Review of George Washington’s Military Genius, by Dave Richard Palmer

14 Feb

George Washington looms exceptionally large as an influential figure in the founding of our nation, and not just because he was our first president. Having led the primary Continental army which won the Revolutionary War, he is remembered as a military leader who defeated the British. But Washington’s military abilities have been second-guessed by historians for generations. Washington did, after all, almost lose his entire army, and by extension the war, on more than one occasion, and some of his greatest victories have sometimes been attributed more to luck than skill. While few have sought to discredit Washington as a military leader entirely, likewise few modern scholars have chosen to herald him as a tactical genius.

Dave Palmer’s evaluation of Washington’s abilities as a strategic military tactician, then, promise to shed some light on an often-contested subject and help historians make sense of the man’s accomplishments and failures. A retired US Army Lieutenant General, former superintendent of West Point, and a former university president, historian Dave Richard Palmer brings a considerable wealth of knowledge to the task of evaluating “the father of our country” in George Washington’s Military Genius. The book was originally published in 1975 but revised and updated in a 2012 edition. I had an opportunity to listen to the audiobook version distributed by Regnery History a few weeks ago.

Palmer holds that Washington was a much more skilled strategist than he has been credit for being by most historians, and seeks to demonstrate that he used the troops and resources he had at his command effectively against a better equipped and better trained enemy. Choosing wisely when and where to take chances, Palmer demonstrates, Washington waited for the best opportunities to present themselves. Palmer offers a campaign by campaign analysis of Washington’s waging of the war in the book, relating how he reacted to the changing situation as it regarded British forces in the field and his army’s ability to move or retreat. Attacking boldly at times, forcing the British to chase him at others, and working to maneuver them into difficult situations, Palmer contends, enabled Washington to win the war by a strategy that took a long view of events.

I am not sure I am knowledgeable enough in military tactics to give a definitive opinion on the merit of all of Palmer’s evidence, but I will say that he makes a very compelling argument for Washington possessing a long-range strategy in the pages of his book. Plus, I found it an interesting story about a man whose military experience is frequently presented as merely an introduction to his presidency or as an inevitable success despite numerous setbacks. If you have an interest in our nation’s founding era and its essential figure, you will enjoy this book.



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