Historians, even those who are hostile to George Washington, agree that military success in the Revolutionary War would have been nearly impossible without his leadership. Yet Washington came into the war with relatively little military experience and a spotty record. His first command, in 1754, had been a fiasco. His heroics under Braddock made the best of a bad situation. Under Forbes, he had shown a poor understanding of military strategy.

Yet Washington brought from those experiences a critical skill: a willingness to learn. He began the war with a major mistake in adhering to plans, drawn up earlier, to defend New York City. After losing New York and the surrounding forts, Washington realized that his army could not fight as a traditional army. It must be mobile, adaptable, and ready to strike in surprise at any moment. Time was on the Americans' side–it was their land and eventually the British would tire of trying to occupy it. Through trial and error, Washington constantly refined his technique, striking in small skirmishes whenever the benefits outweighed the risks. In this manner he conserved his forces and continually outwitted an army twice as large as his own. He was a pioneer of modern-day guerrilla warfare.

Washington rarely enjoyed an outright victory, but his accomplishment was extraordinary. He proved to the world that a small band of civilian soldiers, brought together from a rural and backward continent, could withstand a world's superpower. He was utterly convinced that America would prevail–so convinced, in fact, that he often rode the battlefield himself, charging among his men and miraculously escaping death.

Britain was a formidable enemy. Yet Washington found an even more difficult adversary in the Continental Congress. He struggled constantly to pry funds and supplies out of the tight-fisted Congress. Most importantly, he lobbied the Congress to extend the term of enlistment beyond one year, so that he would not lose his troops as soon as he had trained them. He rarely got what he wanted, and at one point faced such resistance that a group of Congressmen led by Thomas Conway attempted to have him fired. He never lost his patience, however. Washington had complete command of the army and could easily have become a dictator, but he remained committed to the rule of law and civilian authority.

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