by MAJ Steven D. Russell, USA
In his lengthy treatise On War Carl von Clausewitz stated that most of the subjects on the theory of war were half physical and half moral. “We might say the physical are almost no more than the wooden handle, whilst the moral are the noble metal, the real bright-polished weapon,” he wrote.
While he concluded that the realm of the talents of the commander included virtue of the army and national feeling, he missed the chance to capture by historical example a general that embodied such moral force in action.
George Washington was a great commander because he acted upon his personal moral convictions, which resulted in his entire Army being victorious against an opposing force that, by all accounts, should have beaten them.
Much has been written about Washington the hero, Washington the commander, and Washington the President. Unfortunately, historians have often missed the mark on why Washington possessed such strong qualities of leadership and character. His Christian faith was the most potent force in his life and yet, to read modern history, one could never learn what truly set Washington apart from his peers.
Some revisionist historians today even suggest that Washington was a deist, though there is no scholarly evidence to support such a claim. These historians further claim that it was Washington’s luck, combined with Yankee ingenuity, bravery, and tactics that allowed America to prevail as a nation and garnered Washington a place in history as a great commander. Certainly, ingenuity, bravery and good tactics were in evidence, but Washington prevailed because of a good deal more than luck.
Clausewitz’s assertion that the moral force embodying the commander, creates the virtue of the army and the national feeling, had validity in the history of the American Revolution. In the Continental Army, Washington was directly responsible for virtue, and by keeping the army alive, allowed a national feeling to arise and flourish.
How did Washington shape the virtue of the army? Early on, he carried strong faith into his public life. This is evident from the following entries in his prayer journal:
Let my heart, therefore, gracious God, be so affected with the glory and majesty of (Thine honor) that I may not do my own works, but wait on Thee, and discharge those weighty duties which thou requirest of me. . .Thou gavest thy Son to die for me; and hast given me assurance of salvation, upon my repentance and sincere endeavor to conform my life to His holy precepts and example. These are not the words of a deist. These are the words of a man that walked and lived to honor God.
Washington had an impact upon his men immediately upon his assumption of command. He knew that his men must have the inner faith of God to sustain them in the perilous times ahead. The day after assuming command, he issued the following order:
The General most earnestly requires and expects a due observance of those articles of war established for the government of the army which forbid profane cursing, swearing and drunkenness. And in like manner, he requires and expects of all officers and soldiers not engaged in actual duty, a punctual attendance of Divine services, to implore the blessing of Heaven upon the means used for our safety and defense.
Within two weeks he issued orders for his soldiers and officers to observe the national fast day exactly as the Congress directed for the colonies. In the winter of 1775, he dealt with desertion not by execution, as the British did, but by implementing a biblical policy of thirty-nine lashes with subsequent drumming out of the camp and public humiliation.
After the providential evacuation of New York, the attack on Trenton, and the disastrous fall of Philadelphia, Washington’s faith and determination were the key ingredients that prevented his command from disintegrating.
Choosing an encampment near Philadelphia to keep guard on the British, Washington exerted his moral will on the soldiers at Valley Forge. Amidst the lack of pay, food and clothing, only Washington could have prevailed. He even designed the winter quarters to his exact specification, thus ensuring his men could survive the winter weather.
Army Surgeon James Thacher wrote, the commander-in-chief, ” . . . whom every soldier venerates and loves, manifests a fatherly concern and fellow feeling for their sufferings, and has made every exertion in his power to remedy the evil, and to administer the much-desired relief . . . In this darkening hour of adversity, any man who possesses less firmness than Washington, would despair of our independence.”
Washington’s firmness at Valley Forge paid off. His character impressed all who came in contact with him. To the distinguished character of a Patriot, he exhorted his men, “it should be our highest glory to add the distinguished character of a Christian.”
That he was able to pass on this virtue and character is evident by the lack of desertions, willingness of his men to drill under strict Prussian discipline, and the comments of his soldiers during this period. “Our attention is now drawn to one point,” a soldier reported in the Pennsylvania Packet, “the enemy grows weaker every day, and we are growing stronger. Our work is almost done, and with the blessing of heaven, and the valor of our worthy General, we shall soon drive these plunderers out of our country.” Valley Forge proved to be the turning point for the Continental Army.
By May of 1778, the army was of such discipline that France was convinced of her ability to withstand the might of the British. The result was French intervention, fresh supplies, and eventual victory. Washington’s moral will had prevailed.