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Posted on Jul 24, 2004 in Armchair Reading

Who am I? An Armchair General Contest

By Johnny Boatright

He died in the late 1700’s. There is no bronze horse erected to commemorate his triumphs, no drawn saber poised for the charge. There is only a blockhouse, two burial sites (one with bones, the other with flesh and tools), and a fading history of how this nation was really won.

"I really suspect," his schoolmaster wrote to his father, "that parental affection blinds you; and that you have mistaken your son’s capacity. What he may best be qualified for, I know not; but one thing I am certain of, that he will never make a scholar. He may make a soldier; he has already distracted the brains of two-thirds of the boys under my direction by rehearsals of battles and sieges…" After a scolding from his father over his lack of interest in the scholarly disciplines, he focused his effort enough to master mathematics. He then secured a job at the age of twenty-one working as a surveyor under Benjamin Franklin, thus achieving his first surprise attack. Consequently it was carried out on his hapless uncle, who doubled as his schoolmaster, and believed that he would never conquer formal education.

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Fortunately, from 1767-1775 his love of military tactics and drill never left him, and at the age of twenty-nine he again found himself leading neighbors in military drills. However, with the looming Revolutionary War, he no longer found opposition to the relevance in military education. In fact, his charisma and character helped him assemble the 4th regiment of Pennsylvania. He was commissioned as a Colonel by January of 1776 and rose to the rank of Major General by the end of his service. 

From 1775-1777 his military accomplishments resulted in minor victories as American forces were pushed out of Canada. Afterwards, he commanded Fort Ticonderoga and received the rank of Brigadier General before General Washington called him to the ranks of the main army in defense of Brandywine Creek. At the battle of Brandywine, his combat savvy matured while serving as commander of the Pennsylvania Line. During that battle, his forces held the center of action at Chadd’s ford. This crucial point of combat allowed an American escape during what could have been a decisive victory for British troops.

This ability would be called upon time and again by General Washington as the war progressed, leading one historian to dub him, "Washington’s Troubleshooter." By this time, he was associated with every major conflict of the war and had become an able commander to which Washington wrote, "With pleasure I add to this testimony that your own conduct on every occasion has justified the confidence which induced me to appoint you to the command." Yet in every great soldier’s career there is a moment of defeat that requires him or her to make a decision.

On September 20, 1777 that day arrived.

Paoli, Pennsylvania: in an act of savagery that is considered by some to be the greatest loss of the Revolutionary War, his force of 1,500 men was ambushed by bayonet and sustained roughly one hundred and fifty casualties. This incident led him to pursue his own court-martial of which he was acquitted with the highest honors. Some soldiers would quit after such a horrific loss. But his decision was to grow as a leader, and he adopted the technique of bayonet attack to his growing arsenal of strategies. By the end of the war, his unit was more skilled at hand-to-hand combat than the British and Hessian soldiers; a skill that both groups prided themselves in.

The following two years found him fighting in skirmishes along a nearly impenetrable British defensive line while his army was camped at Valley Forge. Although he accomplished such feats as frightening away four thousand British regulars with six hundred men during that time, his mind bared the weight of the Paoli Massacre. And in July of 1779, he finally avenged his men.

Whether his response to General Washington’s order to take Stony Point was the flamboyant statement, "Issue the orders Sir, and I will storm Hell," or a simple "Yes, sir," remains a mystery. Still, he devised a strategy and took Stony Point, an artillery-laden fortress buttressed by a two hundred foot cliff. And he did it with nine hundred men armed with bayonets. During the attack he suffered his second wound, this one to the head, and insisted that he finish the mission with his troops as he cried out, "march on, carry me into the fort; for should the wound be mortal, I will die at the head of the column."

During the last years of the war he distinguished himself by marching his troops sixteen miles in four hours at night to fortify West Point, thwarting the traitor Benedict Arnold. He kept under-paid and under-supplied troops from mutinying twice. He freed the territory of Georgia from British control in 5 weeks, earned the respect of his men and politicians alike, and became known as the first great American tactician. After his success in the Midwest Territory campaigns against Chief Little Turtle at Fallen Timbers, he accepted the surrender of the last British controlled forts along the Great Lakes. For this reason, some historians consider him the man that ended the war with Britain.

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