Revolutionary War Historical Article

Why George Washington?

By Donald N. Moran

Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the February/March 1996 Edition of The Valley Newsletter

After a review of his military service record prior to the Revolutionary War one must wonder why the continental Congress chose George Washington as Commander-in-Chief.

Washington started his military career during the French and Indian Wars. He was sent on a dangerous mission into Indian country to warn the French that their advances were considered an intrusion into the Colony of Virginia's territory. This mission resulted in a skirmish in which a French envoy was killed. This incident started the war! He returned to the frontier after being appointed a Lieutenant Colonel of Militia and set up a temporary fortification, naming it "Fort Necessity". The French, along with their Indian allies, attacked it and forced Washington to surrender.

Later, serving as colonial Aide-de-Camp to British General Edward Braddock, Washington was credited with saving the survivors of the Battle of the Wilderness (July 9, 1755), one of the worst defeats ever suffered by the British Army. For the next two years Washington commanded a force of 700 irregulars, defending 350 miles of Virginia Frontier.

A summary of Washington's French and Indian War service is: He inadvertently started the War, surrendered an important frontier fort, and participated in a disastrous Campaign resulting in major defeat. Yet, he emerged a colonial hero.

To understand why Congress appointed him Commander-in-Chief several factors must be considered. The most obvious is: Who were his chief competitors?

To determine who Congress considered as qualified officers we choose to review the names of those officers also given commands. On June 16th, 1775, the date of Washington's Commission, Congress started debating the choices for the other senior officers for the Army. On the June 22nd they finally decided on 4 major generals and 8 brigadier generals. Artemus Ward, Commanding the army laying siege to Boston, was selected as the Senior Major General of the Army. Charles Lee as the Second major general, and Horatio Gates as Adjutant General, with the rank of Brigadier General. Phillip Schuyler, of New York, was the recipient of the third Major General position. Israel Putnam, already a folk hero in his home state of Connecticut, was appointed the fourth Major General in spite of his age.

Artemus Ward (1727-1800) had served as a Lieutenant Colonel of Massachusetts Militia during the French and Indian Wars. He served with General Abercromby in the ill fated attack on Fort Ticonderoga in 1758. His health was permanently injured during that campaign. As previously stated, he was already commanding the American Forces surrounding Boston. With the majority of the forces engaged being from Massachusetts, his appointment was based more on the political than the military.

Charles Lee (1731-1782) was the most experienced officer in the American Army - He had attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel when he resigned his commission in 1775. He had been a resident of Virginia for only two years.


Horatio Gates (1728-1806), was a professional soldier in the British Army. He retired from the British Army as a Major General in 1765. With the help of Washington he secured a farm in Virginia in 1772. Like Lee, he had only been a resident in American for a few years.

Phillip Schuyler (1733-1804), a longtime friend of George Washington, was expected to take command of the troops in his home state of New York. He had served as a Militia Major during the French and Indian Wars and was a member of one of New York's leading families and lived in upstate New York ( Albany).

Israel Putnam (1718-1790) had also served in the French and Indian Wars. He was originally an officer in the famed Rogers' Rangers. He rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel of Connecticut State Militia.

The two most experienced officers, Lee and Gates, were not American born and had only lived in America a few years. There are countless references in the papers of the members of the Continental Congress advocating a preference for the American born. This fact no doubt influenced the decision on selection of a Commander-in-Chief.


The three remaining Generals, Ward, Schuyler, and Putnam's military experience was not as extensive as George Washington’s.

Of the Brigadier Generals, Richard Montgomery (1738-1775) was a professional. Although Irish born he had served in the British Army for 16 years. On April 6th, 1772 he resigned his commission and immigrated to America. He married Janet Livingston, daughter of Robert Livingston on New York. He was killed in action during the attack on Quebec. And again like Lee and Gates, he was not American born!

George Washington was the obvious choice from a military point of view.

In 1775, the entire war effort was in and around Boston. It was a Massachusetts and New England effort. John Adams, the delegate from Massachusetts, realized that appointing a Southerner as Commander-in-Chief would guarantee much needed support for the cause of liberty. This is the reason most historians give regarding the selection of George Washington.

Historians are also fond of mentioning that Washington attended the 2nd Continental Congress in his Colonel's uniform, implying that he was seeking the Commander-in-Chief position. There is no evidence to substantiate that assumption. Agreed, it would appear, on the surface, that he was campaigning for that post, however, existing letters from those who served in Congress with him [do not mention this.]

Although it is generally thought to be impossible to get into the mind of any man, in George Washington's case, we have enough evidence to be relatively sure of his thinking. In the spring of 1772, three years before the start of hostilities, Washington employed well known artist Charles Willson Peale to paint his portrait. Washington choose to wear his French and Indian War Colonel's uniform. The following year the Virginia House of Burgesses, of which he was a long time a member, voted to establish a committee of correspondence with the other colonies for mutual defense. He voted for the measure. In those pre-war years, he was active in Virginia politics, and his correspondence reflects his deep concerns. And equally important he was an active Colonel of the Virginia Militia, commanding the Militia of several counties.

From September 4th to October 27th, 1774, Washington served as a Virginia delegate to the First Continental Congress. John Adams, who kept detailed personal notes, did not record Washington as one of the "important" delegates. Nonetheless, Washington was there and participated.

His financial accounts, always a leading indicator of a man's activities, is most informative. He spent the sum of 17 shillings on political pamphlets, a sizeable amount in 1774. In the 53 days the Congress lasted, Washington dined in his lodgings only 7 times, which means he had 46 dinner engagements! During these numerous dinner meetings Washington endeared himself to many of the delegates. His military bearing did not go unnoticed. Solomon Drowne, a delegate from Rhode Island, wrote a letter home, adding a daydream ­ "That the liberties of America could be determined in a single combat between Washington and George III."

Several of the Delegates to the Virginia Convention recorded in their personal diaries a speech made by Washington. "I will raise one thousand men, subsist them at my own expense, and march myself at their head, for the relief of Boston." When learning of this, John Adams noted in his diary that "Col. Washington made the most eloquent speech at the Virginia Convention that was ever made:" All of this substantiates Washington's belief that only the force of arms would resolve the colonist problems.

As for his personal ambition, it would appear that at most he may have coveted command of all the Virginia forces. When George Washington decided to wear his uniform, he was making the statement that Virginia stood ready to aid New England with troops. At that time, the thought of independence was not universal, most of the Congressional delegates seeking a negotiated settlement to the dispute. The concept of a Continental Army, with a Commander-in-Chief was not dreamed of.

Buried deep in the archives are a few additional factors that may well have influenced the decision of Congress to select Washington. One of the biggest problems Washington, as Commander-in­Chief had to overcome was the reluctance, or better stated, refusal of Congress to create a large "regular" Army. In the 18th Century, it was the British Army that enforced the King's Laws. It was the British Army that imposed itself on the individual citizen. It was the British Army the colonist saw as the source of their problems. To substitute one oppressive Army for another was understood and opposed.

Expanding on that fear is the theory that a victorious Massachusetts Army, under a Massachusetts Commander, could dominate all the other colonies. One of the Connecticut delegates wrote: "An enterprising eastern New England General, proving successful, might with his victorious army give law to the southern and western gentry." This may appear to be irrational thinking to the 20th century mind, but to the Delegates of the 2nd Continental Congress it was a major concern - - they all knew the history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and, of course, never dreamed of the success of the American system of civilian control over the military.

In the beginning, Charles Lee and Horatio Gates were possible contenders for the Commander-in-Chief appointment. Washington first met both during the Braddock campaign. When Charles Lee called on Washington at Mount Vernon, he stayed for 5 days. Washington noted that Lee dominated the conversation with his military theories on repelling the British Army. A second visit by Lee also lasted 5 days.

Of Washington's pre-war relationship with Horatio Gates little is known. They did meet on occasion. Washington assisted him in locating a farm to retire on. Gates is recorded to have been a very boastful and Lee as being very "dirty in his habits and obscenity gave offense. . ." Perhaps the observant Washington recognized the failings in both men and felt it is duty to block their appointment by allowing himself to be drafted for the position. We will never know for sure, but we do know the appointment of George Washington and his acceptance, however reluctant, gave us victory and the United States of America!

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