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Thursday, October 7, 2010

George Washington returns General Howe’s dog after the Battle of Germantown

In his new biography Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow confronts the popular belief that George Washington was a brilliant military strategist during the Revolutionary War. He shows Washington, in battle after battle, devising tactics that were too complicated, ignoring his military instincts, gathering inadequate intelligence, making poor decisions, and dangerously exposing himself to enemy fire. From the outset of his military career until the end of his Presidency, Washington does, however, emerge as a masterful motivator of men and a consummate politician with a knack for the personal touch.

The Battle of Germantown, which occurred 233 years ago this week, offers exemplary evidence of these traits. After the disastrous Battle of Brandywine in early September and British General William Howe’s capture of Philadelphia, Washington was eager to rally the spirits of his troops in one last engagement before winter. Howe had settled most of his main army of 9,000 troops in Germantown, a small town six miles northwest of Philadelphia on the banks of the Schuylkill River.

Recalling his successful nocturnal raid across the Delaware the previous December, Washington devised a plan that involved a forced nighttime march of 8,000 Continentals and 3,000 militia in a four-pronged attack that would surprise Howe in a pre-dawn raid. The heavy fog on the morning of October 4, 1777, helped cover the American army’s approach and caused the first wave of British troops to retreat, but only after they had set fire to a field. The ensuing mix of smoke and fog made communications between the rebel forces impossible and some ended up shooting one another. A British regiment turned Chew’s House, a three-story stone country home, into an impregnable fortress, and Washington lost valuable time and many lives deploying three regiments to try unsuccessfully to take it.

In just three hours the Continental forces were routed. The final tally was grim: 150 Americans killed, 520 wounded, and 400 captured versus 70 British killed, 450 wounded, and 15 captured. In a letter to his brother, Washington put a good face on it: “but for a thick fog rendered so infinitely dark at times, as not to distinguish friend from Foe, at a distance of 30 yards, we should, I believe, have made a decisive and glorious day of it.” In his report to John Hancock, Washington passed over that twice as many Americans as British had been killed. “Upon the whole it may be said that the day was rather unfortunate than injurious. We sustained no material loss of men . . . and our troops, who are not in the least dispirited by it, have gained what all young troops gain by being in actions.” Washington’s forces now knew that they could “confuse and even rout the flower of the British army with the greatest ease.”

Glad to hear anything that sounded like good news after its flight from Philadelphia, the Continental Congress commended Washington for his bravery and even forged a medal in his honor. Howe was apparently also impressed, recording that he didn’t think “the enemy would have dared to approach after so recent a defeat as that at Brandywine.” Howe’s response may have been influenced by two notes he received from Washington two days after the battle. One complained of the behavior of Howe’s troops: the torching of mills and the annihilation of Charlestown. The other was just two lines, most likely penned by Washington's aide-de-camp, Alexander Hamilton:
General Washington’s compliments to General Howe. He does himself the pleasure to return [to] him a dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on the collar appears to belong to General Howe.
Of related interest:
  • A recent post on the Symon Sez blog includes more details about the Battle of Germantown and Washington’s note to Howe about the dog.
  • Francis Spring Ronalds, writing in American Heritage, contends that the return of Howe's dog was more an opportunity to gather intelligence than an act of kindness

LOA related works: George Washington: Writings; The American Revolution: Writings from the War of Independence

1 comment:

  1. Sorry, but who had the conception of Washington as a brilliant military commander?

    He lost every major battle he was in save Yorktown (although flashes of brilliant tactics were in evidence at Trenton and Princeton, see Fischer, Washington's Crossing).

    Still, the only battle that matters is the last one, and Washington held it together until it could be fought and won.

    Once we understand that being a military strategist is only one aspect of a great general, we can truly appeciate that he WAS a great miltary leader in the fullest sense of the phrase.


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