George Washington: Officer and Gentleman

General George Washington

Of all the residents of 18th Century American Valhalla, George Washington was arguably the one whose character and demeanor were consistently above reproach.

Braddock: The Making of An Officer

The teenaged George Washington’s first career choice was the British Navy. After all, Britannia ruled the waves, and Naval officers were the elite. It did not happen, so the British Army was second best. That didn’t happen either. The best he could get was the Virginia Colonial militia.

With his fair experience as a surveyor and knowledge of the western parts of Virginia, he showed fine promise, displayed stamina and courage, along with all the callow failings of an eighteen or nineteen year old.

Gen. Edward Braddock  inspired a commander.

But at twenty, he managed to obtain a “voluntary” assignment as a scout to General Edward Braddock, one of England’s most experienced soldiers. The French and Indian War was going full tilt, and Washington had knowledge of the frontier, the Indian tribes, and the trails and forts.

The patrician Braddock took a liking to his young volunteer, and counseled him in many of the character traits that make fine leadership. That the two men differed in many ways is to be expected, but Washington absorbed readily, and took many of the older man’s instructive remarks to heart. When General Braddock met the bullet with his name on it, it was young Washington, of the Virginia Militia, who took charge and brought the remaining soldiers back to safety.

One of the key lessons he learned from Braddock, was the importance of a solid and competent officer corps. He famously stated that “An army of asses led by a lion is better than an army of lions led by an ass.”

The Revolutionary Officer

George Washington, commander

George Washington spent eight years in the Virginia Militia, rising to the rank of Colonel. He tried numerous times to secure a position in the British Army, but it never happened, and disenchanted after eight years, he changed careers. He had inherited his late half-brother’s property along the Potomac River, married the wealthiest young widow in Virginia, and was a successful planter for the next fifteen years. The property was a profitable showplace, and Washington became a wealthy man. As such, he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses.

When the rifts and unrest between England-the-Mother-Country and the Colonies intensified to a point of military action, it was Washington who was appointed “General.” He had the most professional experience of anyone, even if he was a little rusty.

He spent eight years in command of the little American army, filled with losses, brilliant retreats, a few hard-won semi-victories, and several political near-coups. By and large, it was a thankless job.

General Rochambeau, the French General who respected Washington

But throughout the Revolution, through bad times, worse times, and some horrible times, Washington maintained his unquestioned leadership. His personal reserve and irreproachable character brought him an almost mythic reputation.

By the surrender of Cornwallis’ Army at Yorktown in October, 1781, he was becoming what future generations would term “the indispensable man.”


Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, redeemed at Yorktown.

By the late 1770s, the American Revolution had taken a new direction: instead of its focus on New England and the middle colonies, the British swept up through the Southern Colonies. Washington was consulted on the strategies and tactics, but  his best under-commanders were in the field: General Nathaniel Greene and General Benjamin Lincoln. Washington himself never went South during the Revolution. Greene and Lincoln had a rough go of it, learning Washington’s lessons of running away to fight another day.

Meanwhile, after Benjamin Franklin’s long diplomatic siege on the French monarchy, monetary and military assistance had finally materialized. General Jean-Baptiste Rochambeau (1725-1807) and Admiral the Comte deGrasse, were finally committed to the American cause.

General Charles Cornwallis, a capable officer in a bad spot.

General Charles Cornwallis, one of England’s finest commanders, found himself in an untenable situation at the little town of Yorktown, Virginia, some 75 miles up the York River from the Chesapeake Bay – just as the French Fleet arrived and found a superb place for a bottleneck. As the American soldiers effectively held the English with their backs to the river, Washington and his soldiers, plus Rochambeau and his soldiers, raced from New York to Yorktown, Virginia. This would be it. Perhaps the war would be over.

The Surrender

The surrender at Yorktown, by Trumbull

General Cornwallis, competent officer though he was, had no choice. He was boxed in, and had learned that no reinforcements or aid would be forthcoming. He requested terms to surrender his army.

George Washington had an excellent memory, and remembered the humiliation that General Benjamin Lincoln had endured in South Carolina at the hands of British General Henry Clinton. He had been refused the “honors” of war (something of the utmost importance to GW), and was treated ignominiously.

General Washington sent word to Cornwallis, that his second-in-command General Benjamin Lincoln would accept the surrender. Cornwallis immediately advised that he was indisposed (these honors were of the utmost importance to him, too), and sent his second-in-command, General Charles O’Hara, who offered his sword to Rochambeau. The French General graciously declined, and to British musicians playing A World Turned Upside Down, Benjamin Lincoln accepted O’Hara’s sword.

General Washington, Quintessential Gentleman

General Washington, officer and gentleman.

It wasn’t personal. Washington, a patrician Virginia planter as well as General, had sincere respect for his adversary General Cornwallis, and after the surrender, invited him and key members of his staff to a dinner at his headquarters. It was undoubtedly elegant, with the finest of food and wine.

According to historian Paul Boller, the story goes that his guest General Rochambeau stood, raised his glass and toasted, “To The United States.”

Washington stood, raised his glass and saluted, “To the King of France.”

Then Cornwallis stood, raised his glass and said, “To the King.”

There was silence. Then Washington stood, raised his glass and said, “….of England. Let him stay there and I will drink him a full bumper.”


Boller, Paul F., Jr. – Presidential Anecdotes, Oxford University Press, 1981

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


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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