George in war

Scholar Edward Lengel follows Washington from his struggles in the French and Indian War through his triumphs in the Revolutionary War. Along the way he is continually surprised by discoveries he makes about the man.

By John Kelly
This is an image of Edward Lengel

Edward Lengel
Photo by Jack Looney

Over the centuries, George Washington has picked up more than a few labels. There is Washington as the Father of Our Country. There is Washington as the paragon of truth and virtue. There is Washington as the consummate military leader and the architect of our fledgling nation’s first fighting force.

After completing his critically acclaimed “General George Washington: A Military Life” (Random House), author and researcher Edward G. Lengel (MA History ’93, PhD ’98) adds a somewhat surprising label to the list — Everyman.

The book is a three-dimensional look at one of American history’s most one-dimensionally viewed figures. Lengel follows young Washington from early struggles and miscalculations in the French and Indian War through the ups and downs of the Revolutionary War period and all the way up to the triumph that forever defines his legacy.

Lengel has been part of The Papers of George Washington project at U.Va. since 1996, when he came on as a graduate student. Still, he finds himself continually surprised by the discoveries he and his colleagues make about the man. The process of delving into this portrait of Washington the military man brought a whole new series of discoveries that at once challenge his vaunted image and support his unmatched legacy.

“I went into the book just with the idea of trying to discover in the process of writing about it and the process of researching it what kind of a man he was and how important he was. I didn’t want to do a hatchet job, on the one hand, but on the other hand I didn’t want to just fawn and gush about how great he was.”

The approach yielded a warts-and-all treatment that strips much of the mythology away from Washington and focuses on the man he was. “I did a lot of work on the 1777 campaign, the Brandywine, Germantown, the Delaware campaign leading up to Valley Forge. When you look at the papers you see that he looks very human and very weak and flawed at times. He is confused. He doesn’t know what is going on. He is continually making wrong guesses about what the British are going to do. He seems indecisive, and during the battles themselves he seems strangely out of touch sometimes.”

But these deficiencies, Lengel writes, were counterbalanced by strengths that Washington exhibited away from the field of battle. “I think it’s kind of shifted my view of where his greatest gifts lay,” Lengel says. “From the traditional view of him as a great battlefield commander who led the victories at Trenton and Princeton and Yorktown and so on to really seeing that he appears best when he is at his desk, so to speak, when he is trying to manage all these multifaceted aspects of the war that he shines as an administrator and as a politician and as a diplomat and in all those sort of nontraditional ways as a leader rather than just as a general.”

Seeing this side of the iconic figure opened up a new vantage point for Lengel. “It was ironic that in criticizing him as I did, at the same time I felt more affection for him and more admiration for him because you see here somebody who is an everyman really. He is not somebody who was born great, somebody who was born with just amazing gifts. He was somebody who was like any of us, I think.”

The book balances the image of Washington as a by-the-book battlefield leader with images of him literally burning the midnight oil night after night in an effort to provide for his men. Lengel follows the general through his transformation of the original Virginia Regiment to the creation and cultivation of the victorious Continental Army, including an occasion that captured Washington’s brilliance and humanity in a single moment.

The moment came while Washington was delivering an address to his severely disillusioned troops at the height of the Newburgh Conspiracy. “Continental Army officers were considering marching on Congress and forcing the delegates at gunpoint, as it were, to accede to their demands. Had they done so, a military dictatorship and the end of the republic might have been the result,” Lengel explains.

Washington paused to reach for his spectacles. “Gentlemen,” he said, “you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind.”

It was a moment, Lengel says, that was likely unrehearsed. And one that captured the author’s preferred and highly informed image of Washington as a hero cut not from marble or stone, but from the same cloth as are we all.

A&S Online, Feb. 22, 2007