SAN JOSÉ, Calif., April 26, 2016 — After the shocking news spread regarding the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, it seemed as if all hell had broken loose in the colonies. Shooting at royal soldiers could be considered the same as shooting at King George himself. Shooting at the king’s troops was indeed an outright act of war.
Yet, instead of reacting with widespread fear and panic, various militia leaders marched volunteers from around the surrounding area in Massachusetts and from other New England colonies toward Boston to confront the British forces in the city.
Newly appointed General George Washington would arrive in Cambridge and take command of this “military force” on July 3, 1775. Initial leadership of the rag–tag band of men and boys had been assumed by General Artemus Ward, a veteran of the French and Indian Wars. But the Continental Congress had voted to place Washington in command.
After the skirmishes in Lexington and Concord, the revolutionary leadership in Massachusetts saw the real need to re-organize the “colonial troops” in order to create a more cohesive and realistic fighting force. Various volunteer militias eventually aggregated in Massachusetts, intent upon armed conflict with the British after what had happened on the 19th of April.
Why would such men willingly volunteer? Were they out of their minds? Did they each have a death wish?
The same questions could also be asked of George Washington. Emerson tried to capture it in his Concord Hymn: “…Spirit, that made those heroes dare, To die, and leave their children free…”
These ordinary men, British citizens, knew the impossible odds stacked against them in their open defiance of their government — the ruling elite and system of laws within the powerful British Empire. Yet, they still went out Lexington Green to wait in the cool April morning air, uncertain of what would happen next, as it had never happened before. They still went out – to fight and to die for freedom.
These ordinary citizens became the embodiment of Patrick Henry’s rousing line: “Give me Liberty, or give me death,” and George Washington became the personification of such sentiment. As he willingly accepted the nomination of his peers to command the newly adopted “army,” he knew he would risk his life on a regular basis.
Within three weeks of the incidents at Lexington and Concord, the Second Continental Congress convened once again after a crisis in the colonies. They had convened in 1774 after the Boston Tea Party. This time they reconvened on May 10th in order to decipher eyewitness accounts of the battles against British regulars.
There seemed little doubt that the British government would send more shiploads of troops, but there were some in Congress who held the belief that the King George III and the British government could be still be trusted to look upon the colonials with respect and esteem after all that had happened. Washington, the former colonel in the British Army, most likely harbored no illusions about the future.
There would definitely be a reckoning, and circumstances had deteriorated in the weeks since shots were fired at the King’s troops, the day acknowledged by historians as the initiation of the American War for Independence. During this time, Congress had argued about a proper course of action, yet no decision was made to formally declare war against the mother country. Finally, on June 14, 1775, John Adams rose on the floor of Congress to offer an appeal from the Massachusetts Provincial Congress for assistance with organization and some assumption of authority for the crisis. Adams addressed the delegates of Congress with a sense of urgency to avoid a disaster should the British troops manage to break out of Boston and “spread desolation as far as they could go.”
It was true patriots like John Adams and George Washington and Benjamin Franklin who understood the ruthlessness of the British, for they all had worked closely in their own ways with such men of ruthlessness. John Adam’s first formal resolution was for the Congress to take charge of the band of amateur troops; his second was to appoint a commanding general to take charge of the troops in the field.
Some of what Adams recommended has been recorded regarding who should lead such an “army.” He proclaimed that he “had but one Gentleman in… Mind for that important command, and that was a Gentleman from Virginia who was among Us… a Gentleman whose Skill and Experience as an Officer, whose independent fortune, great Talents and excellent universal Character, would command the Approbation of all of America, and unite the cordial Exertions of all the Colonies better than any other person in the Union.”
After John Adams finished his proposal, George Washington eventually consented to his nomination to ‘that important command.’ However, Washington made some points clear in his formal response to the members of Congress:
Mr. President, Though I am truly sensible of the high honor done me in this appointment, yet I feel great distress from a consciousness that my abilities and military experience may not be equal to the extensive and important trust. However, as the Congress desire it, I will enter upon the momentous duty, and exert every power I possess in their service and for the support of their glorious cause…
As to pay sir, I beg leave to assure the Congress that no pecuniary consideration could have tempted me to accept the arduous employment at the expense of my domestic ease and happiness, I do not wish to make profit from it…
Ultimately, Washington’s efforts as the Commander of the Continental Army would surprise the British, as he fought the most powerful military on the planet for six long years from this turning point in his life.
Nevertheless, when Washington took command, he realized that he had a tremendous amount of work in front of him. The “troops” did not resemble an army, and the newly appointed general did not initially refer to them as an army, but rather as the “raw material” for an army. The ‘troops’ were not a genuine army in practical form, but a volunteer force: farmers and farm hands, doctors and teachers, as well as merchants and shop-keepers.
Yet, the raw ‘troops’ were willing to risk their lives for the beliefs and values that focused upon the fight for freedom from British tyranny. After serious battles at Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill, the Americans captured Dorchester Heights and installed captured British cannon upon the hills overlooking Boston Harbor. A
fter a successful siege of several months, it was an experienced General Howe who evacuated Boston by mid-March of 1776. Washington allowed Howe to safely accomplish this, but the retreating British forces simply sailed to Nova Scotia, then mounted a counter attack. It would prove to be a long war.
To deal with the problem in the colonies, the British government deployed 32,000 regular soldiers and 171,000 seamen, the largest deployment in their history, as well as approximately 30,000 Hessian mercenaries, and utilized 13,000 American Indian allies. The British military also boasted truly professional soldiers and perhaps the most disciplined, best equipped, and strongest force on earth at that time.
On the other hand, it is reported that at any given point in time, Washington did not have more than 8,000 troops in his direct command. This was a major military mismatch, but perhaps the deeper problem George Washington faced was the inherent weakness of Congress. Eventually, the Congress, operating provisionally under the Articles of Confederation, was not able to provide the support that the colonial “troops” needed.
Many Americans may be aware of the long winter in 1777-78 at Valley Forge, but many are not aware of the sever hardships faced by the troops due to the lack of supplies. During that cold and bitter time, Washington wrote of his men: “Naked and starving as they are, we cannot insufficiently admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldiers.”
Washington was forced to plead with the Congress time and again for the money or supplies needed to maintain the fight against the British forces. In 1780, he wrote:
We have been half our time without provision, and are likely to continue so. We have no magazines, nor money to form them, and in a little time we shall have no men, if we had money to pay them. We have lived upon expedients till we can no longer. In a word, the history of the war is a history of false hopes and temporary devices…”
General Washington was forced to fight two wars: one against the British, and one against the lack of resources. He made the best use of what little he had, and he developed a real closeness to his men, which ensured that a core of the army held together despite such discouragement and so many desertions. It must be understood that George Washington was a true believer in the cause for which he was willing to risk his life on a regular basis, and he inspired others to do the same. Washington and his troops ultimately put into play events which altered the course of human history in a powerfully positive way.
George Washington understood “the momentous duty” of his command, and truly “exerted every power in their service… for the support of their glorious cause.” Yet, Washington and his men risked their lives for no nation, fought for no nation, but for a cause centered upon the ideals and values of Freedom.
This was a cause that Thomas Paine referred to as the “cause of all mankind.” They fought for a cause that Thomas Jefferson articulated in the Declaration of Independence, and in the end, created a nation centered on the ideals and values of Freedom.