leaders feared: separately. Not surprisingly, most of the problems focused on money and taxation. Washington had faced that problem at the outset, i.e. if the battle was fought in Massachusetts, Massachusetts was expected to pay for it. The concept of providing monies (taxes) to support other states was unacceptable.

Congress understood the problem, and its representatives duly voted for proportionate taxes – but the individual state governments did not oblige. General Washington spent huge amounts of his time trying to coerce wealthy and influential citizens to support the soldiers, who were always in need of food, clothing, weapons and forage for horses.

Newburgh

George Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh, NY.

By 1782-3, the fragile United States were even more dis-united. George Washington once again cancelled his plan to return to Mount Vernon for a holiday in order to remain with the Army, now headquartered in Newburgh, NY, along the Hudson River.

Some of Washington’s officers.

The soldiers had not been paid for months. The paper money Congress had previously issued was worthless – “not worth a continental.” There were rumors that their promised pensions would be cancelled. The officers, the very backbone of the army, were disgruntled to a point of mutinous. Some of them called a meeting to plan a march to Philadelphia demanding payment by Congress. Washington was not “invited” to the meeting. He had always enjoyed the trust and respect of his officers; this was a serious matter: his ability to command was at stake.

There are many versions to the story, but the crux is always the same. George Washington spent much of the day carefully drafting his best arguments to persuade the officers of his genuine support and his continued influence to see they received justice, entreating them to be patient a little longer, and to trust their elected officials.  He also noted that all they had gained for their country could be irrevocably lost by behaving rashly.

John Adams’ eyeglasses from a decade later. Washington’s glasses were likely similar.

At the appointed hour of the ad hoc meeting, Washington, looking ever inch the General, strode unannounced into the front of the room. He was past fifty by then, having spend nearly 20% of his lifetime with the Army. He spoke briefly and to the point, and indicated that he had received a letter from Congress that he wished to read.

Then he fumbled in his waistcoat, doing something his officers had never seen him do before: he took out a pair of spectacles. Washington apologized, saying that he had “not only grown gray, but nearly blind in the service of his country.”

It is said that the officers were moved to tears at this singular personal confession from their marble-man General.

He had averted a mutiny.

He had provided a different kind of leadership.

He had become the indispensable man.

It may have been his finest moment.

Sources:

Flexner, James T. – George Washington in the American Revolution 1775-1783 – Little Brown, 1968

Lengel, Edward G. – General George Washington: A Military Life – Random House, 2005

http://www.opticalheritagemuseum.org/

http://www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/newburgh-address/

http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/washington-puts-an-end-to-the-newburgh-conspiracy

 

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About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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2 Responses to George Washington and the Miracle at Newburgh

  1. energywriter says:

    The new film at Yorktown shows this well. Thank you, again. sd

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