Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Citizen Soldiers and POWs

Citizen Soldiers and POWs
James P. Hodges, Ph.D. 

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 2021 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 


  1. We don't saw the heads off prisoners like the muslims do.

  2. It seems like it is the people of faith who are persecuted.


Thank you for your comments. They will appear once they have been approved.