George Washington and the Immortal Moment - Yorktown, 1781

Excerpts from "George Washington and the Immortal Moment - Yorktown, 1781" by George T. Morrow II

There are epochal moments in the history of a nation and the American victory at Yorktown is clearly one of them. It is the moment when a disorganized rabble became a nation; when a beloved leader became, in the words of King George III, "the greatest man in the world." But without an understanding of that great man's war with himself, his fierce unremitting struggle to control his emotions, neither the victory nor the man is intelligible. Properly read, the struggle reveals the man, a man capable of great mood swings as well as great powers of self-denial. As I believe that Washington's greatest victory was over himself, I have made his moods rather than his mode of prevailing at Yorktown my primary focus. The siege was relatively easy; the war within was more grueling. It would also last a lifetime.

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The year 1781 began badly for Washington. In January, no less than half of the Pennsylvania Line revolted against the brutal discipline of their commanding officer, Gen. "Mad" Anthony Wayne. 1,250 soldiers and 67 artillerymen were discharged on their oath that they had been tricked by recruiters. Two of the leaders were shot. Wayne's division was then sent south to help Lafayette annoy Benedict Arnold in Virginia – though how an army of mutineers, four more of whom had to be shot en route, could be of much help was unclear. Then the New Jersey regiments revolted. Once again men were shot, this time on the orders of Washington himself who was now convinced that only "unconditional submission" could save the army.

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France had been America's ally since 1778, yet it had done relatively little. This was not unintentional. The French wanted to be sure the revolution would succeed. They also had doubts about Washington himself. But for Lafayette's influence at court and the infatuation of the French public with Benjamin Franklin, they might have done nothing. And to be fair, when they did try – as in their recent attempt to retake Savannah – it was a disaster. Feelings of hopelessness and a sense of abandonment would be hard for anyone to overcome. For Washington, who took heart from the appearances of things, it was all but impossible.

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A week later the two allied armies effected a junction at White Plains, New York. For Washington, this was an opportunity to appear as the leader of a grand army of 10,000 men, a chance to strike a martial pose, for his own sake and for his beleaguered army. The French had just finished a long and grueling march over dusty roads. But they put on clean uniforms, stuck feathers in their hats and, trailed by a marching band, filed off smartly in front of an array of local ladies and gentlemen. This elegant exhibition by one of Europe's best-dressed armies operated like a tonic on everyone. For Washington, who was never greater than when portraying greatness, it was almost a rebirth. A French officer (and a sympathetic one at that) described the army facing him across the green as an epitome of hardship and want, with the notable exception of the mostly black 1st Rhode Island Regiment:

In beholding this army I was struck, not by its smart appearance, but by its destitution: the men were without uniforms and covered with rags; most of them were barefoot. They were of all sizes, down to children who could not have been over fourteen. There were many Negroes, mulattoes, etc. Only their artillerymen were wearing uniforms. These are the elite of the country and are actually very good troops, well schooled in their profession. We had nothing but praise for them later; their officers who seemed to have good practical training, were the only ones with whom we occasionally lived. I returned, following the generals of the French army, who looked quite different and much more glamorous.

If the French believed that mere boys could be good soldiers, well-schooled in the manual of arms, it was because they were professionals and, well, France expected them to do their duty. If Washington believed it, it was because, for the first time in the war, he was looking beyond barefoot boys to a brilliant array of French general officers prepared to call him commander in chief.

Excerpt from "The Man Behind the Face" in "George Washington and the Immortal Moment"

It has been suggested that Washington "derived a sense of identity and purpose from his emulation of Cato." And in fact it is the rare scholarly study of Washington that does not at least suggest that The Tragedy of Cato could be the key to unlocking the great man's soul. But in fact the only role in Cato that Washington is on record as wanting to play is that of Prince Juba, who rashly "opens the weakness of his soul" (his love for Cato's daughter Marcia), only to be informed by her father that he has lessened himself by not speaking only of "conquest or death." It was thus the character of the impulsive Juba, not of Cato, which first attracted Washington's notice; not to turn the conversation toward conquest or death but to provide cover for an impulsive avowal of love to Sally Fairfax, the wife of his old friend, George William Fairfax. The affair that was not an affair was broached by Washington in two chaotic love letters, both written at a low point in British-American fortunes in the French and Indian War.