Sunday, November 11, 2012

Photo of the Day: Washington Was Here

The old (and often false) cliché, “George Washington Was/Slept Here,” happens to be true in the case of this photo, which I took at Brandywine Battlefield Historic Site in Chadds Ford, Penn., while on vacation in the Brandywine Valley two weeks ago. While a local Quaker, farmer-miller Benjamin Ring, was away from his home in early September 1777, Washington took it over for headquarters as he contemplated an upcoming battle with the British.

At the Ring House, George Washington held a council of war and planned strategy. It was all to no avail. You doubtless didn’t read much about the Battle of Brandywine in history texts, and for good reason: It wasn’t one of Washington’s better days as a general. He did not expect that the British would march several miles north of him to undefended Wistar’s Ford, where they crossed the Brandywine River before falling on the Americans’ flank in a pincers’ movement.

The Battle of Brandywine, fought on September 11, 1777, is a great example of the “fog of war,” literally and figuratively. The engagement began in fog and heat, and conflicting reports led Washington initially to dismiss early intelligence of Sir William Howe’s movement at Wistar’s Ford. By the time he realized what was happening, it was too late: American casualties numbered 1,000, almost double the British total. Fifteen days later, the British were able to take the patriots’ capital, Philadelphia, and Washington’s dwindling army readied for a brutal winter encampment at Valley Forge.

As bad as it was, the battle could have gone far, far worse for the rebels. At one point, the redcoats' Patrick Ferguson, who had mastered the use of an innovative rifle that would be named for him, had a patriot commander in his sights, but the Scotsman was so "disgusted" at the prospect of shooting a senior officer in the back that he couldn't pull the trigger. The officer turned out to be Washington.)

(The Battle of Brandywine, by the way, was the first of three days, all falling on September 11, in American history when the republic became involved in a struggle for its existence. The second of these days came in 1814, when one British naval force attacked in upstate New York at Plattsburgh, while the second, more famous one arrived in Baltimore harbor, about to bombard Fort McHenry. The last 9/11, in 2001, is, of course, the most familiar to us all.)

General Washington was not a great strategist, with Brandywine in particular a telling point against him. (Even his admiring biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, wrote bluntly that the general had “conducted the Brandywine operation as if he had been in a daze.”) But in the coming winter, even while not engaged in a campaign, he would prove, at Valley Forge, that organizational ability, motivational skills, and simple integrity could prove just as valuable as, perhaps even more so than, strategy.

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