In your opinion, what was George Washington’s biggest blunder of the war? Its impact, if any?
Washington’s whole approach to the defense of New York was one of history’s great debacles: lack of imagination about the British landing, failure to supervise subordinates in preparing the Brooklyn defenses, boxing himself into Brooklyn Heights with no way to escape (until fog and John Glover interceded), the loss of Fort Washington, the obsession with engaging the British using European tactics… the list goes on.
Washington seemed haunted by a failure to protect the flanks. In New York and again at Brandywine his inattention to the vulnerable sides of his army brought them close to disaster.
A book about Washington’s blunders would be large, but his most baffling mistake occurred in September and October 1776. Although fully aware that he was soon to be trapped in Harlem Heights by a superior British army and utterly dominant Royal Navy, Washington made no attempt to escape his snare. His letters at the time indicate an awareness of his dilemma. They also suggest that in addition to his customary indecisiveness, Washington was not just thoroughly exhausted, but in the throes of a black depression. These assorted factors likely explain his potentially fatal torpor. He and the American cause were saved from the looming disaster by the arrival of General Charles Lee, whose advice Washington still respected. Lee took one look and urged Washington to get the army out of the trap. Washington listened, and escaped.
–John E. Ferling
I would be divided between his defense of New York and his trust in General Charles Lee but in both instances I speak from historical hindsight and I do not thing the results could have been changed.
–Robert Scott Davis
I believe Washington’s biggest blunder was to allow his army to be trapped on Long Island/Brooklyn by Howe’s army during and after the August 1776 Battle of Long Island (or Brooklyn). He did not yet realize that the key to victory for the patriot cause was the survival of his army and that losing an important city (such as New York) to the British mattered little. Fortunately for the patriot cause, this blunder did not have a catastrophic impact, although it nearly did. Had Howe aggressively followed up his crushing victory immediately, Washington’s army (pinned against Brooklyn Heights) would likely have been destroyed. Howe, with Bunker Hill still fresh in his mind, hesitated, allowing Washington to execute a masterly retreat across the East River to Manhattan. This near disaster was followed in November 1776 by Washington’s failure to overrule Nathanael Greene’s desire to hold onto Fort Washington, then the last patriot stronghold on Manhattan Island. The fort fell easily and about 2,800 soldiers were taken captive, with many of them (probably a majority) dying in fetid British prisons.
–Christian M. McBurney
Allowing the attack on the Chew House, in the middle of the battle of Germantown. He should have bypassed it and mopped it up later. It was a distraction that sucked momentum out of the American assault at a crucial time. Fortunately, he adhered to his basic strategy of not fighting to the finish, and he ordered a retreat in time to save the bulk of his army.
Going out on a limb here: In general, GW made few mistakes/blunders. If anything, he may have been too cautious at times, but his coolness compares favorably with Robert E Lee’s impetuosity. Still, I think that his agreeing to place Charles Lee in charge of the “aggressive probing force” before the battle of Monmouth. As I describe in my forthcoming book on Greene, the original scenario was to be a meeting engagement of sorts, in which a part of the American army would catch Clinton’s force as it withdrew through NJ, and then hold it while the rest of the American army came up to (hopefully) deliver the coup de grace that would end the war. The force was originally assigned to Lafayette, a young French officer whose dedication was unquestioned and whose aggression in battle had already manifested itself. But along the way, the force was augmented, and Charles Lee “pulled rank” and insisted on leading the force himself. GW’s blunder, in my view, was to acquiesce in this change of command. The result was that Lee (who had already demonstrated what Abraham Lincoln would call “the slows”) approached Clinton with alacrity, but then seems to have lost his nerve and called for a hasty retreat. The result was a narrowly averted disaster. Monmouth resulted in a drawn battle that (in my view) could have been a victory if someone other than Lee (Greene, for instance, whom Lafayette would have been glad to bow to) had been in charge of the “catch and hold” force. Had this battle bloodied Clinton worse than it did, it might have shortened the war, or at least put the British more on the defensive.
–Curtis F. Morgan, Jr.
The loss of Ft. Washington in November 1776, the only remaining Patriot forces on the island of Manhattan was George Washington’s biggest Revolutionary War blunder. Washington had a chance to order the fort abandoned and withdraw its 2900 defenders and save valuable arms and supplies. It was the first American fort to surrender in the Revolutionary war and the second largest surrender after the siege of Charleston.
Washington placed too much faith in Major General Nathanial Greene who believed that the hastily built fort could be defended even facing vastly superior British Army and Naval forces, which surrounded them. Washington should have recognized the untenable strategic situation; the weak fortress defenses, the need to conserve manpower and supplies and ordered a withdrawal. There was not even a water source in the fort or space for all of the Patriots within its walls.
The string of disastrous battles culminating with the loss of New York City greatly diminished Washington’s military reputation and the surrender of Ft. Washington may not have stood out for Washington. However, its loss especially damaged Greene’s military reputation and may have weighed into the Continental Congress’s decision to appoint General Horatio Gates to lead the Southern Department versus Washington’s desire to appoint Greene.
Would Greene have avoided Gate’s disastrous loss at Camden and shortened the war? We will never know for sure, but it took several years for the gifted Greene to recover his reputation and be entrusted with an independent command, a military campaign in which he performed brilliantly.
Washington’s biggest RevWar blunder was the Battle of Brandywine on Sept. 11, 1777. Why? Historians say Washington learned and evolved through the war, and that’s true. But come on, George! Before Brandywine, the last time Howe and Washington had met was about a year before – on Long Island, where Gage outflanked Washington’s army, sending panicked Americans running. So they meet again a year later at Brandywine and Gage outflanked Washington again with the same results. Disastrous impact: two weeks after Brandywine, the British army marched into the continental capital of Philadelphia and sent congressmen running for their lives. Washington’s Brandywine blunder almost destroyed his army and created huge doubts in many minds if they had chosen the right person for the job? Especially when a month after Brandywine, a whole British army surrendered to Gates at Saratoga and France entered the war. Washington’s PR took a heavy hit from Brandywine.
–John L. Smith, Jr.
Washington’s largest blunder was surely his signing a surrender document with the French at Ft. Necessity that acknowledged the assassination of French officers by Washington and his Indian Allies. That was the justification for the French to start a world-wide war.
Washington’s conduct during the Battle of Long Island was incredibly risky and the only thing that saved the Americans from annihilation was the lack of action by the British commanders.
Getting caught on Long Island, with no way to retreat by land. Had the weather been different and/or Howe been more on top of things, the war might have ended right there. Washington was sometimes overly optimistic. On several occasions he wanted to force the issue by staging ill-advised offensives. He was willing to take advice, however, and when his War Council, which convened often, proved more cautious, he went with that. Great leaders must also know how to follow sound advice, which he did. In a similar vein, though he complained often to Congress, he never challenged Congress’s authority. A true military man, he was an even truer republican.
George Washington had some blunders, but I’d say the biggest was the decision to hold onto Fort Washington on Manhattan, when he should have seen that it was a poor decision. The British forces controlled the rest of the east side of the Hudson, effectively cutting off Fort Washington from other American support. The loss of this fort, with its garrison and artillery, was a huge blow, coming on the heels of 4 other defeats in and around New York City. The losses hurt Washington’s ability to conduct the war on anything close to par with the British, forcing him to retreat across New Jersey. George Washington is lucky in that the British let their guard down so he could strike back at Trenton, but no one could see that coming when Fort Washington fell.
–Robert M. Dunkerly
Washington’s biggest blunders – Washington made a blunder of near epic proportion when he assigned Benedict Arnold to command West Point in the summer of 1780. To be fair, Washington hoped this heroic officer would return to action but Arnold, scheming for months with his Tory wife, Peggy Shippen, needed to command West Point to seal his deal for recognition, money and payback. By late September Arnold made every effort to weaken the fortress, was poised to turn over the plan of defenses and cannon and would surrendering the bastion once attacked. When Washington learned of the deceit, he was floored. He also failed to hold Shippen believing she had no role in the treason. While Major Andre’s capture stymied a British attack, the immediate impact was a desperate Patriot effort to strengthen the Hudson River defenses. Arnold’s defection may have snatched resolve from the jaws of betrayal and convinced Washington that the strong fortress should be maintained.
–Steven Paul Mark
Until the Valley Forge winter, Washington kept trying to force a major battle that would inflict heavy casualties on the Crown (and fulfill his understanding of military glory). He tried to effect that during the Boston campaign, and his generals kept voting down his proposals. He tried on Long Island and Manhattan Island, and kept losing. He tried outside Philadelphia in the fall of 1777, and lost the nation’s capital. Only then did Washington realize that he should become a “Fabian commander,” as Henry Knox put it.
–J. L. Bell
Dividing his army between Long Island and Manhattan in the summer of 1776. It’s a maxim that a general should never divide his army in the face of a superior enemy (sure, rules are made to be broken, and dividing his force worked for Nathanael Greene in the Cowpens campaign), and Washington was too weak to hold either Long Island or Manhattan. He should have abandoned Long Island, which he lost anyway, and concentrated his forces to defend New York City. Even though Washington would likely still have been defeated, he probably would have inflicted serious casualties on the British and made the cautious General William Howe even more careful.
Even though he was effectively ordered to do it by the Congress, I think Washington’s biggest blunder of the war was to risk so much of his army defending Brooklyn and Manhattan. Washington may not have won many battles, but he wasn’t strategically naive. He knew that the Army stood to lose big if they tried to defend island of Manhattan. First, his troops were not sufficiently prepared for a traditional European-style engagement with the British regulars. And, second, defending an island against a strong navy without one of your own is akin to strategic suicide. But there was a concern for morale should the Americans just concede New York to the British without a fight. In the end, that fight ended up costing Washington about 1,500 troops and probably damaged morale worse than the alternative would have done. Similarly, his potentially biggest blunder occurred near the end of the war. That defeat at New York stayed with Washington for the entire war and he retained a burning desire to redeem himself from his worst defeat. And so in 1781, as the Comte de Grasse’s fleet was directing itself north from the Caribbean, Washington was suggesting to the French commander, Rochambeau, that the allied armies use the French fleet to try to retake New York City from the British. It’s impossible to conceive of a scenario in which that would have not been utterly disastrous. And it shows two important things about Washington, i.e., what an deep impact the defeat at New York had on him and his ability to not only seek but take advice from others. Rochambeau and the others talked Washington out of the idea. Instead the armies marched to the Chesapeake arriving at the same time as the French fleet, and won the last major engagement of the war at Yorktown.
–Michael D. Hattem
I think Washington’s biggest blunder of the war was not evacuating Fort Washington in November 1776. Although Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene is often blamed for the loss of Fort Washington’s garrison, Washington was ultimately responsible and he later admitted that he made a mistake in relying too much on Greene’s opinion. For this admission, see his letter to Joseph Reed of 22 Aug. 1779 (published in The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, Vol. 22). In that letter, Washington spoke of a “warfare in my mind and hesitation” which ended in the loss of the fort and its 2,900-man garrison.
From a political and strategic standpoint, the blunder was giving in to Congress by undertaking the defense of New York and thereby avoiding the consequences of the entire New York campaign. It would have been better to have withdrawn the army to safer ground.
It was not G.W.’s biggest blunder; however, what ever possessed him to simply let Gen. Nathanial Woodhull suffer, rot and ultimately die in a British prison?
In hindsight,he would have done better to let the British keep Charles Lee instead. Perhaps that would have provided a better opportunity to give Arnold the advancement he wanted and probably deserved, possibly preventing his plot at West Point.
I think it was foolish from the start to make an attempt to “defend” New York, considering not only the large Loyalist population, but also the fact that Manhattan was surrounded by water and gave the British navy the ability to strike anywhere they wanted. If anything, Washington should have done better to make sure all routes to Brooklyn were better guarded, and perhaps fortified. I can’t fathom how the Jamaica Pass was overlooked.
How many times can you say “blunder”?:
P.S. I had just finished my letter when a blundering Lieutenant of the blundering Captain Colt, who had just blundered upon two vessels from Nova Scotia, came in with the account of it, and before I could rescue my letter, without knowing what he did, picked up a candle and sprinkled it with grease; but these are kind of blunders which one can readily excuse.
George Washington to Joseph Reed, November 8, 1775, John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., vol. 4 of The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799 (Washington: GPO, 1931), 77.