The Spirit Of ’76

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Whether on the offensive or the defensive, American generals have been expected to be bold, active, quick, and decisive. Public opinion and political leaders have been intolerant of generals who failed to get results. This attitude appeared during the War of Independence. It has been amplified by a free press demanding swift, clear results that could be summarized in eighteenth-century broadsides, nineteenth-century telegrams, twentieth-century headlines, and twenty-first-century sound bites. Military leaders in a free society have always needed not merely to act but to give the appearance of action. George Washington was keenly aware of this expectation, and he planned campaigns with public opinion in mind. After his very bold night march to Princeton, he wrote to John Hancock, “One thing I was certain of, that it would avoid the appearance of a retreat, which was of consequence.”

This requirement of boldness and activity in war was tempered by another principle, which Washington called prudence. It was always important in an open society—and especially necessary in the winter of 1776. After the disasters around New York, military leaders were acutely conscious that another failure, or even a costly success, could turn the country against them. Even when planning the boldest operations, Washington reminded his officers about the importance of acting prudently. Benedict Arnold (the least prudent of American generals) received many lectures on the subject. On March 3, 1777, Washington warned Arnold that he “must be sensible that the most serious ill consequences may and would, probably result from failure.… Unless your strength and circumstances be such as you can reasonably promise yourself a moral certainty of succeeding, I would have you by all means to relinquish the undertaking.”

An important measure of prudence for American leaders was the cost of operations in human life. Generals were expected to be very careful with the lives of their men. This was partly a matter of ethics—Americans placed an exceptionally high value on individual life—but it was also a matter of politics and public opinion. And it became a military necessity in the fall of 1776, when manpower was short. In consequence, George Washington and his officers designed their operations to keep down losses, with high success. In the New Jersey campaign, Americans suffered 4 killed and 8 wounded in the first Battle of Trenton, about 40 killed and wounded in the second Battle of Trenton, and about 100 killed or seriously wounded at Princeton.

WASHINGTON was a man of steadfast principle but also a military opportunist. Many American leaders would follow that example: Greene and Morgan, Lee and Jackson, Grant and Sherman, Eisenhower and Bradley, Nimitz and Patton, Schwarzkopf and Franks.

So the central problem in this American way of war was that the fighting must combine boldness with prudence, large gains with small losses. During the winter campaign of 1776–77 Washington and the Continental Army found a solution with many elements. Throughout the Revolution George Washington’s strategic purpose was constant—to win independence by maintaining American resolve to continue the war, by preserving an American army, and by raising the cost of the war to the enemy —but his means were fluid. The diversity of his operations in the winter campaign was the first clear example of a style that persisted through the war. He was quick to modify his plans with changing circumstances and adapted more easily than his opponents. Washington was a man of steadfast principle but also a military opportunist. Many American leaders followed that example: Greene and Morgan, Lee and Jackson, Grant and Sherman, Eisenhower and Bradley, Nimitz and Patton, Schwarzkopf and Franks.

Another element in this American approach to warfare was a new way of controlling initiative and tempo. Washington and his lieutenants did more than merely surprise the Hessian garrison at Trenton that morning after Christmas. They improvised a series of surprises through a period of 12 weeks and thus seized the initiative from their opponents and kept it in their hands for three crucial months. Washington made it a formal principle in the army when he ordered his generals to drive the campaign and not “be drove.”

Initiative was largely about the control of time in campaigning. The English historian George Otto Trevelyan wrote that George Washington succeeded at Trenton and Princeton because he “caught the occasion by the forelock.” In New Jersey, American leaders learned to make time itself into a weapon. They did it by controlling the tempo and rhythm of the campaign, much as a conductor regulates an orchestra. Pay after day through the winter the Americans called the tune and set the beat. The material and moral impact on the enemy was very great, and from all this an American tradition developed. It appeared on both sides in the Civil War, and in both theaters in World War II, in the Gulf wars, and in discussions of tempo by Pentagon planners in the twenty-first century.