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General George Washington: A Military Life Paperback – January 9, 2007
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“Although there is no such thing as definitive history, Lengel’s book now tops the list as the most comprehensive and authoritative study of Washington’s military career ever written.”
–Joseph J. Ellis, author of His Excellency: George Washington
“Historians have long debated George Washington’s generalship. Now, armed with many previously untapped sources obtained by the acclaimed Papers of George Washington project Edward Lengel enters the fray with a full-scale biography of Washington the soldier. With a sharp eye for drama, a mastery of detail, and balanced and insightful judgments, Lengel gives us a brilliant and compelling study of the military strengths and weaknesses of the remarkable man who was ‘first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.’”
–John Whiteclay Chambers II, Rutgers University, editor of The Oxford Companion to American Military History
“Ed Lengel knows the Washington military papers as have few historians, past or present. His study of Washington’s career as a soldier is a model of clarity and judicious analysis. It deserves a wide readership.”
–Don Higginbotham, Dowd Professor of History, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
“Lengel has immersed himself in the most important sources bearing on Washington’s military life. He has not neglected other primary sources, and he has also used existing scholarship well. The result is a book that covers Washington’s military career from beginning to end and offers fresh insights into Washington’s role in the American Revolution.”
–Robert Middlekauff, Preston Hotchkis Professor of American History, Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley
From the Inside Flap
Based largely on Washington's personal papers, this engrossing book paints a vivid, factual portrait of a man to whom lore and legend so tenaciously cling. To Lengel, Washington was the imperfect commander. Washington possessed no great tactical ingenuity, and his acknowledged "brilliance in retreat" only demonstrates the role luck plays in the fortunes of all great men. He was not an enlisted man's leader; he made a point of never mingling with his troops. He was not an especially creative military thinker; he fought largely by the book.
He was not a professional, but a citizen soldier, who, at a time when warfare demanded that armies maneuver efficiently in precise formation, had little practical training handling men in combat. Yet despite his flaws, Washington was a remarkable figure, a true man of the moment, a leader who possessed a clear strategic, national, and continental vision, and who inspired complete loyalty from his fellow revolutionaries, officers, and enlisted men. America could never have won freedom without him.
A trained surveyor, Washington mastered topography and used his superior knowledge of battlegrounds to maximum effect. He appreciated the importance of good allies in times of crisis, and understood well the benefits of coordination of ground andnaval forces. Like the American nation itself, he was a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts-a remarkable everyman whose acts determined the course of history. Lengel argues that Washington's excellence was in his completeness, in how he united the military, political, and personal skills necessary to lead a nation in war and peace.
At once informative and engaging, and filled with some eye-opening revelations about Washington, the war for American independence, and the very nature of military command, General George Washington is a book that reintroduces readers to a figure many think they already know.
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For much of the book I found myself becoming frustrated with the negative conclusions drawn from the outcomes of battles. It seemed that Lengel was as interested in “myth busting” as history. I had long ago realized that Washington was not the greatest military strategist. I realized that often he was hampered by incompetent soldiers, political intrigue and lack of resolve of the Congress and by the sabotage of loyalists. But Lengel frequently points out that Washington was woefully unprepared in specific battles. A lack of awareness of local topography was near fatal in the Battle of Brandywine is one example.
I nearly set this book down about half way through. I am glad that I pushed on to the end.
Ultimately, the character of George Washington is what brought about the victorious end. Certainly, fighting against the most incompetent British Generals helped as well.
On a side note, the conduct of the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse was of interest to me.
Years ago I read The Glorious Cause by Jeff Shaara. I think that the depiction of this battle so influenced my thinking that my disgust of General Charles Lee was complete. Later, I read Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling. His conclusions about this battle were so at odds with my preconceived ideas that I found it almost laughable. Lengel trends a middle ground about the conduct of Charles Lee in this battle. Washington does share some blame in Lee’s shameful performance in the field of battle. (I mention this because I find it necessary to get more than one perspective on “history”, even when the subject is my favorite American historical character.)
My favorite part of Lengel’s biography was his recounting of the Newburgh Conspiracy. Washington now faced a very hostile group of even officers as they considered marching on Philadelphia and in effect, staging a military coup. The goodness of Washington inspires me to tears every time I read about this event. Lengel did inspire me with his wonderful recounting of this critical event. (By contrast, Joseph Ellis tells this story with a degree of cynicism that is shocking in His Excellency: George Washington. That is one of the reasons I don’t care for Joseph Ellis. He seems to represent the extreme of modern scholars who want to de-mythologize the American founding. His book on Jefferson left me feeling such cold feelings about another of the figures of Mount Rushmore.)
Finally, if you want to read a book that is purely adoring and apologetic on Washington, you can do no better than The Real George Washington. Every story is told with the greatest respect and devotion. It is slanted to a degree that makes it more devotional than historical.
And if you want to read the best modern biography of Washington, authored by my favorite biographer, read Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. I go back to this book to re-read events of Washington’s life. Chernow is a wordsmith. He is objective and yet highly respectful of America’s greatest man. His account is captivating and inspiring.
I am sorry for this wordy review. I just re-read it and realize I am perhaps boasting about all that I have read about Washington. Lengel’s book (the supposed subject of this review…) is worth reading if you are interested in the life of Washington, but in my opinion, should not be the final word on Washington.
Politics of the time are imporant relative to his overall mission and again, this book fills in the historical gaps. Clarification and historical accuracy are clearly the objective of the author.
The tactics and conditions are not excessively detailed which helps the story move along and yet the imagery through the authors writting style is well done. There are moments in this book when you feel like you are there. It's either in your bones or it isn't. Patriotism is not lost.
You will however come to appreciate how imperfect the man was, sometimes lucky and equally with moments of absolute brilliance. I imagine there were also moments of shear destitution which is where increadible fortitude comes from, especially at the lowest of points of deprivation. These were real men of the day who stood against the largest military on the planet. If that alone doesn't speak volumes, I don't know what will.
Today, we grossly overuse the term leadership. Back then, it moved a rag-tag army against all odds. This was our greatest Founding Father. He will indeed remain so. He is missed.
He is, an American. Huzzah !!!
We can argue divine providence from our modern point of view or any of the numerous accolades appointed to him, but this man, this General, demonstrated action, time and time again. Perfect? No. Beloved? Yes.
Something beautiful came from such a profound ugliness in our history because sometimes, that's the way it must happen. Try to keep it in context, which may be a challenge unto itself.
Just buy it and read it !
Coincidentally, was listening to the RevolutionsPodcast on the English Civil War at the time ... amazing how the concepts of representation and republic spanned 2 generations to bear fruit in the USA.
Highly recommended for an understanding of how the world got to be the way it is today.