Military history


Educations in Arms


BY THE END of November, when the weary, freezing, ragged provincials of Forbes’s army received their discharge at Pittsburgh, most of their counterparts in the northern theater of operations had already made their way home. Abercromby had closed down the New York campaigns in late October and thus avoided the usual mass desertions of provincials disinclined to serve past the expiration of their enlistment contracts. The mere absence of desertions, however, did not indicate contentment among the thousands of New England, New Jersey, and New York provincials any more than it bespoke admiration for the regular officers under whom they had served the past six months.1 Something nearer the opposite was the case. For the six thousand or so provincials who witnessed the debacle of Abercromby’s defeat at Ticonderoga the principal lesson was clear enough: it had been an almost incredibly “injuditious and wanton Sacrefise of men,” a tragic demonstration of how an arrogant or incompetent commander could destroy hundreds of lives in a few hours. 2 The provincials at the edge of the battle could not have doubted the discipline or the courage of the regulars who had met their deaths in Montcalm’s abatis, but nothing about the sight could have made them eager to emulate the redcoats’ example, either.

Or, more properly, none of them wished to be compelled to emulate that example. Service alongside the king’s troops made nothing more obvious to the provincials than that a coercive disciplinary system was the engine that drove the British army, and that the blood of common soldiers was its lubricant. Provincials who had volunteered to serve for a single campaign under their neighbors or older kinsmen were simply stunned to witness the operation of a system of military justice in which officers routinely sentenced enlisted men to corporal punishments that stopped just short of death, and not infrequently inflicted the death penalty itself.

In previous wars when New Englanders had served only under provincial, not regular, officers, they had behaved more or less like civilians in arms. A soldier who insulted his captain could expect to bear the consequences, which—depending upon the officer—might range from being knocked down on the spot to being placed under arrest, being court-martialed, and receiving ten or twenty lashes with a cat-o’-nine-tails. But under regular military discipline, insolence to an officer was a crime that carried a penalty of five hundred lashes; the theft of a shirt could earn a man a thousand; and desertion (no uncommon act among New England troops) was punishable by hanging or a firing-squad execution. An average provincial soldier serving with Abercromby’s army could witness a flogging of fifty or a hundred lashes every day or two, a flogging of three hundred to a thousand lashes once or twice a week, an execution at least once a month. Men could be seen enduring less formal “company punishments,” such as being compelled to walk the gauntlet or ride the wooden horse, almost any time. A provincial surgeon with Abercromby’s army noted that one had to make a special effort not to see punishments inflicted. “I saw not ye men whiped,” Dr. Caleb Rea wrote after a punishment parade at which one man was hanged and two others were flogged a thousand lashes each; “for altho’ there is almost every Day more or less [men] whiped or Piqueted or some other ways punished I’ve never had ye curiosity to see’m, the Shrieks and Crys being Satisfactory to me without ye Sight of ye Strokes.”3

The experience of service with the regulars left enduring marks on the provincials, and not only on those who left the army with scars on their backs. Most private soldiers in the New England regiments that made up most of the northern army’s manpower were young native-born men between seventeen and twenty-four years old, not yet married and still living in or near their hometowns. Most of them had grown up assuming that they were Englishmen of a particularly virtuous sort, for they were not only the sons of freeholders and men who could expect to become independent landholders in their own right, but the descendants of religious dissenters who had come to America to establish a New England, one more pleasing to God than the old. Their army service gave most of these young Yankees the opportunity to meet sizable numbers of real Englishmen—and Scots, and Welsh, and Irishmen—for the first time. What they saw and heard and experienced in this, their first extended experience away from home, was all the more striking because it challenged so many of their inherited preconceptions: notions about everything from the character of relations between men—which they had assumed were contractual and fundamentally voluntary but that British officers regarded as being founded on status and coercion—to the nature of Englishness itself. While the war demonstrated the manifest differences between themselves and their British comrades-in-arms, it by no means convinced them that they were inferior to the redcoats, who, as one provincial wrote, “are but little better than slaves to their Officers.” 4 Nor did contact with regular officers do anything to convince them that these representatives of the metropolitan ruling class were their moral superiors. The treatment they received from the likes of Abercromby and Loudoun nonetheless made it emphatically clear that the army’s leaders regarded them at best as “an Obstinate and Ungovernable People, Uterly Unaquainted with the Nature of Subordination,” and at worst as “the dirtiest most contemptible cowardly dogs that you can conceive.”5

From 1756 onward, the Anglo-American armies became arenas of intercultural contact in which tens of thousands of American colonists encountered the British cultural and class system as refracted through the prism of the regular army. Because the war did not affect all the colonies equally, its impact varied from region to region; New England in particular contributed vastly more men in proportion to its population than the Chesapeake or the Middle Colonies. Yet especially after Pitt’s policies took effect in 1758 and the total numbers of colonists engaged in fighting the war rose to unprecedented levels, provincial soldiers came from everywhere in North America, and the experience of military service became correspondingly widespread. Wherever provincials served alongside regulars they could no more escape noticing the differences between themselves and their redcoated superiors than they could avoid hearing the “Shrieks and Crys” of the men being “whiped or Piqueted or some other ways punished” in their camps. Moreover, because the great majority of provincial common soldiers were young men, men whose influence on their society would grow more palpable as they acquired property and household-headship in later years, the impact of their wartime experiences might be felt for years after their discharge from service. By sheer weight of numbers the war’s greatest long-term impact would be felt in New England, where between 40 and 60 percent of the men in the prime military age range would pass through the provincial forces before peace finally returned. At least in Massachusetts and Connecticut, the war’s ultimate effect would be to create a generation of men from people who had been mere contemporaries. But everywhere in the colonies that men had served as provincial soldiers, the war would have its influence, even if it was less encompassing than in New England. The intense, shared experiences of fatigue and discipline, of boredom and fear, of physical hardship and battle, would for years inform the perceptions and help shape the actions of the men who had served.6

Indeed, even at the end of 1758 the effects of the great campaigns were evident throughout the colonies, as men like Rufus Putnam and John Cleaveland returned home with stories to tell and pay to collect; as less fortunate men returned with the wounds and injuries that would blight their lives; as still other men never came back at all. In no case, however, were the effects of the war and military service more important than they had been in the life of the tall, grave Virginian who rode into Williamsburg on Christmas to resign his commission as colonel of the 1st Virginia Regiment. 7

George Washington had been at war more or less continuously for five years. Now, with the expulsion of the French from the Forks and presumably the restoration of peace to the Virginia frontier, he believed that he had done enough. Although he had told almost no one that he intended to resign if the campaign reached a successful conclusion, he had prepared carefully for his reentry into civilian life. The previous spring he had proposed marriage to the richest and most eligible widow in New Kent County, Martha Dandridge Custis, and she had accepted; they were to be married on January 6. By joining their lands, slaves, and wealth they would position the family (for Martha was already the mother of two small children) well up in the ranks of northern Virginia’s planter elite. Shortly after Martha agreed to marry him, Washington had decided to confirm his new standing by seeking election to the House of Burgesses as a representative of Frederick County. The freeholders had elected him to the seat, by a wide margin, in late July, and he would take his place in the House when the winter session began in February. Any interested observer might reasonably have concluded that Washington’s military career—inauspiciously begun with defeat in 1754 and marked thereafter by increasing competence, if not glory—had been no more than a preliminary and perhaps calculated stage in the rise of an unusually ambitious man. But Washington’s career as commander of the 1st Virginia Regiment had in fact been much more.8

Most of all the war had been a kind of education, in many aspects of life, for a man who had undergone very little formal instruction. Most obviously, his military experience had taught him a variety of technical and practical lessons. In defending the Virginia frontier from 1754 through 1757, he had learned how to make the most of manpower that was never adequate to the task, how to lay out and build forts and blockhouses, organize supply and transport services, dispense military justice, drill and train soldiers, manage the manifold tasks of administration and paperwork that the service required. He had learned less palpable but equally important skills of command as well: how to earn the respect and maintain the loyalty of his subordinate officers, how to issue clear and concise orders, how to keep his distance, how to control his temper. He had acquired these skills in part by study—he had been an indefatigable reader of military manuals and treatises, devouring everything from Caesar’s Commentaries to Colonel Humphrey Bland’s Treatise of Military Discipline— and in part by observing experienced officers in action. He had transcribed the orders issued by the regular officers, Braddock and Forbes and Bouquet, under whom he served, and studied them carefully. Unlike the New Englanders, who had generally recoiled from redcoat discipline and clung the more strongly to their region’s contractualist military traditions, Washington had observed how the regulars conducted themselves in order to emulate them. Thus he acquired their attitudes, copied their habits of command, and absorbed their prejudices to the point that he became one of them in virtually every respect but the color of his coat and the provenance of his commission. As fully and as self-consciously as possible, Washington made himself a professional military officer between 1754 and 1758 and learned to handle regimental affairs with a proficiency not inferior to that of many colonels in the British army.9

To say that Washington became a capable military administrator, of course, is not to say that he also became a brilliant tactician. Beyond the quality—indispensable in an infantry commander—of unshakable physical courage, he had shown little obvious skill on the battlefield. His first encounter with an enemy force had ended in a massacre; his second in crushing defeat. He had ridden beside Braddock through one of the worst disasters in Anglo-American military history and kept his nerve, but that was about all. The experience did not translate into mastery of woodland warfare. Throughout 1756 and 1757 his regiment had skirmished with Indians along the Virginia frontier, but there is no evidence that it inhibited the raids or lessened their deadly effect. On the Forbes expedition he had shown himself capable of controlling a thousand or more men on the march through difficult country—no mean feat—but in his only encounter with an enemy force he had been unable to identify a friendly detachment in time to stop his men from opening fire on it. Yet even these experiences had, in their way, served him well, for Washington at the end of 1758 was a man much more fully aware of the hazards of combat and of the limitations of command than was the inexperienced, hasty, and seemingly much younger officer who in the summer of 1754 had professed to be charmed by the sound of bullets whistling past his ears.

The best single indication of his growth as a military leader can be found in a memorandum he wrote to Henry Bouquet on the night of November 6, 1758, following a conference over plans for the remainder of the campaign. November 6 was, of course, the day before Post arrived at Loyalhanna with the news of the Easton treaty, so neither Bouquet nor Washington had any reason to think that the Ohio Indians would abandon their allies. The best recent intelligence of enemy strength dated from Grant’s defeat, and that gave no one cause for optimism. Even so, Bouquet had told Washington that he intended to advise Forbes to cut the army loose from its supply base at Fort Ligonier and march without delay to Fort Duquesne. Washington had tried to demur, but Bouquet had been unconvinced. Hours after their meeting, Washington found himself haunted by the thought that Bouquet would convince Forbes, so eager to bring the campaign to a successful close, to take the risk. His memorandum was a final effort to dissuade Bouquet from advocating an immediate attack.

With the history of Braddock’s expedition obviously in mind, Washington first urged Bouquet to consider what the consequences would be of meeting the enemy on his own ground, with only the supplies they could carry and no system capable of replenishing stocks of food and ammunition when they were exhausted. Under such circumstances, a defeat might mean being forced back to Fort Ligonier, which they would then be compelled to evacuate for lack of provisions, “ab[and]oning our Artillery either to the Enemy or a general destruction.” But then, he went on, “suppose the Enemy gives us a meeting in the Field and we put them to the Rout[. W]hat do we gain by it? perhaps triple their loss of Men in the first place, thô our numbers may be greatly superior (and If I may be allowd to judge from what I have seen of late, we shall not highten much that good opinion they seem to have of our skill in woods fighting)— therefore to risk an Engagement when so much depends upon it, without having the accomplishment of the main point in view, appears in my Eye, to be a little Imprudent.” 10

This remarkable document suggests several things about Washington, not least of which is that he had sufficient confidence in his own judgment to press his views home to a regular officer who disagreed with them: an officer who was not only his superior, but a man who had seen his first military service before Washington was five years old. Most of all, however, the memorandum shows that Washington had grasped the most significant lessons that the wilderness war had to offer: that to win campaigns, or presumably even the war itself, one need not necessarily win battles; that, indeed, to win a battle at the wrong time or in the wrong way could lead to failure in the larger realm of conflict. Any number of tactical defeats could be compensated for by merely retaining discipline and maintaining one’s force in the field longer than one’s enemy.

Braddock’s experience had suggested as much, and Forbes’s campaign was on the verge of proving it. Braddock’s army had forfeited the advantage to the French in 1755 not because it suffered a grievous defeat in which Braddock himself had been killed, but because Dunbar had succumbed to the momentum of demoralization and flight. By ordering the army’s supplies and cannon destroyed, he had destroyed the army’s chance to return and fight again. Forbes fully understood this lesson and thus spent enormous amounts of time and money securing his lines of communication and studding them with fortified supply depots. As a result, individual defeats—even ones as substantial as Grant’s—might slow his advance, but they could not stop it. In the end Forbes’s army would not win a single engagement with its enemy, but it would gain its ultimate goal. The absence of a strict relation between victory on the battlefield and achieving one’s strategic purpose was by no means obvious, even to officers as experienced and sophisticated as Henry Bouquet. But it was a lesson that Washington understood as fully, as decisively, as Forbes himself.

It would be merely silly, if it were not morally repugnant, to maintain that war builds character. And yet it ought not to be denied that, for better or for worse, military service and combat mold the views and the character of those who experience them. The Washington who advised Bouquet not to act rashly was a man who no longer entertained the illusions of his youth. He was, instead, a man for whom the strains of command and the experience of seeing men killed and wounded as a result of his orders had burned away the delusion that courage and valor—or even victory—will necessarily make the decisive difference that commanders long to achieve. He had acquired the professionalism of a British officer, even as he had been denied the commission that would have made him one. He had met many regular leaders and had modeled himself on those whom he took to be the best among them. He had learned how to give commands and how to take them. He had gained self-confidence and self-control, and if he could not honestly number humility among his virtues, he had at least begun to understand his limitations. George Washington, at age twenty-seven, was not yet the man he would be at age forty or fifty, but he had come an immense distance in five years’ time. And the hard road he had traveled from Jumonville’s Glen, in ways he would not comprehend for years to come, had done much to prepare him for the harder road that lay ahead.

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