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Complete Biography of George Washington

 Complete Documentary of George Washington 

The man known to history as George Washington was born on the 22nd of February 1732 at his

father’s plantation of Pope’s Creek in Westmoreland County in the Colony of Virginia,

one of the thirteen British colonies in North America.

His father was Augustine Washington, a member of Virginia’s landed gentry, and a successful

businessman who owned several tobacco plantations as well as iron operations in Virginia and

neighbouring Maryland in partnership with the English Principio Company.

He was also active in the local militia and was a justice of the peace and sheriff for

Westmoreland County.

Augustine had married his first wife Jane Butler in 1715, who bore him four children

before her death in 1729.

A couple of years later in 1731 he would marry the 23-year-old Mary Johnson Ball, who would

give him a further six children, of whom George was the eldest.

Mary Washington was born in 1708 to an elderly father who died three years later, leaving

her 400 acres of land, while her mother died when she was twelve.

The orphaned Mary was left in the care of family friend George Eskridge, who was probably

responsible for introducing her to Augustine Washington.

Thus, when Mary gave birth to her first son, she named him George.

Brought up as a loyal subject of the British Empire, as a child George Washington could

never imagine that one day he would be responsible for leading the successful military rebellion

to break free from Britain and establish the United States of America.

He grew up in eastern Virginia amidst a vast expanse of farmland with plantation houses

and small towns dotted across the landscape.

Within the British social hierarchy, the Washingtons were considered commoners, far removed from

the regal splendour of the court of King George II.

Nevertheless, within the American colonies the Washingtons were by no means poor, and

with over 10,000 acres of plantation land together with his other commercial interests,

Augustine Washington was certainly a member of the local elite.

His wealth and prosperity depended in part on slave labour, allowing plantation owners

a lot of free time, which was typically filled with fox hunts, horse races, and other entertainments.

Augustine Washington’s tendency to move around his properties to better manage his

business interests meant that George had an unsettled childhood.

In 1735 the family moved to the 2500-acre estate of Little Hunting Creek on the banks

of the Potomac River, and three years later in 1738 they moved once again to Ferry Farm

on the Rappahannock River across from the port of Fredericksburg, and a short ride away

from the ironworks at Accokeek Creek.

From his house, George could see the ships being loaded with tobacco, iron, and other

commodities which would soon fuel the very early stages of the Industrial Revolution

and in return, the colony of Virginia grew steadily richer.

One of the most important figures in George’s childhood was his half-brother, Lawrence.

Fourteen years older than George, Lawrence studied at Appleby Grammar School where he

stayed on as a teacher until the age of twenty.

It was around this time, when George was six years old, that the two brothers first met.

He heard stories of Lawrence’s service as a captain in a Virginia company in 1739 during

the War of Jenkin’s Ear against Spain, named after the British naval captain whose ear

had been cut off during an altercation with the Spanish several years earlier.

Lawrence was part of an expeditionary force led by Admiral Edward Vernon which attacked the Spanish port of Cartagena in South America.

The effort proved a bloody failure as the force was cut down by the enemy and yellow


Captain Washington never made it off the ship, blaming General Thomas Wentworth, who treated

the American soldiers with disdain and did not even let them leave their ships.

In spite of this, Lawrence Washington proudly served the British Army as a commissioned

officer and was appointed adjutant general of Virginia, with responsibility over the

organisation of the colony’s militia companies.

When his father transferred him to the management of the estate at Little Hunting Creek, he

renamed it Mount Vernon after the admiral.

George may have expected to receive the same classical education as his elder half-brothers,

but such hopes were extinguished on the 12th of April 1743, when his father died at the age of 49.

The 11-year-old George’s share of his father’s inheritance was Ferry Farm, but his mother

Mary continued to run the estate and would continue to do so as George reached adulthood.

Mary’s strict upbringing of her five surviving children meant that the relationship between

mother and son was cool and distant, with George addressing her in formal terms in his

letters as “Honoured Madam.”

He looked forward to his trips to visit Lawrence at Mount Vernon as an escape from his overbearing


Details of George Washington’s early education are sketchy and any instruction he received

was likely rather basic.

The available evidence suggests that he had lessons in basic mathematics and picked up

knowledge of business and economics of his own accord.

As a teenager he would read widely in history and philosophy as well as the popular fiction

of the time.

He also enjoyed physical activity and outdoor pursuits, swimming in the Rappahannock, and

proved to be an excellent horseback rider, an attribute that would serve him well in

his military career.

Later in life Washington regretted not having the opportunity to study French, Latin, and

Greek, the signs of social and intellectual distinction of the day.

Among his better educated friends and colleagues such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and

Alexander Hamilton, who provided the theoretical and intellectual foundations of the United

States of America, Washington’s intellect seemed backward and provincial.

In his own terms, however, he was an intelligent man who could translate ideas into action.

After losing his father, Washington came to rely even more heavily on his brother Lawrence,

who had not only been elected to the House of Burgesses but had married Ann Fairfax 


whose family owned more than five million acres, managed by her father Colonel William

Fairfax on behalf of his English cousin, the 6th Baron Fairfax.

The young George Washington befriended Ann’s brother George William Fairfax who was eight

years his senior, and also won the affection of her father the colonel.

In 1746 the elder Fairfax and Lawrence planned to help George escape the clutches of his

mother by joining the Royal Navy.

Unwilling to lose a useful helping hand on the farm, Mary eventually vetoed the plan.

Thwarted in his ambitions to go to sea, at the age of 15 George decided to become a surveyor,

a lucrative profession as settlers continued to expand westwards.

This training allowed him to appreciate geographical features on maps and in the real world, a

skill which he would use throughout his professional life.

His first job in the spring of 1748 was to help the Fairfaxes divide up their vast domains

into plots for further development.

Within a couple of years he would make his first investments in land, buying up over

2,000 acres by the time he turned twenty.

George would add to his land holdings in 1752 following the death of Lawrence from tuberculosis

that July at the age of 34, leaving behind his wife and a baby daughter.

Lawrence stipulated that in the event of their deaths, his estate of Mount Vernon would pass

on to George.

The death of his brother dealt a heavy blow to George, who had hoped to emulate Lawrence’s

military career.

After lobbying the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia Robert Dinwiddie, he was appointed

adjutant general of his home district in February 1753 with the rank of major.

Major Washington would soon be a very busy man.

By 1753, both the British and French empires owned large tracts of land in North America.

The thirteen British colonies stretched along the eastern coast, bounded by the Allegheny

Mountains to the west, while the French territories ran from New Orleans in the southwest through

the Mississippi to the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence River in the North.

As both empires expanded their footprint, they soon had competing claims on the vast

Ohio Country.

In 1752, the French began building several forts in the disputed territory, and the following

year Lieutenant Governor Dinwiddie, a leading investor in the Ohio Company, received permission

from London to build a set of British forts alongside instructions to inform the French

to leave the area.

The 21-year-old Washington was chosen for this special mission and set off with a small

company and crossed the Alleghenies in November 1753.

Washington executed his task diligently, not only carrying out his diplomatic duties but

gathering intelligence on the terrain and the strength of the French and Native American

presence in the area.

Upon his return to the colonial capital of Williamsburg in January 1754, his journal

was adapted into a report for the council and was passed onto London, where it informed

British military preparations to defend the Ohio Country against the French.

Washington secured for himself a major role in these military preparations, leading a

small militia force who would march to the Forks of the Ohio River and construct a fort.

At the same time, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel, though he was disappointed

that as a colonial officer his salary was much lower than those of regular officers

in the British army who had royal commissions.

In early April, Washington set out with 160 men into the wilderness, only to learn that

a force of 1,000 Frenchmen had captured the fort the British were building at the Forks

and renamed it Fort Duquesne after the Governor General of French Canada.

Washington and his Native American allies called for reinforcements and made camp.

On the 28th of May 1754, Washington and his company found a small group of French soldiers

encamped in a secluded position.

Believing them to be up to no good, Washington’s men surrounded them and a quick firefight

resulted in a French surrender.

During the skirmish a French officer delivering a diplomatic message asking the British to

evacuate the Ohio County was supposedly brutally killed by one of Washington’s Native American


The act sparked an international incident and while Washington was applauded in the

colonies for being a hero, the authorities in London considered his behaviour reckless

and further evidence that colonial soldiers could not be trusted.

Anticipating a French response, Washington hastily constructed a wooden fort named Fort


During these preparations his commanding officer had died after falling off his horse, and

Washington took command of the Virginia Regiment as colonel.

When he disregarded his Native American allies’ advice to withdraw on account of the inadequate

defences provided by the fort, they deserted him and left the British to fight alone.

When the French and their Native American allies attacked on the 3rd of July, Washington

put up a brave fight but lost a third of his men and was forced to surrender.

It was a humiliating defeat and he had made many mistakes owing to his lack of experience,

but he learned from it the effectiveness of the enemy’s mobile tactics and the futility

of defending poor positions.

The defeat could have ended Washington’s military career before it started, but instead

after a few weeks had passed, he and his men were praised for their brave last stand against

the odds.

While the Virginia Regiment was disbanded, leaving Washington without a command, his

personal fortunes improved when his late brother Lawrence’s daughter died at the end of December.

As Ann had already remarried, Washington agreed to lease the estate of Mount Vernon from his

sister-in-law, and made it his main residence.

Not long after he moved into Mount Vernon, Washington received news in February 1755

that General Edward Braddock had landed with two regiments of reinforcements from Britain.

Washington rushed to offer his services and Braddock was happy to have him as aide-de-camp.

Leaving his younger brother Jack in charge of Mount Vernon, Washington joined Braddock

in June and the army made its slow progress towards Fort Duquesne.

Although personally warm towards Washington, Braddock held the same disdain for colonial

soldiers as many of his fellow officers in the regular army, and refused to heed his

aide-de-camp’s advice to travel lightly, before eventually giving in to the situation

to pick up the glacial pace of the advance.

On the 9th of July Braddock approached Fort Duquesne with more than two thousand men and

divided his army into three columns to attack.

The British were surprised by the ferocious defence of 900 French and Native Americans

whose tactics once again proved superior.

Washington bravely carried out Braddock’s orders to rally the troops, exposing himself

to great danger with two horses shot from underneath him.

This was not enough to bring victory, and Braddock himself was mortally wounded.

Following Braddock’s death, the Virginia Regiment was reformed and Washington was appointed

commander of all of Virginia’s forces.

Despite these rapid promotions, Washington remained unhappy about not receiving a royal


He resented London’s strategy to pursue active operations in Canada while remaining

on the defensive on the frontiers of Virginia, leaving him nothing to do but to train and

drill his men.

He was dismayed by the state of the militiamen under his responsibility, many of whom deserted

en masse.

In late 1757, he was struck down by a grave illness that prompted him to return to Mount


During this time he would begin to make changes to the estate and create a house fit for an

English country gentleman.

In early 1758, after a brief courtship, he was engaged to Martha Dandridge Custis, a

wealthy 26-year-old widow whose husband had died the previous summer leaving her with

two young children.

A warm and sociable woman, Martha was the polar opposite of her mother-in-law Mary,

and proved a steadfast support in her husband’s life and career, capable not only of carrying

out the domestic duties of a housewife but also of running the Mount Vernon estate in

her husband’s absence.

In July 1758 Washington returned to action as the British made a further attempt to seize

Fort Duquesne and avenge the loss of Braddock, this time serving under the Scottish General

John Forbes.

In the meantime, he entered political office for the first time by handsomely winning election

to the Virginia House of Burgesses representing Frederick County, a reflection of his reputation

as a war hero.

Despite some disagreements with his superior and a devastating friendly fire incident which

claimed the lives of more than twenty of his men, Washington led 2,500 men and successfully

recaptured Fort Duquesne in November 1758.

Instead of the ferocious defence he had met on previous occasions, he encountered no resistance

at all, as the French chose to abandon and destroy the fort after falling out with their

Native American allies.

The British rebuilt it and named it Fort Pitt, after war minister William Pitt, while the

city that was built around it would take the name of Pittsburgh, in the state of Pennsylvania.

The action would be Washington’s last in the French and Indian War, better known as

the Seven Years War in Europe, where the fighting between Britain and France, supported by their

respective allies, would last until 1763.

Washington returned to Mount Vernon, and married Martha on the 6th of January 1759, making

him one of Virginia’s richest landowners.

In their efforts to emulate the upper class in England, importing the latest fashions

from London, Washington became increasingly indebted to his London agents and resented

their power over the colonial planters.

At the same time he carried out his civic duties in the House of Burgesses, serving

on committees related to military matters and limiting any speeches to the most important

points of the debate.

For the next two decades of his life, Washington would devote his energies to his plantation,

in particular to growing tobacco.

This proved a poor economic decision, and one Washington would later regret, as the

quality of the tobacco crop was highly dependent on weather conditions, while international

market prices were volatile.

These factors contributed to Washington’s struggles repaying his debts to his creditors

in London.

Another key aspect of tobacco farming was its labour intensiveness and dependence on


During his life, Washington owned over 600 slaves.

He and his fellow planters treated slaves as any other type of property to be bought

and sold, although over time he grew to despise the practice and treated his slaves more humanely

than most of his peers, looking after their health and eventually refusing to sell any

of his slaves in order to keep families together.

The French and Indian War ended in 1763 in a decisive victory for the British in North


France had lost Canada to Britain and Louisiana to Spain.

The cost to the British Treasury had been enormous, and half the national budget went

on interest repayments on government debt.

In an effort to fill the hole in government coffers, Parliament attempted to impose taxes

and other economic costs onto the North American colonies, preventing the existing colonies

from further westward expansion.

As a soldier, Washington had resented the superior attitude of the British authorities

and their refusal to give him a royal commission.

As a businessman, Washington now had cause to consider the decisions of the British authorities

to be detrimental to his economic interests.

The most infamous piece of legislation passed by Parliament was the Stamp Act of 1765, which

imposed a tax on all printed material, including legal documents, newspapers, and playing cards.

Washington may not have been the most radical of the voices protesting against the Stamp

Act on the political stage, but he considered the tax unconstitutional and wrote to his

representatives in London that the colonies would begin to boycott British goods in favour

of domestic substitutes, and courts would shut down, preventing British creditors from

collecting their dues from their American debtors.

At around the same time and perhaps concerned about his dependency on British credit, Washington

decided to diversify away from tobacco, eventually abandoning the crop altogether in favour of

wheat, corn, hemp, and dozens of other crops.

Mount Vernon also had an extensive fishing enterprise from the plentiful stocks on the

Potomac, initially for consumption within the house and later salted and cured for export

to international markets.

The diversification away from the labour-intensive tobacco crop encouraged Washington to train

his surplus slaves in a number of crafts such as carpentry, bricklaying, smithing, and baking.

Although Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in 1766, it continued to assert the right

to taxation in the colonies, prompting sustained opposition which spread throughout the Thirteen


In 1767 the Townshend Acts, named after the British Chancellor of the Exchequer at the

time, levied duties on paint, lead, glass, paper, and tea.

During the winter of 1768-69, Washington’s attitude became more radical and he supported

a boycott of British goods.

While he did not rule out armed insurrection against what he considered a sustained attack

on American liberties, he believed that non-violent economic measures should be used first.

In April 1769 Washington took a more proactive role in the House of Burgesses intending to

present a plan for the importation of British goods developed alongside his friend George

Mason of Fairfax County.

The following month the assembly voted in favour of a set of resolves which asserted

that the House of Burgesses had the sole right to tax Virginians.

In response the royal governor, Lord Botecourt, dissolved the body, forcing the burgesses

to reconvene in a tavern, where they debated and adopted Washington’s proposals to boycott

the goods subject to taxation under the Townshend Acts.

The move had some effect, prompting the new British government under Lord North to repeal

the Townshend Acts, keeping only the levies on tea to continue asserting Parliament’s

right to taxation.

The situation had temporarily been diffused, but the remaining taxes on tea provoked the

Boston Tea Party on the 16th of December 1773, when a group of men from the American patriot

organisation Sons of Liberty boarded a merchant ship belonging to the East India Company and

dumped its valuable cargo of tea into Boston Harbour.

While Washington was dismayed by the protest, he was furious at the British response, which

involved passing a number of draconian measures against Boston collectively known as the Intolerable

Acts, the most important of which closed the port of Boston to trade until the East India

Company was compensated for the loss of cargo.

In the House of Burgesses, Washington supported an initiative to show solidarity with Boston

by convening a congress of all thirteen colonies to protect their collective rights.

In July 1774, while chairing a meeting in Fairfax County, which he had represented since

1765, Washington passed the Fairfax Resolves which he had drafted alongside George Mason,

asserting that “taxation and representation are in their nature inseparable.”

Washington thus became one of the leading advocates of resistance against Britain, and

on the 5th of August he was elected to Virginia’s seven-man delegation to the First Continental

Congress in Philadelphia, which would meet the following month.

Surrounded by some of the finest orators of the day, Washington spoke rarely but effectively,

bringing together different viewpoints.

As the delegates were increasingly convinced that war would break out, Washington’s name

was on many of their lips when it came to a commander-in-chief.

The 42-year-old Washington had developed a sense of political maturity that had been

absent in his younger days, and did not actively lobby for the command, confident that his

reputation would be enough to secure the post.

For the time being, the Continental Congress was content to set up a Continental Association

to coordinate efforts among the colonies to ban trade with Great Britain.

On the 19th of April 1775, British redcoats and American militiamen exchanged fire at

Concord and Lexington in Massachusetts, marking the outbreak of the American Revolutionary


Washington had already secured election to the Second Continental Congress, which opened

on the 10th of May, with the agenda firmly focused on raising militia and volunteers

across the colonies.

Washington appeared in the Congress wearing his colonel’s uniform and his expertise

in military affairs was in high demand among his fellow delegates.

On the 14th of June, the Congress assumed control of the volunteer army laying siege

to the British forces in Boston under the command of General Thomas Gage, thereby creating

the Continental Army, and Washington was appointed “General and Commander in Chief of the army

of the United Colonies” on the 16th.

While on his way to take command of the Continentals in Boston, Washington received news of the

Battle of Bunker Hill on the 17th of June, where 2,000 men under General William Howe

successfully captured the American positions, but at the cost of 1,000 casualties, demonstrating

that the Continentals were more than capable of putting up a fight.

Upon arriving in Boston, Washington sought to instil in his men the idea that they were

a national army, rather than from a collection of states.

Upon inspecting his army, he was disappointed to find that he only had 14,000 men fit for

duty living in poor conditions, while supplies of gunpowder were dangerously low.

Fearing British spies, he kept quiet about these deficiencies to all but his closest


During this period the commander-in-chief came to be particularly close to Brigadier

General Nathaniel Greene from Rhode Island, as well as 25-year-old artillery commander

Colonel Henry Knox, a Boston bookseller who had learned everything about military affairs

from the books and the British officers he talked to in his shop.

Washington struggled in his efforts to create a professional standing army.

Recruits were authorised to serve for one year, with the effect that no sooner had they

been trained and drilled to fight effectively, they would melt away and return to their homes.

As he faced losing his entire army on the 1st of January 1776, Washington attempted

to persuade the men to reenlist, but fewer than 10,000 would agree to do so by the end

of the year.

In order to bolster numbers, Washington considered recruiting from the black population.

While black soldiers had fought in the ranks of the volunteers in Massachusetts and were

considered every bit as brave as their white counterparts, as a leading figure of Virginia’s

slaveholding class the thought of arming black men raised the prospect of slave rebellion.

At a war council in October Washington prohibited any black soldiers from serving in the Continental

Army, but upon hearing that Virginia’s Governor Lord Dunmore had promised to free slaves who

were to join the British army, Washington compromised and allowed free blacks to serve

in his ranks, who would make up around 10% of the Continental Army.

As winter approached, Washington realised he could not abandon his army and return to

Mount Vernon, and instead invited his wife Martha to stay with him.

Martha Washington would spend half the war with her husband on campaign, serving as a

trusted confidante for his concerns and anxieties about his army and the war.

The condition Washington’s men found themselves in during the first winter of the war caused

morale to plummet, leading the men to question if their cause could ever succeed.

The politicians in Philadelphia were still split on whether to declare independence,

and some still believed in petitioning King George III and reconciling with Britain.

The publication of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense in January 1776 highlighted the

tyrannical power of monarchy and galvanised the movement for independence.

Spirits further increased on the 17th of January, when Henry Knox arrived after accomplishing

the incredible logistical feat of hauling almost sixty pieces of cannon from Fort Ticonderoga

in New York near the Canadian border across the December snows to Washington’s camp.

Although Washington still lacked the powder for a full assault on Boston, he successfully

manoeuvred the cannon onto the Dorchester Heights overlooking the city during the course

of a single night on the 4th of March, leaving the British with no choice but to evacuate.

Having captured Boston without losing a single man, Washington hurried to New York, believing

that General Howe would attempt to take the city.

Although the city’s geography made it difficult to defend from the British army, and there

was a large population of Loyalists sympathising with the British, Washington recognised the

political and commercial importance to the Continental cause and felt compelled to make

a stand despite being significantly outnumbered.

Meanwhile, the drumbeat for independence was sounding ever louder and the Declaration of

Independence drafted by Thomas Jefferson, Washington’s colleague in the Virginia House

of Burgesses, was adopted by Congress on the 4th of July 1776 and was received with wild

enthusiasm by the Continental army when Washington read the declaration to them on the 8th.

The enthusiasm was premature, as the British army and navy, commanded by brothers William

and Richard Howe, soon descended on New York at the head of 32,000 men and seventy warships,

keen to defeat the rebellion once and for all.

By mid-August Washington had 23,000 men under his command, but most were inexperienced recruits.

Meanwhile, when the British landed two thirds of their force at Long Island, Washington

misread it as a diversion and only sent 6,000 men to defend the Brooklyn Heights to the

west of the island, keeping most of his men in Manhattan.

On the 26th the Continentals were surrounded by the British, with 300 killed and 1,000

captured, but on the night of the 29th of August Washington took advantage of Howe’s

reluctance to stage a full pursuit by evacuating all the men from Long Island to Manhattan.

The commander himself was on the last boat across the East River, shrouded from the British

by thick fog.

A few days later, Washington withdrew from the city to the north.

The Continentals had built Fort Washington and Fort Lee overlooking the Hudson River

but these were taken by the British in November, forcing the Continentals to flee across to

New Jersey.

These setbacks also called into question Washington’s command abilities, and his subordinate General

Charles Lee schemed to replace him.

Upon discovering the plot Washington said nothing to Lee, who received his comeuppance

in mid-December when he was captured by the British.

Washington’s Continental Army was a bedraggled group of fewer than 4,000 men when it crossed

the Delaware River to Pennsylvania, while Howe’s army was in striking range of Philadelphia,

forcing the Continental Congress to evacuate to Baltimore.

With little to lose and with a few thousand extra reinforcements under General Horatio

Gates, Washington planned a daring operation back across the Delaware to surprise three

regiments of Hessian mercenaries stationed in Trenton, New Jersey.

Washington planned to cross the river on the night of Christmas Day in order to surprise

the enemy, whom he expected to be drunk at the time.

Despite a fierce snowstorm which meant his main column of 2,400 men only got to the other

side of the river by four in the morning on the 26th, Washington pressed on to Trenton.

Although the Hessians were sober, they failed to believe that Washington would attempt such

a daring operation in such foul weather.

The element of surprise and the effectiveness of Henry Knox’s artillery, combined with

Washington’s effective use of terrain to beat back a counterattack, obliged the Hessians

to surrender.

The Continentals killed and wounded 100 Hessians and captured 900 more, all for the loss of

fewer than 10 men.

While Washington is usually considered a defensive general who avoided battle with the odds against

him, he was capable of some of the most daring attacks in the history of warfare.

The success at Trenton was followed up by a similarly lopsided victory at Princeton

a few days later, enabling Washington’s men to push forward and expel the British

almost completely from New Jersey.

The victories provided a boost to morale and allowed Congress to move back to Philadelphia,

but with only a few thousand men Washington was obliged to remain on the defensive, launching

frequent raids into enemy territory.

In March 1777 the 22-year-old artillery captain Alexander Hamilton joined Washington’s staff

as aide-de-camp.

The talented Hamilton was able to handle much of the commander-in-chief’s correspondence

and would later become his chief aide.

At the end of July Washington welcomed to his side the Marquis de Lafayette, a 20-year-old

French aristocrat who shared in the political ideals of the American Revolution and defied

a royal order to travel to America and volunteer his service to the cause.

With Lafayette at his side, Washington and Congress hoped that France would be persuaded

to join an alliance with the nascent United States.

During the first half of 1777, Washington remained on the defensive and awaited Howe’s


By the end of August, the British commander landed on the Chesapeake Bay and marched on


Keen not to lose the capital without a fight, Washington hurried to cut him off and deployed

his army amongst the ravines of Brandywine Creek on the southwestern approaches of the

city, anticipating a decisive battle.

On the 11th of September, Howe launched his attack, sending 5,000 Hessians to attack Washington’s

main defensive position in a frontal assault, while he led a force of more than 8,000 men

on a long flanking manoeuvre, aiming to cross the Brandywine at a couple of undefended fords.

While the Continentals held firm against the frontal assault, by midday Washington wondered

about the whereabouts of the main enemy force, and soon began to receive reports of an enemy

flanking manoeuvre.

The American commander realised that he had been outwitted and galloped to the sector

in question to find two brigades of redcoats, not realising that Howe’s entire force was

on its way.

By four in the afternoon, three columns of British troops were thrown into the attack,

routing the Continentals.

At the end of the battle the Continentals sustained more than 1,000 casualties, including

400 captured, while British casualties were half the number.

The defeat at Brandywine resulted in the British occupation of Philadelphia, forcing Congress

to evacuate again, this time to Trenton.

Although the Continentals had fought bravely at Brandywine, once again Washington’s failure

to prepare adequately and his inability to respond quickly when the battle did not unfold

as planned resulted in catastrophe for the American cause.

The American commander was not disheartened, and on the 3rd of October less than a month

after Brandywine, Washington planned a daring night attack on Howe’s camp at Germantown,

hoping to repeat his heroics at Trenton the previous winter.

However, this time round Washington’s plans unravelled in the middle of the night and

he was forced to abandon the attack after sustaining twice as many casualties as the

British once again.

He tried his best to make light of the defeat in reports to Congress, and his audacious

attack demonstrated to the British that there was still a lot of fight left in the battered

and bruised Continental Army.

While Washington’s main army had suffered a series of setbacks against General Howe,

on the 17th of October General Horatio Gates had defeated and captured a British army of

5,000 men under General John Burgoyne at Saratoga in New York, which had been attempting to

march south to join Howe.

While Washington welcomed the news of Gates’ stunning victory, he felt threatened by a

subordinate who had previously been a critic, and whom he believed was seeking the supreme

command for himself.

These fears were confirmed when Gates was named as the President of the Congressional

Board of War, giving him supervisory powers over Washington and his army.

The Board of War also appointed General Thomas Conway as inspector general, with extensive

powers over training and discipline which bypassed Washington, promoting him to major

general in the process.

When Conway arrived at Washington’s camp at Valley Forge to announce his appointment,

the commander was incensed and informed Conway that his generals would not recognise his

authority, obliging Congress to send Conway elsewhere.

Washington had stood firm, retained his command, and increased his authority.

Washington’s quarters for the winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge, twenty miles to the

northwest of Philadelphia, has entered into American legend.

For yet another winter the Continental Army was in a desperate state and risked falling

apart, with thousands of men sick, hungry, cold, and demoralised.

Washington’s efforts to beg Congress for supplies came to nothing, and he came to realise

that the existing constitution, the Articles of Confederation, which left most political

power with individual states, gave Congress little power and undermined his efforts to

create a national army.

Yet Washington’s presence at the camp helped to keep his men together in these trying times

when other armies may have melted away, while Martha Washington’s care and attention for

the men won her respect and affection throughout the ranks.

Washington was also helped by the arrival of Friedrich von Steuben, a Prussian officer

who had served in Frederick the Great’s armies during the Seven Years War.

The Prussian army was considered the best in Europe, famous for its discipline and order,

attributes which the Continentals sorely lacked.

Within a matter of weeks, Steuben drilled the army in line and column formations and

associated manoeuvres, and also began working on a drill manual which would remain in use

by the United States army for almost a century.

By the beginning of March, Washington had 12,000 men at his disposal ready for action.

A far more significant boost to the American war effort came in the form of an alliance

with France, signed in Paris on the 6th of February 1778.

The alliance changed the strategic picture of the war, forcing the British troops under

their new commander Sir Henry Clinton, to withdraw from Philadelphia to New York and

detach 8,000 men to defend the West Indies from the French.

While Clinton’s men were on the retreat, Washington ordered General Charles Lee, recently

released in a prisoner exchange to take up his previous role as second-in-command, to

lead a vanguard of 5,000 men against the British at Monmouth Court House.

Lee, who had advised against the operation, launched a half-hearted attack that was easily

repulsed by the British, sending the Continentals reeling and inviting a counterattack.

A furious Washington rallied his reserve of 6,000 men and managed to turn the tide of

the battle during two hours of fierce fighting.

Washington decided against sending his exhausted army to pursue the British, who managed to

slip away to safety in the middle of the night.

In the weeks following the battle, General Lee was court-martialled and found guilty,

and Washington was happy to see the back of him.

For the next three years, the British forces turned their attention to the south.

During this period Washington would not fight a major battle, though he was by no means


In the summer of 1778 the French navy sailed up the Chesapeake to join Washington, though

the cooperation between the subjects of an absolute monarchy and the citizens of a revolutionary

republic was far from seamless, as the Americans realised that the French were motivated foremost

by animosity against the British, rather than support for the American cause, and once again

Washington found himself interacting with European military officers who looked down

on Americans and rarely kept him updated on their whereabouts.

The following summer, Washington managed to stop Clinton from controlling the Hudson River

and cutting off New England from the rest of the United States, but this period otherwise

proved uneventful.

By 1780, Washington’s army was low on money and supplies, and military success seemed

impossible without the assistance of the French.

Lafayette had been in France since the beginning of 1779 and lobbied for greater French assistance

to the American cause.

King Louis XVI answered the call by sending an expeditionary force of 6,000 men to America

under the command of the Comte de Rochambeau in conjunction with the fleet commanded by

the Chevalier de Ternay, who landed in Newport, Rhode Island on the 10th of July 1780.

Meanwhile, the Continentals had suffered a series of setbacks in the south, beginning

with the loss of the port of Charleston in South Carolina in May, and followed by Horatio

Gates’ defeat to General Charles Cornwallis at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina

on the 16th of August, whose dismissal by Congress in the aftermath of the debacle removed

the final challenger to Washington’s authority in the Continental Army.

Worse was to follow in late September, when Washington belatedly recognised the treachery

of Benedict Arnold, the courageous Continental Army officer who had fought with distinction

at Saratoga, but had been nursing a wounded ego after being overlooked for promotion.

In August, Arnold had been appointed commandant of the vital strategic fort of West Point,

but rather than strengthen his defences he plotted to surrender it to the British, managing

to escape just in time when the plot was discovered.

By 1781, British successes in the south and Arnold’s defection threatened Washington’s

home state of Virginia.

Governor Thomas Jefferson, whose own home at Monticello had been occupied by Arnold’s

men, urged Washington to lead his men south to defend his home state.

Though the American commander was anxious about the fate of his beloved Mount Vernon

and had sent a division under Lafayette to confront Arnold in Virginia, Washington preferred

to keep his men in New York and believed the decisive blow against the British would fall

there, though his French allies planned an operation in the south instead.

By mid-August, Washington abandoned his designs on New York when he received news that a French

fleet of 29 ships under the command of Admiral de Grasse had set sail from the West Indies

and intended to land a force of 3,500 men on the Chesapeake in early September.

Washington had also received news from Lafayette that Cornwallis had retreated to Yorktown,

located on the eastern tip of the Virginia peninsula and surrounded by water on three


Washington and Rochambeau hurried south in an effort to trap Cornwallis and force him

to surrender.

By the beginning of September de Grasse’s fleet had arrived on the Chesapeake as planned,

overcoming limited British resistance, leaving Cornwallis trapped between the French ships

at sea and Lafayette’s small force on land.

By the 18th of September, Washington and Rochambeau met with the admiral to discuss plans for

the siege.

De Grasse was adamant that he would have to return to the West Indies no later than the

1st of November, allowing little more than a month for the operation.

When Washington and Rochambeau began to lay siege to Yorktown on the 28th of September,

the American commander deferred to his French counterpart, who was more experienced in siege


Cornwallis’s army of 9,000 men was significantly outnumbered by the 19,000 French and Americans

besieging Yorktown, and the British general desperately pleaded for additional reinforcements

from General Clinton.

After the French engineers built two lines of trenches, allowing allied artillery to

rain down cannonballs into Yorktown, on the 14th the allies successfully captured two

British redoubts in front of the town, and by the 16th they were so close to the British

lines that Cornwallis attempted a last-ditch evacuation across the York River which was

scuppered by poor weather.

On the morning of the 17th of October 1783, Cornwallis sent Washington a message to discuss

the terms of surrender, which were signed on the 19th.

Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown did not end the war, but it persuaded the authorities

in London that it was no longer worth sustaining the costly effort to retain the American colonies.

Upon hearing of the news of Yorktown, Lord North is said to have exclaimed “Oh God!

It’s all over!”, and his government duly collapsed in early 1782.

Henry Clinton was replaced as commander-in-chief by Sir Guy Carleton, whose role was largely

reduced to organising the evacuation of British assets from their former colonies.

Washington regarded Carleton’s peace offers with suspicion, and still anticipated continued


However, aside from a handful of skirmishes in the south over the course of 1782, the

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Complete Biography of George Washington


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