In the summer of 1755, 23-year-old George Washington galloped back and forth across a blood-soaked battlefield near present-day Pittsburgh, trying heroically but unsuccessfully to rally the panicked British force in which he served to withstand a withering attack by Britain’s French and Indian enemies in a war his own hotheadedness had ignited two years earlier. An Indian chief ordered his braves to shoot down the seemingly fearless six-footer, conspicuous not only for his height and daring but also for being, as Thomas Jefferson later marveled, “the best horseman of his age and the most graceful figure that could ever be seen on horseback.” The Indians fired volley after volley, putting four bullets through his coat and killing two horses out from under him, but he fought on unscathed. Fifteen years later, the same chief told him how vividly he remembered that day, which convinced him that the Great Spirit must have a brilliant future in store for the young officer whom his braves miraculously couldn’t kill no matter how hard they tried.

When Washington’s fellow delegates to the Second Continental Congress unanimously elected him commander in chief of the American armies on June 15, 1775, two months after the shots at Lexington and Concord had launched the American Revolution, he had a similar premonition. He wrote to his wife—“my dear Patcy”—to tell her that he was off to war, explaining that he couldn’t “refuse this appointment without exposing my Character to such censures as would have reflected dishonour upon myself, and . . . have lessend me considerably in my own esteem.” But he also felt that, “as it has been a kind of destiny that has thrown me upon this Service, I shall hope that, my undertaking of it, is designd to answer some good purpose. . . . I shall rely therefore, confidently, on that Providence which has heretofore preservd, & been bountiful to me, not doubting but I shall return safe to you in the fall.”

He was wrong about the timing—it was eight years before he came home—but right about the destiny. And it was in the next 19 months, mostly in New York and fleeing from it, that he knocked on the door of history and entered the pantheon of great men.

Washington loved the theater—Shakespeare, Sheridan, and, above all, Addison’s patriotic Roman tragedy of Cato—and a good thing, too, for running the war required adroit stagecraft. He became the master of appearance, the paragon of role-playing, a virtuoso actor who could move his audience to passion and to tears. And he loved dressing for a role. He designed his first coat, down to the fussiest detail, at 17 or 18; as a French and Indian War colonel, he bedecked himself with gilt buttons, a gold shoulder knot, and gold lace on his hat; and at the end of his life, he was still designing uniforms for himself, puzzling over whether to have embroidery or not, slash cuffs or not—but needing for sure “tasty Cockades (but not whimsically foolish),” incorporating silver eagles, for his hat.

The Battle of Bunker Hill blazed up as he headed toward Boston to take command of the army there. The British had marched 2,300 redcoats straight up the hill on June 17, intending to overawe the Americans by showing that “trained troops are invincible against any numbers or any position of undisciplined rabble,” as General John Burgoyne brayed. The shock and awe were on the other side, though, because the Americans, whom Colonel William Prescott had ordered not to fire “until you can see the whites of their eyes,” didn’t retreat until they had killed or wounded almost half the British, including 90 officers, compared with 430 American casualties out of nearly 2,000 men. It was a “dear bought victory,” mourned General Sir Henry Clinton; “another such would have ruined us.”

When Washington arrived in Massachusetts on July 2, the Continental Army had taken control both of Dorchester Neck between Boston and the rest of Massachusetts, and of Cambridge across the Charles River to the north, bottling up the sobered redcoats. Trouble was, the Americans had no ammunition for “Months together, with what will scarce be believed—not 30 rounds of Musket Cartridges a Man,” Washington wrote. Not only to make the British believe that they were in his power but also to keep his own men confident, the general had to pretend—convincingly, 24 hours a day, despite his own fear and frustration—that all was well, as he waited, like Mr. Micawber, for something to turn up. “I know that without Men, without Arms, without Ammunition, without any thing that is fit for the accomodation of a Soldier that little is to be done—and, which is mortifying; I know, that I cannot stand justified to the World without exposing my own Weakness & injuring the cause by declaring my wants,” he wrote. “[M]y Situation has been such that I have been obligd to use art to conceal it from my own Officers.” All this “produces many an uneasy hour when all around me are wrapped in Sleep. . . . I have often thought, how much happier I should have been, if . . . I had taken my Musket upon my Shoulder & enterd the Ranks, or . . . had retir’d to the back Country, & lived in a Wig wam—If I should be able to rise superior to these, and many other difficulties, . . . I shall most religiously believe that the finger of Providence is in it, to blind the Eyes of our Enemys.”

Nor was this all. For the first years of the war, Washington endured what his biographer Ron Chernow calls the “Sisyphean nightmare” of having his whole army evaporate on December 31, when their one-year hitches ended. By late November 1775, only 3,500 soldiers agreed to stay past their terms; by year-end, a paltry 9,650 untrained new recruits had signed on, half the number needed. “It takes you two or three Months to bring New men to any tolerable degree acquainted with their duty,” and even longer to bring independent-minded Americans to “such a subordinate way of thinking as is necessary for a Soldier,” Washington lamented. Then, as the end of their terms approaches, you try to cajole them to stay longer, so you “relax your discipline, in order as it were to curry favour with them”—meaning that “the latter part of your time is employed in undoing what the first was accomplishing.” Nevertheless, Washington crowed afterward, during those months “we have disbanded one Army & recruited another, within Musket Shot of two and Twenty Regimts, the Flower of the British Army.”

Washington after the world-changing Battle of Trenton, painted by Charles Willson Peale, who marched with him through the long retreat to the Delaware River
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NYWashington after the world-changing Battle of Trenton, painted by Charles Willson Peale, who marched with him through the long retreat to the Delaware River

Meanwhile, Congress had written new roles for him and his army, and Washington had to establish them credibly in the eyes of the British commanders he faced, including General Thomas Gage, the commander in chief and governor of Massachusetts, who had served with him in the French and Indian War 20 years earlier. Little more than a month after taking command, Washington wrote Gage that he had heard reports that American soldiers captured at Bunker Hill, even “those of the most respectable Rank, when languishing with Wounds and Sickness,” had been “thrown indiscriminately, into a common Gaol appropriated for Felons.” Just be aware, he wrote, that we’ll treat British POWs exactly as you treat Americans. You choose: either “Severity, & Hardship” or “Kindness & Humanity.” Gage replied that of course he mixed up officers and enlisted men promiscuously, “for I acknowledge no rank not derived from the king.” This was the wrong response, especially to a newly minted commander in chief who, as a mere colonial officer two decades earlier, had resented having to defer to officers with less merit than he but with royal commissions.

“You affect, Sir, to despise all Rank not derived from the same Source with your own,” Washington thundered back, asserting a new, democratic understanding of legitimacy and worth. “I cannot conceive any more honourable, than that which flows from the uncorrupted Choice of a brave and free People—The purest Source & original Fountain of all Power.” Furthermore, you claim that you’ve shown “Clemency” by not hanging my men as rebels. But it remains to be seen “whether our virtuous Citizens whom the Hand of Tyranny has forced into Arms, to defend their Wives, their Children, & their Property; or the mercenary Instruments of lawless Domination, Avarice, and Revenge best deserve the Appellation of Rebels.” A higher authority than you will decide. “May that God to whom you then appealed, judge between America & you!”

Lord North, the prime minister, got the point, noting that “the war is now grown to such a height that it must be treated as a foreign war.” Others were slower on the uptake, and Washington had to assert his new character strenuously at least once more. When Admiral Lord Howe, the British naval commander, and his brother General William Howe, who had led the assault up Bunker Hill and then replaced Gage as commander in chief, wanted to negotiate with Washington in New York in July 1776, they sent an envoy with an invitation addressed to “George Washington Esq., etc. etc.” Washington’s aides wouldn’t take the letter, saying that “there was no such person in the Army,” and indeed, “all the world knew who Genl Washington was.” Some days later, the Howes sent another message addressed to “His Excellency, General Washington,” asking him to meet their envoy to discuss a parley. But when the envoy arrived at the meeting with the original, misaddressed letter, Washington refused it with frigid politeness, the gentlemanly savoir faire of which he underscored by inviting the ambassador “to partake of a small collation” before he dismissed him. “I would not upon any occasion sacrifice Essentials to Punctilio,” Washington reported to John Hancock, president of Congress, “but in this Instance . . . I deemed It a duty to my Country and my appointment to insist upon . . . respect.”

Good fortune as 1776 dawned finally gave Washington the means to stage a spectacular coup de théâtre in Boston. A month before Bunker Hill, Connecticut militia captain Benedict Arnold, along with Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys, had rowed across Lake Champlain to the New York side and seized the lightly manned British Fort Ticonderoga, with its rich cache of arms and ammunition. In an almost superhuman feat, Colonel Henry Knox, a hulking, 300-pound, stentorian-voiced Boston bookseller who had taught himself gunnery from his shop’s stock of artillery manuals, had gone to Ticon- deroga on Washington’s orders and dragged 55 mortars and cannon, weighing some 120,000 pounds, on ox-drawn sleds through 300 miles of snowy mountains and frozen rivers, presenting them to Washington on January 17. He happily discovered that Washington had acquired 2,000 muskets and two tons of ammunition, separately captured in the meantime.

Washington crowned Knox’s feat with a suitably dramatic finale. Across a narrow strip of Boston Harbor and looking down upon the city from the south towered Dorchester Heights—sheer cliffs over 100 feet high (though now leveled and part of South Boston). The British had carelessly failed to occupy this territory, and if Washington could get Knox’s guns up there, he would command Boston in a military checkmate. But how to do it without the British overpowering him in the process?

Out of tree trunks, poles, baskets of earth, and hay bales, Washington built portable fortifications, like a stage set. On the night of March 2, he began a deafening cannonade of Boston from various places away from Dorchester Heights, and this diversion continued incessantly through the night of the 4th, when, as a bright moon shone on the Heights but unusual warmth swathed harbor and city in fog, oxen dragged the heavy weapons and prefabricated fortifications on straw-muffled wheels up a slope frozen firm, while the diversionary bombardment masked what little noise the operation made. When the British awoke on the morning of the 5th, they found themselves pinned down under the many guns of a fortress instantly conjured up, it seemed to one British officer, by “the Genii belonging to Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp.”

Both Washington and General Howe wanted to attack at once, but a fierce rainstorm and prudent second thoughts held them back. Seeing his position now untenable, Howe resolved to leave the city. He, too, tried the theatrics of a diversionary cannonade, but Washington glimpsed the “hurry, precipitation and confusion” of his preparations, and he gloated that when the British sailed away on March 17, they left behind £30,000 to £40,000 worth of cannon and provisions, he estimated, along with a wilderness of destroyed baggage wagons and artillery carriages drifting in the harbor. The town itself “has shared a much better Fate than was expected,” and Washington was pleased to write Hancock that his house had “receiv’d no damage worth mentioning” and that “the family pictures are all left entire and untouch’d.” As for Boston’s Loyalists: “no Electric Shock—no sudden Clap of thunder—in a word the last Trump” could have “Struck them with greater Consternation” than the thought of facing “their offended Countrymen.” Many fled by any vessel they could find; one or two committed suicide.

For Washington, those countrymen had universal praise for a miraculous, morale-boosting achievement. To one who called him “the savior of your country,” the theatrical general replied by paraphrasing his favorite line from Addison’s Cato: “To obtain the applause of deserving men is a heartfelt satisfaction, to merit it is my highest wish.”

Correctly guessing that the British had sailed away to New York aiming to seize control of the Hudson River and cut off New England from the rest of the colonies, Washington hurried his army there. He had already sent his second-ranking general, Charles Lee—the beanpole-thin, warily hunched son of a British officer who had bought him the royal commission that Washington had never obtained—to get the city ready. A radical who had espoused the American cause and a loner who preferred his many dogs to human company—and whom Washington had disliked when they served together in the French and Indian War—Lee started fortifying New York and accurately assessed the military challenge: “What to do with the city, I own puzzles me; it is so encircl’d with deep navigable water, that whoever commands the sea must command the town.”

The Royal Navy, long the city’s shield, began sailing into the harbor as its invader in late June 1776, and by late August, half of all Britain’s warships and two-thirds of its army had arrived. It was an arrogant military, and rightly so; for, despite its by-the-book rigidity, its successes had made it feared around the world. Though its officers were aristocrats who had bought their commissions, they had risen in rank by battlefield achievement; most weren’t upper-class blunderers like the Crimean War generals. The Howe brothers—their mother was an illegitimate daughter of George I, and they had grown up at court with their cousin and friend George III—were a case in point. The elder, Richard—“Black Dick” to his admiring sailors—became England’s youngest admiral and invented ship-to-ship signaling by flag hoists, a communications revolution. William, the younger—“as brave and cool as Julius Caesar,” his enemies said—rose to the army’s command by his heroism in the final Canadian victories of the French and Indian War and then at Bunker Hill, though after the strange fortune of that battle, he became silent, overly cautious, and passionately addicted to games of chance by night. The brothers had long sat in Parliament as prominent Whigs; they loudly opposed the king’s American policy to his face, and went to America reluctantly and only because the king had asked them to and gave them hope that they might solve the conflict by peaceful negotiation—a hope that colonial secretary Lord George Germain soon dashed.

Charles Lee was right, of course: New York was indefensible, especially against the world’s mightiest navy. But Washington worried about how it would look to Congress and his fellow Americans—and to the French, whose support Congress wooed—if he just gave up a major city without a shot. He knew how crucial morale and public opinion were: citizens had to believe that their cause was just and their army resolute. Thomas Paine had given a boost to the first in January 1776 with his best-selling Common Sense, forcefully arguing that while “the constitution of England . . . was noble for the dark and slavish times in which it was erected,” nevertheless “it is the republican and not the monarchical part of [it] which Englishmen glory in,” and that, since the current “hardened, sullen-tempered Pharaoh of England” can “composedly sleep with [his people’s] blood upon his soul,” clearly “the independence of this continent . . . sooner or later must arrive” and is the only outcome “equal to the expense of blood and treasure we have been already put to.” In July, as the British fleet was still crowding into New York Harbor, the Declaration of Independence fulfilled Paine’s prophecy and justified the American cause in Jefferson’s eloquently indignant prose. Washington, who had called Common Sense “sound doctrine” and had known that independence was inevitable ever since Bunker Hill, had the Declaration read to his men on July 9, and told them that each man was “now in the service of a State, possessed of sufficient power to reward his merit, and advance him to the highest Honors of a free Country.”

As to proving the army determined, that was his job, and he set about strengthening the defenses that Charles Lee had begun, putting barricades at the water’s edge, placing cannon, sinking wrecks in the rivers to obstruct British warships, and building twin forts facing each other on either side of the Hudson, Fort Washington and Fort Lee, to bar the Royal Navy from control of the river. But on July 12, to show the futility of these flimsy preparations, two warships—the Phoenix and the Rose—blew through them effortlessly before “a brisk Wind & strong tide,” Washington reported, strafing the city for two hours with ceaseless cannon fire. As round shot rocketed down the smoke-filled streets and smashed through houses, New Yorkers panicked. The “Shrieks and Cries of these poor creatures running every way was truly distressing and I fear will have an unhappy effect on the Ears and Minds of our young and inexperienced Soldiery,” the general soberly wrote. Almost untouched by the American return fire—a British sailor provocatively sat at one masthead the entire time—the two ships then anchored in the Tappan Zee, “out of reach of Cannon Shot from either shore” and “having cut of[f] the Water Communication with Albany.”

Now followed three months of cat and mouse all around New York, as the British stalked and pounced, and the Americans scurried wildly just out of reach (for the most part). On August 22, General Howe’s troops came ashore at Brooklyn’s Gravesend Bay, at the southwestern tip of Long Island, whose farm produce the British needed for supply. Wrongly judging the maneuver a feint and expecting the main thrust against Manhattan, Washington countered the combined 22,000-man force of British regulars and Hessian mercenaries with 6,000 of his 19,000-man army, whom he stationed along Brooklyn Heights at Long Island’s northwestern tip. When he realized his mistake, the novice general added only 3,000 more, whom his subordinates ordered to hold the Heights of Guana (Gowanus Heights), a ridge farther south. Splitting their army into three parts, the British sent two north and the third, about 10,000 strong, on a long flanking loop to the northeast through the negligently unguarded Jamaica Pass. Surrounding the Americans on the ridge on August 27, the redcoats put them to flight when they burst out of the woods seemingly from everywhere, killing the rebels in cold blood and spitting some to trees with their bayonets. Four out of five Americans managed to sprint to Brooklyn Heights, though. With the rebels now squeezed up against the East River, and the Royal Navy poised to sail up behind them, General Howe thought the battle as good as won and, with what became habitual hesitation, decided to start tightening his siege in the morning and pluck his prize.

But as Howe dug his trenches closer and closer, the weather changed. The wind backed to the northeast, barring his brother the admiral from sailing into position behind the Americans. A cold rain began on the night of the 28th, soaking all the soldiers to the skin and spreading illness to one American in four. Worried that dividing his force had imprudently left his 10,000 men in Manhattan also vulnerable, Washington decided to act fast. On the 29th, as the storm, now a fierce nor’easter, howled down the river, he moved to get his men out of Brooklyn, in secret and silence.

The Continental Army had some vividly colorful units. There were the Baltimore Independent Cadets, “composed of gentlemen of honour, family and fortune” (their commander wrote), who dressed themselves in “the most macaroni cocked hat” and “most fashionably cut” scarlet coat with buff facings and gold buttons, but stripped down to fringed Indian hunting shirts when it came time to fight. There were the Philadelphia Associators, a quin- tessentially American, purely voluntary, self-financed militia, which Benjamin Franklin organized in 1747 to finesse Quaker Pennsylvania’s religious objection to an official military force. Mustered only in wartime and composed of all classes, they voted a uniform costing no more than ten shillings, to “level all distinctions,” and chose their officers by secret ballot, electing one of Philadelphia’s richest merchants, Colonel John Cadwalader, their commander, and painter Charles Willson Peale a company captain. But perhaps the most unforgettable unit of all was the Fourteenth Massachusetts, a regiment of oilskin-clad Marblehead fishermen and seamen—some of them Indians, some blacks (who ultimately composed 5 percent of the army). Under the taut command of their ship-owning colonel, John Glover, it was they who got Washington’s men to safety.

With Washington, on horseback, directing every moment of the embarkation, the troops mustered in strict silence on the Brooklyn shore after nightfall, communicating only by hand signals as they filed into a motley fleet of boats gathered under pretense to preserve secrecy. Myriad campfires blazed on Brooklyn Heights, a piece of theater aimed at making the army appear settled in for the night. With craft laden almost to the gunwales, Glover’s mariners struggled with muffled oars against the tricky currents and strong wind, making up to a dozen crossings each of the mile-wide river. As dawn neared on the 30th, “a very dense fog began to rise,” one officer recalled, so thick you could “scarcely discern a man at six yards’ distance”—a “providential occurrence,” the New Englanders concluded, shrouding the operation in invisibility until Washington stepped into the very last boat and followed his 9,000 men to the safety of Manhattan. So ended the Battle of Long Island, the first battle he had fought in 14 months as commander.

Two weeks later, Howe invaded Manhattan, sending 4,000 British and Hessians ashore at Kip’s Bay on the low East River shore, intending to cut the island in half. A thunderous hour-long cannonade terrified the few hundred green American defenders, who fled before the enemy advance—or tried to surrender, only to be shot in the head and, in one case, decapitated, his head impaled on a pike. Seeing the battle smoke from his hilltop headquarters in what is now the Morris-Jumel house-museum in Harlem, Washington leaped into the saddle and galloped downtown with his aides, shouting at the retreating soldiers furiously and cutting at them with his riding whip to stop their “most Shameful and disgraceful” flight, to no avail. “Good God!” he cried. “Have I got such troops as these?” Paralyzed with rage and vexation, he stood like an equestrian statue alone on the battlefield as 50 redcoats ran toward him, leveling their muskets, until one of his disconcerted aides grabbed his reins and galloped him away. But as Howe unaccountably failed to cut the island in half, Washington got most of his men back up toward Harlem. The next day, when 1,000 Americans bravely engaged the British in the Battle of Harlem Heights near present-day Columbia University, fought them back, and almost caught them in a trap, even as the redcoats taunted them with the hunting-horn call that means the fox is fleeing before the hounds, Washington’s spirits and his army’s morale rose again.

But he didn’t grasp how much danger he was in. Howe could trap him on Royal Navy–surrounded Manhattan Island by seizing King’s Bridge linking its northern end to the mainland. On October 12, four weeks after the Kip’s Bay invasion, Howe set out to do that, landing a force behind the Americans on Throg’s Neck on the mainland (now in the Bronx), just where the East River opens out into Long Island Sound. A marshy quasi-island, it was useless as a landing place, Howe found, but a storm stranded his men there for a week before they could seek a better one. Luckily, General Charles Lee returned to New York from defeating a bungled British invasion of Charleston, South Carolina, in the nick of time, grasped at once the peril Washington faced, and implored him to rush his army off Manhattan before Howe could take the bridge. Washington moved out on the 18th, while Colonel Glover’s doughty Massachusetts salts delayed the British with withering fire as they struggled ashore on a firmer beachhead.

Five days and 20 miles later, the Continentals reached White Plains in Westchester and waited for Howe on a well-chosen high ridge above the Bronx River. When Howe appeared on October 28, he threateningly displayed the fearsome might of his 13,000 British and Hessians in serried ranks and smart uniforms, the sun glittering on their bayonets, in a golden autumnal wheat field, before loosing a murderous artillery barrage and then sending the Hessians straight up a seemingly impregnable 180-foot “rocky height.” Both sides fought resolutely, until the Hessians found a weak spot and began pushing the no-longer-green defenders back. Washington retreated to safety; Howe hesitated, as usual; a cold autumn storm blew in, and when it passed on November 1, the Americans had vanished.

The New York Public Library/Art Resource, NYAfter Washington escaped from ship-encircled Manhattan in the nick of time, he resolutely held off 13,000 British and Hessians in the Battle of White Plains, shown in an eighteenth-century map.

Except 3,000 men still held Fort Washington in northern Manhattan, which Washington had wanted to abandon as impotent against Lord Howe’s warships, but which Nathanael Greene—a tall, limping, brilliantly blue-eyed, hardworking Rhode Island Quaker who had learned military tactics from manuals that he had bought from Henry Knox’s bookshop before becoming Washington’s youngest (and favorite) general at 33—had persuaded him to hold. The commandant, Colonel Robert Magaw, blustered that his fort was impregnable and that he would “defend his post to the last extremity” and could easily escape across the Hudson if the unthinkable happened. All wrong. Washington watched through his telescope from Fort Lee on the opposite shore as Howe’s 13,000 troops battered the citadel with artillery from all sides on November 16. Surrounding the fort with cannon, they called on Magaw to surrender. For all his bravado, he saw that he had no chance and filed out with his men to captivity in Britain’s pestilential prison ships, as Washington turned his back and wept “with the tenderness of a child.”

Not long after his miraculous retreat from Brooklyn, Washington began to realize that “on our side the War should be defensive”—a “War of posts,” he called it, in which “we should on all occasions avoid a general Action or put anything to the risque unless compelled by a necessity into which we ought never to be drawn.” By the time he began his long retreat down New Jersey after the fall of Fort Washington and abandonment of Fort Lee, he fully understood that he was leading an insurgency and that he didn’t so much have to win the war as not lose it, while harassing, exhausting, and frustrating the enemy until the London authorities had had enough. His army could lose cities and melt into the interior, to emerge and fight again. “It is our arms, not defenseless towns, they have to subdue,” he wrote. Executing such a strategy meant that he had first to subdue his own impulses, since he preferred activity, initiative, glory.

Though New Jersey had its share of Loyalists, for the most part Washington fought among (and for) sympathetic countrymen, and he knew he depended on “the spirit and willingness of the people” for support, intelligence, and supplies. He stopped at nothing to win hearts and minds. When a court martial found three members of his own elite guard guilty of looting valuables from a New Jersey civilian’s house, Washington pointedly endorsed the death sentences it imposed, as “examples which will deter the boldest and most harden’d offenders” from “horrible villainies of this nature.” Moreover, he expected “that humanity and tenderness to women and children will distinguish brave Americans, contending for liberty, from infamous mercenary ravagers, whether British or Hessian.” When he chose Valley Forge as his winter quarters in 1777, he explained to his troops that he had purposely avoided anyplace to which the “virtuous citizens” of Philadelphia had fled from the British, “sacrificing their all,” so as not to compete with them for supplies. “To their distresses humanity forbids us to add.”

The Howes planned to fight a counterinsurgency, one colony at a time, starting by wooing New Jersey rebels by granting pardons to any who would swear allegiance to the king. And they would romance the Loyalists. “You are deceived if you suppose there are not many loyal and peaceable subjects in that country,” General Howe wrote. “I may safely assert that the insurgents are very few, in comparison of the whole people.” He, too, executed soldiers who mistreated civilians and stole or destroyed their property, and he condemned the terror tactics of his colleagues who earlier had torched the Massachusetts towns of Charlestown and Falmouth (later renamed Portland, Maine).

But he had a much harder task than Washington. His men saw the Americans as low-life “rebels,” not as countrymen, and treated them as such from the moment they came off Lord Howe’s ships onto New York’s Staten Island. As one aristocratic British captain there famously joked, “The fair nymphs of this isle are in wonderful tribulation, as the fresh meat that our men have got here has made them as riotous as satyrs. A girl cannot step into the bushes to pluck a rose without running the most imminent risk of being ravished, and they are so little accustomed to these vigorous methods that they don’t bear them with the proper resignation, and of consequence we have the most entertaining courts-martial every day.” As for Britain’s hired Hessian allies: theirs was entirely a for-profit enterprise, and plunder was of its essence. Hearts and minds were the last thing these career mercenaries cared to win.

New Jerseyites hedged their bets. Wanting to be in the winner’s good graces, many signed the British loyalty oath, however glumly, as they watched Howe’s commander in the New Jersey campaign, Lord Cornwallis—an experienced officer with Whig sympathies, who had amazed his aristocratic family by marrying for love—chase Washington’s cold and shrinking army across the bleak winter landscape for two weeks. The troops’ summer clothes turned to rags; they wrapped themselves in blankets. Their shoes disintegrated, and they trudged barefoot or tied rawhide to their feet. “No nation ever saw such a set of tatterdemalions,” a British officer scoffed, though the sick and hungry “Raggamuffins,” as Lord Howe’s secretary derided them, kept the pursuing enemy at a respectful distance by rearguard actions of spirited ferocity, with Washington always near them, a calming presence closest to the pursuers.

By the time they reached the Delaware River north of Trenton and began to cross into Pennsylvania on December 2, they seemed spectral wraiths out of Dante. Charles Willson Peale’s painterly eye glimpsed “the most hellish scene I ever beheld. All the shores were lighted up with large fires, boats continually passing and repassing, full of men, horses, artillery.” As if what he is describing sounds incredible even to him, he repeats it: “The Hollowing of hundreds of men in their difficulties of getting Horses and artillery out of the boats, made it rather the appearance of Hell than any earthly scene.” As the soldiers trudged by, “a man staggered out of line and came toward me. He had lost all his clothes. He was in an old dirty blanket jacket, his beard long and his face full of sores . . . which so disfigured him that he was not known by me on first sight. Only when he spoke did I recognize my brother James.”

Once across the river, here was Washington’s plight. His oft-defeated army, from illness, desertion, capture at Fort Washington, and some enlistments that ended on December 1, was down to fewer than 3,000 men. General Charles Lee, who had dawdled over bringing in reinforcements, had fallen into enemy hands, ignominiously captured at an inn, apart from his army—though Washington, who by mistake had just opened a letter of his filled with criticism of the commander in chief’s “fatal indecision of mind which in war is a much greater disqualification than stupidity or even want of personal courage,” took the loss of so disloyal and insubordinate an officer with equanimity. Lee’s strictures perhaps stung all the more because Washington had made every mistake in the book in the New York campaign. He had misread the enemy’s intentions; he had divided his forces in the face of superior numbers; he had provided no cavalry; he had hesitated almost fatally to get his army out of Manhattan once he grasped the folly of keeping it there; he had allowed Greene to persuade him against his better judgment to keep men in Fort Washington; he had allowed a wealth of precious tents, flour, ordnance, and ammunition at Forts Washington and Lee to fall into enemy hands. And now, on December 17, he had two weeks before the enlistments for most of the rest of his army expired. “Our only dependance now, is upon the Speedy Inlistment of a New Army,” he wrote Lund Washington, his cousin and trusted manager at Mount Vernon; “if this fails us, I think the game will be pretty well up, as from disaffection, and want of spirit & fortitude, the Inhabitants instead of resistance, are offering Submission, and taking protections from Genl Howe in Jersey.”

And now came one of history’s miraculous turning points, in which a handful of men transformed failure into triumph. Tom Paine heralded it with his magniloquent article “The American Crisis,” which he wrote on a drumhead by campfire light, retreating with the Philadelphia Associators, and which the troops huddled together to read aloud just days after it came out in the Pennsylvania Journal on December 19. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” Paine passionately proclaimed, telling his exhausted fellow troopers just what they hungered to hear. “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” Let’s not talk about “peace in my day” but think instead that, “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace.” As for General Washington, he is one of those men who never appear “to full advantage but in difficulties and in action,” Paine assured them. “There is a natural firmness in some minds which cannot be unlocked by trifles, but which, when unlocked, discovers a cabinet of fortitude.” Such is the general, blessed with “a mind that can even flourish upon care.”

And so it proved. In crossing to Pennsylvania, Washington had the foresight to gather every boat for 60 miles up and down the river, so that the British couldn’t follow, and he had them stashed in creeks and inlets on the Pennsylvania bank—just in case. But General Howe didn’t try to follow. He left Hessian regiments to guard the Delaware’s east bank, including three to hold Trenton, while he eased into a cozy New York winter, planning to take Philadelphia when the spring fighting season opened. Washington, his dwindling troops disheartened, and their enlistments nearly up, saw that without a “lucky blow,” he could never “rouse the spirits of the people, which are quite sunk by our misfortunes.” So when Charles Lee’s reinforcements finally turned up with some militia units on December 22, momentarily boosting his strength to 7,600 men—still too few to fill Madison Square Garden even halfway—he knew that he had to act at once, before his army melted away. He would attack Trenton on Christmas Day—a plan of such imaginative, unconventional audacity that no by-the-book English officer could ever dream it up.

His staff worried at the planning dinner on Christmas Eve: Could the men get across the river in just one night, as he planned, since it had taken five days to cross the other way? They were “not to be troubled about that,” Marblehead Colonel Glover imperturbably pledged, “as his boys could manage it.” On horseback and out front, as usual, Washington would lead the main force of 2,400, which would split into two columns on the opposite shore. Two other detachments would cross elsewhere, to multiply the chances of success. The revealingly desperate password for the operation: “Victory or Death.”

Once again, as at Brooklyn, Washington marshaled his men at the river’s edge in silence and secrecy on Christmas afternoon—only this time, their bare feet left bloody tracks in the snow. Once again, rain and sleet lashed them, which during the night turned to snow and became “a perfect hurricane,” one Boston fifer recalled. Washington crossed first, to take charge if the enemy appeared, and in groups of 40, the men squeezed onto flat-bottomed freight scows to cross the churning, ice-clogged river, while Glover’s mariners ferried horses and 400 tons of cannon across, too. The storm slowed them down, so Washington feared that he had lost the surprise of reaching Trenton before dawn, and it stymied the other two detachments altogether, so they didn’t cross. Even so, wrote Washington, “as I was certain there was no making a Retreat without being discovered, and harassed on repassing the River, I determined to push on at all Events.”

It was 3 AM on December 26 when the last man safely reached the Jersey side and 4 AM before the line of march formed up and set off, straight into driving snow and hail, with Washington galloping back and forth, exhorting and encouraging them, “in a deep & Solemn voice,” one soldier recalled, to “Press on, boys!” and marveling at how “they seemed to vie with the other” in doing what he asked, in a way that “reflects the highest honor upon them.” When the sky lightened at 6 AM, they’d gone only half the nine miles south to Trenton, and the storm had soaked their powder, leaving them to fight with bayonets alone. That they would catch the enemy sleeping off a Christmas drunk is a legend; the 1,500 Hessians, whose foraging parties American patrols constantly harried and whom Loyalist spies kept informed, had slept on their arms for three nights and were on rigid alert, even though most viewed American prowess with wry contempt and felt certain that the storm made an attack that day unlikely.

Before the Continentals reached Trenton shortly after 8, the wind had shifted, blowing the snow and hail into the Hessians’ faces, so that the Americans really did surprise them, coming at them from three directions, with Washington leading the main charge. Henry Knox fired his artillery straight down the town’s two streets with murderous effect, satisfied, he remarked with sober awe, that the “hurry, fright, and confusion of the enemy” that he had caused resembled “that which will be when the last trump shall sound.” When the Hessian commander tried to rally his troops to charge Washington, the general galloped to a group of Americans, cried “March on, my brave fellows, after me!” and headed him and his men off, wounding him mortally. In an hour, the Americans had won, killing or wounding 105 Hessians and taking almost 900 captive, as against two Continentals killed, plus four or five frozen to death on the march. “This is a glorious day for our country!” Washington congratulated his men, before turning to speak a word of comfort to the dying Hessian commander. But had these 2,400 failed, their revolution might well have died with them, obliterated in the Jersey snow. “It may be doubted,” summed up the eminent Whig statesman and historian Sir G. O. Trevelyan, “whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world.”

Sixty hours after they set out, Washington’s men had recrossed the river with their prisoners and trove of captured supplies and arms. “The General,” Washington told them on the morning of the 27th, rewarding them with cash and an extra tot of rum, “with the utmost sincerity and affection, thanks the officers and soldiers for their spirited and gallant behavior.” But that afternoon, he learned that they’d have to go back. Colonel Cadwalader and his 1,800 Philadelphia Associators, unable to negotiate the ice-treacherous river on Christmas, had finally made it across and, with their usual democracy, had voted to stay and fight. Washington would not leave the determined Pennsylvanians prey to the 8,000 British troops in southern New Jersey. He ordered his force across the river on December 29 in two groups. With the temperature plummeting, the first found the Delaware frozen enough to tiptoe gingerly across, though not enough to bear their artillery and tents; the second, with Washington at its head, had to wait until the 30th, and the guns couldn’t cross until New Year’s Eve.

Now what? Most of the troops’ enlistments would end when midnight tolled, and even Glover’s tars burned to get home to make their fortunes serving their country as privateers. The merchant-officers of the Philadelphia Associators told Washington that they had chipped in to offer a $10 bonus in hard money to any of their men who would stay on, and it worked. Impressed, the general called his troops together and made them the same offer, with no idea where he’d get the money. “The drums beat for volunteers,” one soldier recounted, “but not a man turned out.” Washington, as a sergeant never forgot, “wheeled his horse about, rode in front of the regiment,” and said: “My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected; but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with the fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty, and to your country, which you probably can never do under any other circumstances.”

The drummers drummed; the men spoke low to one another; a few stepped forward, and then nearly all did. The choice cost almost half of them their lives. An officer asked if he should enroll them in writing. No need, Washington replied. In his new ethic, a man with the merit of a gentleman was a gentleman, and his word of honor was enough. These were men whom 16 months earlier Washington had described as “exceeding dirty & nasty people.” Now he knew them better. “A people unused to restraint,” he wrote a couple of weeks later, “must be led; they will not be drove.” And he had used the magic American word with them: consent.

With the vengeful enemy barreling toward him—the enraged Hessians had orders to take no prisoners—Washington remembered a high knoll south of Assunpink Creek in Trenton, ideal for defense, and he ranged his army there, with artillery aimed at the bridge and possible fords. When the British thundered into Trenton toward dusk on January 2, 1777, the American advance guard struggled to get back over the bridge before the enemy cut them down. Washington raced to the stone span with a troop to protect them. One private, squeezed up against Washington’s horse and boot during the skirmish, left an oft-quoted evocation of the quasi-mythical stature that the general was now acquiring in his soldiers’ eyes: “The noble horse of Gen. Washington stood with his breast pressed close against the end of the west rail of the bridge, and the firm, composed, and majestic countenance of the General inspired confidence and assurance in a moment so important and critical. . . . The horse stood as firm as the rider, and seemed to understand that he was not to quit his post and station.” The British tried bravely three times to force their way across the bridge, until it “looked red as blood, with their killed and wounded and red coats,” a sergeant wrote. The enemy corpses, perhaps 365 in all (as against 50 Americans), “lay thicker and closer together,” another soldier recalled, “than I ever beheld sheaves of wheat lying in a field which the reapers had just passed.”

Still, the British outnumbered the Continentals by more than five to four. “We’ve got the Old Fox safe now,” Cornwallis assured his staff as they met that night. “We’ll go over and bag him in the morning.”

Washington could figure the odds, too, and he knew that his position, though strong, had vulnerabilities that Cornwallis’s greater numbers could exploit by getting to his rear, a peril that insurgencies shun. He wanted to get his men to safety, without damping “popular opinion.” The army’s morale was soaring, and Jerseyites now flocked to the militia and harassed the British continually, so whatever he did had to “give reputation to our arms,” maintaining the initiative and pressing on. By an inspiration of genius, he gave vent to his inner Washington, all boldness and enterprise, and turned a withdrawal into an attack. Seizing on information that Colonel Cadwalader had heard from “a very intelligent young gentleman” just come from Prince- ton that no sentries guarded the wide-open east end of the little college town, Washington decided to strike there. “One thing I was sure of,” he recalled, “was that it would avoid the appearance of a retreat, which was of consequence.”

By now, he had the theatrics down pat. Cloth muffled the wagon wheels, watch fires sparkled with brighter than usual cheer, trenching tools crunched as noisily as if hundreds were auditioning for the part of the grave digger in Hamlet. So silently did Washington slip away after midnight that “many of his own sentinels never missed him,” an officer chuckled. Roads that the British had labored along “halfleg deep” in mud had now frozen hard and smooth as the exhausted Americans virtually sleepwalked the 16-mile byroad to Princeton, leaving it “literally marked with the blood of soldiers feet,” a sergeant noticed. In the icy, crystalline-bright dawn, two British regiments galloping to Cornwallis’s aid in Trenton literally ran into the Americans and “were as much astonished as if an army had dropped perpendicularly down upon them,” General Knox quipped.

No less astonished by the ferocity of the immediate British charge, the Americans fell back in panic. Just then, Washington materialized among the Associators, waving his tricorne. “Parade with us, my brave fellows!” he urged. “There is but a handful of the enemy, and we will have them directly.” The general led his men straight into the British fire, with such defiant courage that one of his aides clenched his eyes shut, unable to watch his commander’s all but certain death. “Away, my dear colonel, and bring up the troops,” Washington said to him when the smoke cleared. “The day is our own!” A couple of hundred British took cover in the college’s Nassau Hall, only to be cannonaded into surrender by artillery commander Alexander Hamilton, just about to turn 22. “The achievements of Washington and his little band of compatriots between the 25th of December and the 4th of January, a space of 10 days,” pronounced one of the era’s foremost generals, Frederick the Great, “were the most brilliant of any recorded in the annals of military achievements.”

Experience as you live it never feels the way it looks in retrospect; and though the war dragged on for four and a half miserable years before Washington and his French allies beat the British at York- town—and even then didn’t know that it meant the war was over—those fateful days after Christmas 1776 marked the Revolution’s decisive turning point. It was then that a shocked Britain realized that it might well lose its American empire and that George Washington proved to himself, his troops, and the world his inspirational brilliance as a leader, and became the unifying embodiment of the new nation.

This is the first of two essays on Washington’s centrality in American history.

Top Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images


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