George Washington And “the Guilty, Dangerous & Vulgar Honor”


But there was nothing inevitable about the task when he took it up. Then it looked impossible. His firmness and resolve, which looked stolid at a distance, gave heartening defiance to panic for those around him. Part of his sway over others was precisely the quiet strength that his whole physique conveyed. He was a giant for his day, linked to the legendary size of his French ally, the Comte de Grasse. The doctors who measured him on his deathbed probably made a mistake when they said he was six feet three inches tall; but even at six-two, in military boots he would have towered over most eighteenth-century men. Despite his size, and despite a rather clumsily shaped body, he was extraordinarily graceful in all his movements. Quick reflexes made him a model horseman, dancer, and athlete. At his favorite recreation of throwing weights, no one could equal him. Charles Willson Peale, at Mount Vernon to do his first portrait of the forty-year-old Washington, wrote that the plantation owner came out while the young men were throwing weights in their shirtsleeves and, without removing his coat, threw it far beyond their best mark. Travelers noted that, when water got rough in raft passages, the athletic Washington took the steering pole himself.

Washington had great stamina, and an immunity to smallpox (after a mild case in Barbados) that let him move freely among his men, even the quarantined. In eighteenth-century war, it was the custom for senior officers to go home while the army was in winter camp. But Washington did not see Mount Vernon in six years, and then only because the route to Yorktown took him past his estate. Other generals were constantly going to Philadelphia, dabbling in the politics of command and appointments; Washington went only when summoned. His presence was often the only thing holding the army together. That is why he could not be tempted away from Valley Forge or Morristown toward the milder winters of Virginia.

Though he did not indulge in empty theatrics, Washington knew that armies live on pride as well as on earthier provisions. At the retreat from Harlem Heights, a contemptuous British trumpeter sounded the hunt signal for “defeat” of a fox, not the military recall. Washington, who had hunted on the Fairfax estate, and whose horn still hangs at Mount Vernon, sent a cavalry detachment to strike at those guilty of the insult.

Like most military leaders, Washington was acutely aware of psychological advantage and knew how to use the grand gesture. The Marquis de Chastellux, French academician and generous supporter of the war, was irrevocably won to Washington by the farewell gesture when he left his camp: “The weather being fair on the 26th, I got on horseback after breakfasting with the General. He was so attentive as to give me the horse he rode on the day of my arrival, which I had greatly commended. I found him as good as he is handsome, but above all perfectly well broke and well trained, having a good mouth, easy in hand, and stopping short in a gallop without bearing the bit. I mention these minute particulars because it is the General himself who breaks all his own horses, and he is a very excellent and bold horseman, leaping the highest fences and going extremely quick without standing upon his stirrups, bearing on the bridle, or letting his horse run wild.”

The British, practicing their own form of psychological warfare, constantly denigrated Americans, treating only the French officers as belonging to a real army. The Americans, it was thought, could be demoralized if they were handled as mere riotous subjects of the king, a rabble on the run. Thus General Howe at first refused Washington any military title, sending his first missive to “George Washington, Esq.” Washington, after consultation with his staff, refused to accept the message. The story was later embellished by his staff, in ways that show their feeling for the leader. A newly arrived French officer heard the story this way: “One of the company (if I remember rightly, it was, I think, Colonel Hamilton, who was afterwards so unfortunately and prematurely snatched from the hopes of his country) related the manner in which the General had received a dispatch from Sir Henry Clinton [sic], addressed to ‘Mr. Washington.’ Seeing the address, ‘This letter,’ said he, ‘is directed to a planter of the state of Virginia. I shall have it delivered to him, after the end of the war; till that time it shall not be opened.’ A second dispatch was addressed to His Excellency General Washington.”


These were not empty matters of etiquette. Unless the rules of war were established, American captives could not count on proper treatment. Washington had to live like the leader of an outlaw band at times but command respect even from his foes. His welluniformed guard, chosen (among other things) for height and looks, attended him at the grand linen marquee that can only be displayed half-open at the Smithsonian. These were meant to impress arriving recruits as well as enemy emissaries. What was at stake was illustrated when Charleston fell to the British. General Benjamin Lincoln was denied the honors of war, sent out with veiled colors in humiliation. At the fall of Yorktown, Washington insisted on the same conditions for Cornwallis (he did not know this was the last major battle of the war—no one knew at the time).