It might not have been a turning point in the Revolutionary War — whatever a turning point might mean — but the moment was significant nonetheless. In the early summer of 1777, when British Gen. John Burgoyne had begun his invasion of the American colonies from Canada, Gen. George Washington decided to give Daniel Morgan, an unschooled former teamster from Virginian’s Shenandoah Valley, his own independent command.
Composed of 500 Continentals, most of them Virginians selected for their skill with the new Kentucky rifle, “Morgan’s Rangers” would be exempt from the routine duties of camp life. Better still, they would not be expected to follow accepted methods of warfare.
They would have their own uniform — if uniform is a proper description for what they were to wear. “It occurs to me,” Washington wrote to Morgan, “that if you were to dress a Company or two of true woods men in the right Indian style and let them Attack accompanied with screaming and yelling as the Indians do, it would have very good consequences especially if as little as possible were known about the matter before hand.”
Washington also decided to dispatch Morgan and his men to Gen. Horatio Gates’ troops in upstate New York. There Gates was finding it impossible to stop Burgoyne’s troops as they muscled their way south. Burgoyne’s Indian allies were proving especially useful in terrorizing civilians foolhardy enough to get in the Redcoats’ way. They simply scalped these colonists, spreading terror as they advanced. Well, then, Washington figured, Morgan’s Rangers should have scalping knives, too. They could turn the tables on Burgoyne’s allies, terrorizing them.
Washington was beginning to savor the possibilities of what would later be known as guerrilla tactic — called “Fabian” methods at the time, after the Roman dictator Fabius Maximus who employed these tactics against Hannibal and the Carthaginians in the Second Punic War. But Washington was also relishing the opportunities afforded by psychological warfare, to which a small and flexible force like Morgan’s was well suited. Washington wanted Burgoyne’s troops to know that the indomitable Morgan and his ruthless backwoodsmen were on their way — and to lose sleep worrying about it.
“I should think it would be well,” Washington said, “even before their arrival to begin to circulate these Ideas, with proper Embellishments, throughout the Country, and in the army to take pains to communicate them to the Enemy. It would not be amiss, among other things, to magnify numbers.”
Washington, military historians now realize, was correct. Over the long haul, the injection of Fabian tactics in the war — think of “the Swamp Fox” Francis Marion in the South — proved of enormous importance. But Morgan’s men were effective almost immediately, routing Burgoyne’s forces at Freeman’s Farm, near Saratoga, in September. When news of Burgoyne’s surrender the following month reached Europe, France entered the war on the American side, leading ultimately to victory and independence.
Even those who acknowledge Washington’s greatness as a man and as a leader often conclude that he was not an outstanding military strategist or tactician. This assessment might be shortsighted. Washington perhaps more than any other military leader of his day learned the lessons of the French and Indian war — to win a war on American soil required techniques unsuited to Europe — and knew how to apply them.
Although he was not an intellectual, Washington had formidable powers of mind and understood something else that often escaped the attention of his better educated contemporaries such as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Washington, more than anyone else, could appreciate the unique strength of the American people as it revealed itself in such unlikely characters as Daniel Morgan.
It is worth recalling, as we celebrate our independence, that when the colonists decided to fight for it, the struggle was sure to be “protracted, dubious & severe,” as Washington recalled in a draft of his first inaugural address. The outcome, moreover, was far from certain. The resources of Great Britain, Washington reminded his countrymen, seemed limitless; her “fleets covered the Ocean (and) her troops had harvested laurels in every quarter of the globe.”
The colonists by contrast were poorly equipped for what lay ahead. “Not then organized as a Nation, or known as a people upon the earth — we had no preparation,” Washington said. “Money, the nerve of War, was wanting.” So were most other requirements. But the cause had a “secret resource of a nature unknown to our enemy,” Washington said. This secret resource was “the unconquerable resolution of our Citizens.”
Accounting for Washington’s ability to perceive this strength and to exploit it might require us to view the man somewhat differently than we have been accustomed to do. We are taught to regard the squire of Mount Vernon as a member of the colonial elite, the owner of thousands of acres of land, and, by some accounts, the richest man in America. Wealthy he certainly was, but he was not to the manor born. The younger son of one of the less illustrious farmers of the Northern Neck, Washington married well, invested shrewdly, and profited handsomely from his many commercial enterprises.
Washington was that most American of creations, the self-made man. Ambitious and astute, he seems to have consulted the contemporary equivalent of a self-help book to teach himself to mix in polite society. This he accomplished with remarkable success, though, for all his celebrated dignity, he never seems to have lost something of the common touch. That austere manner, it is likely, was designed to impress the other men we regard today as the Founders, not to cow the middlin’ sort.
Because he remained, in many ways, as much the yeoman farmer as the plantation grandee, Gen. Washington could deal diplomatically with all levels of colonial society. He knew how to ask Congress for money, but he also knew how to approach other commoners whose cattle, horses, wagons and food crops he needed to provision his troops. Washington knew when restraint was called for, restraint being the default term all historians use when referring to this most self-possessed of men. But, as with the Whiskey Rebellion, he also knew when to apply force, or at least the threat of it.
“Washington was a great listener,” says James C. Rees, president of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which owns and maintains Washington’s home outside Alexandria, Va. Washington had the ability to learn from others. He learned not just from the well educated men — Adams, Jefferson, George Mason, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton — but from the self-educated — Henry Knox and Nathanael Greene — and downright uneducated, like Morgan.
For too long we have seen the Founders as removed from the people, a providentially elite whose appearance at just this time and this place requires special explanation. But when viewed as products of the colonial culture of the British colonies, which was commercial, libertarian, individualistic, competitive, and, by European standards, democratic, the need for this explanation disappears. Washington might be the man whose life best exemplifies this fact, giving us a new way to view our common experience and fresh cause for celebration.
• Crawford is the author, most recently, of “Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson.”