Thursday, December 31, 2009

George Washington's War Horses

From a life spent with animals, George Washington realized that non-human animals have feelings just like humans, and that they suffer physical and emotional pain if mistreated or abused. As a Stoic, Washington believed that God dwells within everything, and that it is wrong to inflict pain on any living being. Therefore, animals must be treated humanely, even those belonging to the enemy. At the Battle of Brandywine in September 1777, a particularly brutal battle with much carnage on both sides, a fox terrier got lost between the lines. The little dog was captured by the Americans, who saw inscribed in his collar: “Property of General Howe.” Washington made sure the little dog was fed, cleaned and treated well. Under a flag of truce, Alexander Hamilton delivered the dog to General Howe, who had suffered great mental anguish thinking his little terrier had been lost to him forever.

Washington had been passionately fond of horses from early boyhood, and owned his first horse at 17. His mother, Mary Ball Washington, was a skilled horsewoman who taught young George how to train horses using only the gentlest of methods, and to never resort to any cruelty. Washington learned that harsh training methods were counter-productive, because horses treated with respect are eager to please their riders. 

The Marquis de Chastellus, a Frenchman who had come over to help the Americans win the fight for freedom, commented on Washington's training skills: 
The weather being fair, on the 26th, I got on horseback, after breakfasting with the General. He was so attentive as to give me the horse he rode on the day of my arrival, which I had greatly commended. I found him as good as he is handsome, but above all, perfectly well broke and well trained having a good mouth, easy in hand, and stopping short in a gallop without bearing the bit. I mention these minute particulars, because it is the General himself who breaks all his own horses, and his is a very excellent and bold horseman, leaping the highest fences, and going extremely quick, without standing upon his stirrups, bearing on the bridle, or letting his horse run wild.
Washington believed horses must be given proper care and exercise, and that it was wrong to beat a horse, deny him proper food or water, or to over-work him. Early in Washington's pubic career as a 21-year-old diplomat, he had to make an arduous mid-winter trip to the French commander at what is now Erie, Pennsylvania. Upon returning to Virginia from this parley in early January 1753, his horses grew weak from struggling through deep snow and a lack of fodder. Realizing that riding the horses farther would cause them pain and might even kill them, Washington gave them to a tribe of local Indians. He and his companions then continued the journey on foot.  

During the Revolutionary War, two of Washington's war-horses were Nelson and Blueskin. These horses had been out on the front lines with the general, and were known for their bravery and steadfastness under fire.

At the Second Battle of Trenton on January 2, 1777, Washington positioned the great charger, Nelson, on the bridge over which his retreating soldiers had to cross. British cannon shells were bursting all around, but neither Washington nor Nelson showed any fear. A soldier wrote home later that the two standing there bravely were a symbol of strength to him. He wrote, “As I crossed the bridge crowded with fellow soldiers, I brushed up against the boot of the man and flank of the horse. Both seemed to exude courage.”  

At the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777, Washington was at the front of the action. Waving his hat and seated upon Nelson, he rode between the two opposing lines of British and American soldiers. When the British cannons fired, Washington was no more than thirty yards from their maws. American Colonel Richard Fitzgerald remarked later: "I covered my face with my hat for fear of seeing my general hit. But upon replacing my hat, I saw many men dead or dying but miraculously the General was still astride his horse and unharmed.” Washington’s extraordinary bravery set the tone of this engagement. His presence rallied the Americans, and they began charging toward the British. It was the first time in open combat during the war that the Americans had made a British line break and run. Urging his men on in vigorous pursuit, Washington shouted, “Come on boys, its a fine day for a fox hunt!"

At the battle of Monmouth in June 1778, the treacherous General Charles Lee, in charge of the attacking first wave of Americans, had called for a retreat in direct violation of his orders. Washington, to his utter dismay, saw his soldiers coming back toward the rear. He stormed forward cursing Lee and summarily dismissed him to the rear. Washington then rode Nelson in the line of fire back and forth before his men, blocking their retreat and redirecting toward the British yelling, “Rally around me, Boys!” The Continental Army then drove the British completely out of New Jersey and into New York. 

Many years later, Washington resigned his commission before Congress in Annapolis, Maryland. He hurried home to Mt. Vernon, where he arrived on December 24, 1783. As a reward for their loyal  service, and possibly as a Christmas present, Washington retired Nelson and Blueskin to pasture. Nelson had been his main mount, but both horses had served him well during the 8 1/2 years of the Revolutionary War.  John Hunter, in a visit to Mount Vernon in 1785, wrote that he went 
to see Washington’s famous race-horse Magnolia--a most beautiful creature... I afterwards went to his stables, where among an amazing number of horses, I saw old Nelson, now 22 years of age, that carried the General almost always during the war; Blueskin, another fine old horse next to him, now and then had that honor. Shaw also showed me his old servant, that was reported to have been taken, with a number of the General's papers about him. They have heard the roaring of many a cannon in their time. Blueskin was not the favorite, on account of his not standing fire so well as venerable old Nelson.
The horses' pasture was the one nearest to the Washington’s Mansion House at Mt. Vernon. The close proximity made it easy for the throngs of visitors to meet the horses. Each one brought tasty treats for the horses, such as apples, carrots and sugar, which pleased both the horses and Washington.


James Hodges, Ph.D. and Cynthia Hodges, JD, LLM, MA

Copyright 2019 James P. Hodges 2019

James P. Hodges, Ph.D.

Winner of the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge Medal of Honor
Member: National Speakers Association, American Society for Training and Development

For more on horse training, please see Classical Dressagearticles and a translation of a horse-training treatise by Louis Seeger, a 19th century cavalry and dressage horse trainer.    

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas 1776 - Victory or Death at Trenton

By December 1776, the patriots' prospects for victory against British tyranny was looking bleak. The Continental Army had been defeated in every battle in New York, due to the lack of cavalry and trained soldiers. General Washington had untrained, teenage soldiers who were fresh off the farm, while the British had the world’s finest professional soldiers. 

When the Continental Army was forced to retreat from New York, they left about 3,000 men at Ft. Washington on the west bank of the Hudson, where most of the army’s vital supplies were stored. A traitor told the British of its weakness, and they attacked. The patriots suffered a quick defeat and total loss of all their winter supplies. Over 2,800 men were captured and treated very cruelly, especially by the Hessians.

The Americans were forced to retreat ignobly all the way across New Jersey towards Pennsylvania, with the British in hot pursuit. The Continental soldiers only had worn-out summer clothes to wear. They were hungry, cold, and miserable. Many had no shoes, and the progress of the army could be traced by the bloody footprints in the snow. A large number of men had been killed or wounded in battle, were ill or had already died from disease. Others had deserted or simply left because their enlistments had expired. The number of troops plummeted from 17,000 in the summer of 1776 to 2,400 by December.  Many soldiers' enlistments would expire on January 1, 1777, which endangered the very existence of the Continental Army. George Washington needed a victory.

The following is my take on how George Washington may have been feeling leading up to and during the Battle of Trenton.

Victory at Trenton 
Even as we retreated, I kept thinking how we could strike a blow for freedom. Our morale could not sink any lower. A victory would do wonders for morale, and might even induce my men to re-enlist. We had to attack - and hope for victory - while we still had troops.  

We crossed the icy Delaware River in mid-December, making camp in the relative safety of the Pennsylvania shore. As a precaution, I had all the boats we would not need taken to the Pennsylvania side, to protect them from enemy capture. This was the first time we had had a rest from marching for quite a while. During this time, I visited the men every day. I wanted to prove that I cared for their welfare, and that I was personally involved. I did not want them to think I was just sitting in my tent, directing from afar. As I made my daily rounds among the men, I heard murmurs about how much they were looking forward to going home on January 1. 

Fortunately for us, the British did not even try to pursue us across the river. Because of bad weather, the British followed the European philosophy, which was that armies did not fight in the winter. They settled down to winter camp awaiting the arrival of good weather. They established isolated posts across New Jersey, from which they could better subjugate our citizens. One such post, manned by their Hessian allies, was at Trenton - directly across the river from us.   

Before deciding upon any undertaking, I felt it vital to involve my men. At our staff meetings, top officers were always present, but oftentimes, so were younger officers. This afforded them the opportunity to gain decision-making experience. They were free to offer solutions to problems, so that they would be engaged and energized, feeling that they would be a part of whatever plan of action was finalized. Once a plan was decided upon, each man had to follow it, as any dissension in the ranks could prove fatal. 

The plan we decided on was to attack the isolated Hessians at Trenton on Christmas Eve. John Honeyman, our spy who was pretending to be a Hessian spy, let himself be captured by our men a few days before the battle. When our men brought him to me, he told me he had fooled the Hessian Colonel Rahl into believing we were weak, demoralized, and ready to settle into winter camp. Our record up to then made it easy for Rahl to believe him. Honeyman informed me that Christmas Day would probably be a good day to attack, because the Hessians would be celebrating and would likely let their guard down. My policy was to never attack an entrenched enemy that was waiting for us, so this strategy was appealing. Because of the danger of this particular venture, we all swore allegiance to our secret code:  “Victory or Death!”

We left the safety of our camp on the Pennsylvania side of the frigid Delaware River, and retreated a couple hundred yards to behind a row of low hills, which masked our progress from prying eyes. We marched seven miles to McKonkey’s ferry, where we crossed the river, mainly in Durham iron ore boats. Once across, we would have to march another seven miles in blizzard-like conditions to reach Trenton. 

Honeyman had informed me the Hessians only had six cannon. We had 18 - and I insisted that we take every one. Loading the cannon in the dark, frosty conditions was a daunting and time-consuming task, which threw us several hours behind my carefully planned schedule. 

Concerned that enemies could be lurking on the New Jersey side of the river, I sent soldiers to arrest anyone in the area. It would be devastating for our cause if the Hessians were warned. Even the dogs were muzzled to keep them from barking and betraying our crossing. Despite our precautions, a Tory spotted us and ran to warn Rahl. Fortunately, Rahl who was busy enjoying music and cards, left strict orders not to be disturbed, and the Tory was denied admittance. The Tory convinced a guard to take a written message to Rahl, but Rahl. not wishing to be distracted, shoved the note into his coat pocket without bothering to read it. 

As we approached the ferry landing, the blizzard worsened, and beat at us mercilessly. Loading the men into the boats in the snowstorm was extremely hazardous because of the slippery, icy wharf. Handling the cannon was treacherous, but it was very fortunate that we had them. Many of the muskets proved useless because the powder and primers got soaked and were ruined. The cannon touch hole and powder could be kept covered and dry. Because the cannons delayed us several hours, we did not arrive until a couple of hours after daylight. 

After we formed up on the New Jersey side, I split our men into two units. One unit would approach Trenton by the river road, the other further inland. My plan was to encircle the Hessians so none could escape to warn their nearby comrades. The officers synchronized their watches to join up at the same time at Trenton. 

On the way, a cannon got stuck in a ravine while we were crossing a creek. Since it was holding up our advance, and I could not afford any further delays, I  jumped off my horse, strode down into the gully, put my shoulder to the wheel and helped push it free.  The men cheered, which warmed the hearts of the freezing men. Sadly, two men froze to death at one of the stops along the way.  

About half-way to Trenton, we were surprised to meet a small band of American soldiers approaching us. It turned out they were a small party there to provoke the Hessians. Their tactic was to hit the enemy and then run. I was shocked and angry that any of our men would go there without orders, and worried that these soldiers would have the Hessians up in arms and ready for battle. 

Luckily, this was not the case. The British had warned the Hessians to expect an attack, and the Hessians  mistakenly assumed that the harrying by the small band was the attack. After they were attacked by this small group, they relaxed their guard and went back to bed. About 4:30 am, one of their junior officers assembled a team of horses to take the cannon and men out on picket duty to guard against any surprise attack, but Rahl ordered them to stand down.  

Early on the morning of December 26. 1776, we took the Hessians at Trenton by complete surprise. A fierce wind was blowing directly at our back, and into the Hessians' eyes. When they looked toward us, the wind bit at their eyes, forcing them to tear up. Their vision was distorted, which put them at a considerable disadvantage. 

Colonel Rahl bravely tried to rally his troops, but the Hessians did not stand a chance. The Hessian soldiers only knew how to fight in drill formation, but every time they tried to form up, our cannon swept the streets. 

One of our sharpshooters shot Rahl in the lungs, and he died shortly thereafter. The note warning of the Americans' advance was still in his coat-pocket. 

Copyright 2019 James P. Hodges, Ph.D.


James P. Hodges, Ph.D.

Winner of the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge Medal of Honor
Member: National Speakers Association, American Society for Training and Development

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Citizen Soldiers and POWs

During the Christmas season of 1776, the American people had begun to despair that their war for independence from British tyranny was all but lost. Troops were deserting and even General George Washington was beginning to doubt the patriots' chance of success. However, all of this changed when the Continental Army won a decisive victory at Trenton on December 26, 1776 against the British-allied Hessian army. The Americans went from feeling utter despair to believing they could not lose. The British attitude changed from feeling invincible to believing they could not win.  

Part of the patriots' success can be attributed to General Washington's behavior towards the individuals on both sides of the war. British Captain John Bowater wrote of the Americans, “[T]hey prevailed upon their people to re-enlist, and now they have got a very considerable army together.” 

The following describes General Washington's attitude towards the citizen soldiers and POW's, as excerpted from my book, Beyond the Cherry Tree: the Leadership Wisdom of George Washington.

[Please support this blog. Click on the ads!]

Citizen Soldiers
Because our entire strategy depended on enough of my men re-enlisting for us to even have an Army, I treated these farmers, merchants and craftsmen as men of honor, who were entitled to equality of esteem. My officers followed my example, addressing even the privates as “gentlemen.” No other army at that time did so, or—for that matter—any other society. I helped to introduce the concept that the term “gentleman” referred to a moral quality rather than a social rank. It was a new American idea of honor, which was not defined by birth, rank, status, or wealth, but by the principle of human dignity and respect. Men treated like this would be loyal to our cause.

After our victory at the Battle of Trenton, I lined my men up by regiments. Astride my great horse Nelson, I faced the men and asked them to re-enlist with these words:

"My brave fellows, You have done all I have asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected, but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses and all that you hold dear.

You have worn yourselves out with fatigue and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay only one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty, and to your country, which you probably never can do under any such circumstances. This is the crisis which is to decide our destiny.”

I backed off to the side of the assembled men to await their answer. None stepped forward. Again I went before the men and spoke to them, overcome with emotion. A sergeant later described the scene:

“The General personally addressed us … told us our services were greatly needed, and that we could do more now for our country than we could most likely ever do again, and in the most affectionate manner entreated us to stay.”

Recognizing that patriotism alone wasn’t enough, I offered each man a $10 bonus. At that time, I didn’t think I had authority to offer them government money, but I was willing to mortgage or sell Mount Vernon for the money. I wasn’t yet aware that Congress had shortly before given me authority to commit government funds.

After a number of men had stepped forward to re-enlist, the officer in charge asked me, “Sir, should I enroll these men? “

“No,” I replied, “Men who will volunteer in such a case as this need no signed enrollment papers to keep them to their duty.”

The men who re-enlisted knew what they getting into. A veteran later recalled that one-half of those men who re-enlisted that day were dead within the year.

Success breeds success. New enlistments and re-enlistments soared as American volunteers flocked to us. They were given a small bounty of cash and the promise of 100 acres of free land when the war was won. Men want to serve with men they respect as winners.

In all my endeavors, I understood the value of keeping and promoting the men who were most committed to our jointly shared vision and mission. I wrote to James McHenry, “It is infinitely better to have a few good men than many indifferent ones.“

Prisoners of War
We captured a very large number of [Hessian] prisoners [after the Battle of Trenton]. What should we do with them? Many of my soldiers wanted to punish them, even execute them, for the atrocities they had committed upon American citizens—raping, plundering and pillaging our citizens on a massive scale both in New York and as they had pursued us across New Jersey. 

According to the rules of war at the time, we could have given them “no quarter” and executed them all. I insisted, however, that we treat these prisoners leniently. It was the compassionate thing to do. As they had surrendered to us, I felt that we were now responsible for their lives. One of the causes we were fighting for was that all men, as human beings, were entitled to be treated with respect and dignity.

Pragmatically, my decision of leniency could also protect my men’s lives. I thought that the Hessians, in future battles, would be more apt to surrender than fight us to the death. Furthermore, most of the German soldiers were not here of their own free will. Their rulers had rented them out as mercenaries (and pocketed the rent monies). In future difficult situations, many might desert over to our side. I also hoped that my treatment of the prisoners would entice those Hessians still under arms to follow my example and not massacre our wounded or prisoners.

Perhaps the leaders of today would do well to adopt General Washington's attitude and treat people with respect and dignity? 

Copyright 2019 James Hodges, Ph.D. 


James P. Hodges, Ph.D.

Winner of the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge Medal of Honor
Member: National Speakers Association, American Society for Training and Development

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Leading up to Trenton

In December 1776, George Washington was preparing to lead the Continental Army against the Hessians at Trenton, New Jersey in the war for independence from British oppression. During this time, American morale was low. The Continental Army had been driven from New York and was forced to retreat across New Jersey. Despairing that the cause of independence had been lost, many men had deserted. Even General Washington was beginning to lose hope.

Here is an account of what General Washington might have been thinking, as excerpted from my book, Beyond the Cherry Tree: The Leadership Wisdom of George Washington.

By mid-December 1776, only five months after the Declaration of Independence had been signed, it seemed as though our fight for freedom was all but lost. The overwhelmingly powerful British Army had repeatedly beaten us in New York, and then had driven us from pillar to post all across New Jersey. Now we were on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. The British and their hired mercenaries, the Hessians, were camped just across the river — very close to our capital, Philadelphia.

From the beginning, soldiers had been discouraged to the point of utter despair, as was our entire fledgling country. Our soldiers and civilians alike were ready to give up our vision quest for freedom and independence. The British had offered amnesty to all those who would re-swear allegiance to the crown. Many citizens had already signed oaths of re-allegiance to the British and many more planned to, believing that future resistance was hopeless. Our cause appeared lost.
The Continental Army—our only hope for freedom from British tyranny—had been defeated in New York City that summer and fall of 1776 by overwhelmingly superior forces. We were kicked from pillar to post as we retreated all across New Jersey toward Pennsylvania.

Our men were freezing, as they were half-naked and wearing worn out summer clothes. They were hungry. All were miserable. Many had no shoes. You could trace the progress of our army by the bloody footprints left behind on the snow and ice. A large number of our men had been killed or wounded in battle, many others had died from diseases or were very ill, and others had deserted by merely walking home undetected.

During this ordeal of fighting and retreating, we had lost nearly 90% of our army plus most of our cannon, ammunition, winter clothes, and tents — and much of everything else that soldiers need. Despair had gripped my soldiers. Their enlistments would expire in about two weeks on January 1, 1777.

As I walked among them, I heard many of them say that they could hardly wait to go home. If they left, then our cause was lost. We would have no army. The existence of our Continental Army was all that gave legitimacy to our struggle for independence. I had to keep it in the field!

Panic had also spread throughout our citizenry. Many had signed oaths of re-allegiance to the King. These were the blackest of days. Thomas Paine, who accompanied our army as it retreated, wrote the “The American Crisis,” at night while seated at the campfire. It begins with these immortal words, “these are the times that try men’s souls.”

If we sat idle here on the Pennsylvania shore or retreat further west, we would be safe—but only temporarily. The British would again pursue us in the spring. I refused to let the flame of freedom flicker out. We must strike a blow against them to boost our morale — but where, when and how?

Fortunately for us, in early December the British and their Hessian mercenaries decided to go into winter quarters. This was normal procedure for European armies. They established isolated outposts all across New Jersey to subjugate the citizens. One outpost, manned by their Hessian mercenaries, was at Trenton just across the river from us.

This presented a potential target too good to resist. It was relatively weakly manned by about 1,200 soldiers. I gathered my staff and we discussed the risks of attacking there. Normally, we would not risk all on one venture but here we had no choice. We were in a do or die situation. We adopted the code “Victory or Death.”

We decided to take everything we had across the river and attack at dawn the morning after Christmas.