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This webpage reproduces an article in the
American Historical Review
Vol. 29 No. 4 (July 1924), pp675‑680

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

p675 The Military Studies of George Washington

The generalship of Washington has never been satisfactorily evaluated. As one element in such evaluation, his military education requires investigation; this in turn must be analyzed into theoretical and practical education. A hasty sketch of the possibilities of an investigation into his military reading is here presented. No claim of completeness is made, for the notes were collected as an incident to other work, and not by a systematic search.

There has been an impression, at least in some quarters, that when he took command of the Continental armies he had no more military knowledge than he had acquired in a somewhat rough-and‑tumble fashion on the Virginia frontier. His own modest manner of speaking of the imperfect military knowledge of "all of us" contributes to this impression. Hamilton has been quoted as saying that he never read any book on the art of war except Simes's Military Guide, and an anonymous writer asserted that he never read anything of higher value than Bland's Exercises.1

The two books mentioned, constituting the minimum of his reading, will be considered later. Meanwhile, we may examine the evidence as to what he actually did read and as to his attitude toward military study in general. It should be remembered that military books were rare and expensive in that day, that soldiers in any army were not inclined to deep theoretical study, and that in America in particular military books were hard to get before the Revolution.

In the catalogue of the Boston Athenaeum is a list of the books owned by Washington. Aside from historical and other books having a more or less indirect bearing upon military matters, we find a large number of technical military works. Through the kind assistance of the Library of Congress these have all been assembled here and examined. The mere appearance of a book on this list, of course, does not prove that Washington ever opened it; is there any evidence to show that he used this library?

Washington's first commission was as one of the four district adjutants of Virginia. This appointment was given him in November, 1752, when he was less than twenty-one years old. Perhaps, one may say, the duties were only administrative and their performance perfunctory. In fact, however, the duties were those of an p676inspector and instructor, demanding at least a little military knowledge; and nothing in Washington's subsequent career leads us to suppose that he ever took the duties of an office lightly or performed them perfunctorily.2

Our next clue is in 1755, when he went with Braddock as a volunteer aide. His acceptance of this appointment surprised some of his friends; but his own explanation was that his purpose was to obtain a better knowledge of the military profession.3 The disastrous ending of this expedition might have led him, as it did thousands of superficial thinkers in the colonies, to a contempt for military study. But the conduct of the expedition was not as bad as it has been painted; and Washington does not seem to have drawn any such inference.

Our next bit of evidence shows that in the next year he sent to England for a military book, which perhaps he had seen in the hands of British officers — Bland's Military Discipline, the book mentioned in terms of apparent depreciation by the anonymous writer above cited.4

But the book is not to be despised. It was the most popular military handbook of the time in England.5 The edition which Washington secured at this time was that of 1727; and an examination of this text shows it to have been a most excellent statement of the art of war as known and practised by Marlborough and his contemporaries, and as then practised in the British army.

Even before receiving his own copy, he was recommending this book to others. On January 8, 1756, in promulgating his approval of the findings of a court martial, he issued "an address to the officers of the Virginia regiment",6 in which he urged that they must read and study their profession, adding, "There is Bland's and other treatises which will give the wished-for information".

Apparently he did not restrict his own reading entirely to Bland, but kept with him more general works of military value. In 1756 Colonel William Fairfax wrote to him, saying, "I am sensible that such a medley of undisciplined militia must create you various troubles, but, having Caesar's Commentaries, and perhaps Quintus Curtius, you have therein read of greater fatigues".7

In the same year he found another occasion to place on record his attitude as to military study. He wrote to the major of his regiment: p677"Your own good sense has sufficiently prompted you to study the nature of your duty; but at the same time permit me, as a duty incumbent on myself, to recommend in the strongest terms to you the necessity of qualifying yourself by reading for the discharge of the duty of major . . .".8

In 1757 we find him again urging his officers to study. On July 29, in general instructions to captains of companies, he wrote:

Permit me before I finish (and now that the companies are formed for service, and agreeable to order) to recommend — and I do in the strongest manner I can to you and your Officers, — to devote some part of your leisure hours to study of your profession, a knowledge in which cannot be obtained without application; nor any merit or applause to be atchievedº without a certain knowledge thereof.9

In 1758 Washington accompanied General Forbes on his successful expedition against Fort Duquesne, in command of a Virginia regiment. Forbes was a strong-minded Scot, known to his soldiers as the "head of iron". With great practical experience he combined a respect for and a knowledge of military literature, and his letters show that he had been strongly impressed by a new French book, the Essai sur l'Art de la Guerre, by Count Turpin de Crissé, published in Paris in 1754.10 This book was translated into English by Captain Joseph Otway, and published in London in 1761; a copy of the translation was in Washington's library, and, as will appear later, he thought highly of it. So this second association with trained officers brought a second book to his attention, as had happened in 1755.

We have the details of his solution of one of the technical problems of this expedition, in the form of plans submitted by him to General Forbes for marching the command from Raestown to Fort Loudoun, forty miles through the enemy's country.11 From this we can judge of his manner of attacking such a problem; entirely aside from the merit of the solution, the style is distinctly that of an officer with some training in technique, not at all that of the frontiersman depending upon frontier experience only.

Details have not been found as to his reading for the next few years, although there is every reason to suppose that he kept himself informed as to military events in Europe, and especially as to Frederick's campaigns, which so greatly influenced military thought. When the Revolutionary War was impending, however, we find him p678seeking new military books. There was in his library a Military Treatise, of no remarkable merit, by Lieutenant Webb of the 49th Regiment, published in Philadelphia in 1759. This was purchased for him in November, 1774, by William Milnor. The purchase was evidently upon his order for some new book of whose title he was uncertain, or else upon a general order for new military books; for Milnor wrote, in sending the book, "after the strictest inquiry, I could found no other Treatise on Military Discipline, but the one I have sent you".12

At the very beginning of the Revolution, Washington was naturally called upon for all sorts of military assistance and advice. One request, which must have come to him many times, was for advice as to reading. In response to such a request from Colonel William Woodford of Virginia, he wrote from Cambridge on November 10, 1775, giving a list of five books.13 The first, and most highly recommended as a beginning, was his old friend Bland. He specified particularly the "newest edition"; this was the edition of 1762, greatly revised and partly rewritten. The other four books were the Essay on the Art of War; Instructions for Officers, lately published in Philadelphia; The Partisan; and "Young".

The Essay on the Art of War we readily recognize as Turpin's book, in Otway's translation. Further notice of this seems called for.

Count Turpin de Crissé was born in France in 1715 and entered the French army at an early age. In 1734 he was captain, and ten years later colonel of hussars. He served with distinction in Italy and under Marshal Saxe; he took part in the Seven Years' War, and in 1761 was promoted to the grade of maréchal de camp. In 1792 he was lieutenant-general. He emigrated during the French Revolution and died in Germany. This essay was only one of several military works. It was praised not only by General Forbes, but also by General Wolfe, who was a great student as well as a thorough practical soldier.14 While called merely an essay, it is actually a treatise, and an extensive one, consisting of five "books".

The Instructions for Officers evidently means a book under the title Military Instructions for Officers by Roger Stevenson, published in Philadelphia in 1775. Washington had presumably just received a copy of this, one of the numerous military books that were beginning to appear in America for the use of the new armies. p679He cared enough for it to preserve it, and it was in his library at Mount Vernon.

The Partisan was a French book, published in English translation in London in 1760. It is a very sound treatise on "small war", or the organization and handling of detachments for the service of security and information. While all the details are of course based upon the customs of that time, the instruction is as sound to‑day as it was then.

"Young" doubtless means Manoeuvres, or Practical Observations on the Art of War, by William Young, "late Major of Brigade to the Corps of Grenadiers and Highlanders who served in Germany, and now in the service of Brunswick", published in London in 1771. It is in two volumes, illustrated with numerous copperplate diagrams, and contains seven separate parts, each with its own title-page and page numbering. Most of them treat of infantry tactics in general, but three call for special mention. One is an essay on the command of small detachments. A second is "a new system of fortifications, constructed with fallen timber, or the sentiments of a West Indian Savage on the Art of War". The third is General Wolfe's Instructions to Young Officers. All in all, an eminently useful book to a new officer of the new American army.

Such a list of books, each different from any other and all valuable for the specific purpose in hand, could never have been prepared by one unfamiliar with military literature.

Nothing has been said of Simes's Military Guide, mentioned by Hamilton as the sum total of Washington's reading. This Thomas Simes was an industrious, if not very deep, student and published at least three military books, all of which Washington owned. This one quotes very extensively from Marshal Saxe, and it has been found an extremely convenient guide even now in studying the military institutions and customs of that period.

It is to be assumed that during the Revolution military books would naturally fall in Washington's way, and that he would perforce read or hear discussions of many, regardless of his earlier habits. We know that he, or at least those very close to him, kept touch with current military theories abroad; for in 1778 Colonel Laurens, his aide, wrote to his father, then president of Congress, for assistance in procuring the writings of Mesnil-Durand and Guibert, representing different angles of the then active controversy of line versus column.15 Guibert's Essai Général de Tactique seems to have been one of the books obtained as a result of this effort. This p680was a most notable book — conservative in that it adhered to the practical forms of Frederick, but progressive to a degree in its proposals for active and daring conduct of war. It became a favorite book of Washington, as it did later of Napoleon.16

A very brief reference to a few of the remaining books in the Mount Vernon library will suffice. A place of honor was doubtless given to the three books on military subjects published by Timothy Pickering, in the early 'seventies, for Washington referred to Pickering as a great military genius. Conspicuous and solid items are the Memoirs of Marshal Saxe, the King of Prussia's Works, the History of Marshal Turenne, Sully's Memoirs, the Memoirs of Frederick II, and standard works on cavalry, artillery, and field engineering. The French Regulations of 1776 for the Engineer Corps were sent to Washington in 1777; a French book on cavalry was given him by Rochambeau. And his interest in military study continued long after the war; for in his library was a copy of Henry Lloyd's Political and Military Rhapsody on the Invasion and Defense of Great Britain and Ireland. This might of course have reached him incidentally and have no significance, but this is apparently not the case. It was presented to him by Mr. Bird of London, who called attention to references to the use of the pike in connection with Indian wars. This special mention of an obscure point seems clearly to indicate previous discussion of such matters.

While an analysis of it would lead us too far for present purposes, it may be in order to allude briefly to the correspondence of 1776‑1777, dealing with Washington's second reconstruction of his army in the face of the enemy.17 The views therein expressed, especially as to cavalry and artillery, are decidedly such as could have been formulated only by a man of broad military reading and culture; and we know enough of Washington's military household at that time to be sure that the views were his own, and not those formulated for his signature by any staff officer.

Oliver L. Spaulding, jr.,

Colonel Field Artillery,

United States Army.a


The Author's Notes:

1 Ford, True George Washington, p76.

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2 Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, July, 1923, p271.

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3 Writings of Washington, ed. Ford, I.142.

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4 Catalogue of the Washington Collection in the Boston Athenaeum.

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5 Fortescue, History of the British Army, II.589.

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6 Writings of Washington, I.219.

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7 Ibid., I.281.

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8 Ibid., I.255‑256.

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9 Ibid., I.470.

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10 Kimball, Correspondence of William Pitt, I.374.

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11 Writings, II.106.

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12 Catalogue of the Washington Collection in the Boston Athenaeum, p220.

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13 Writings, III.212.

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14 Wright, Life of Wolfe.

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15 Laurens, Correspondence, p141.

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16 Rocquancourt, Cours Élémentaire d'Art et d'Histoire Militaires, III.371.

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17 Writings of Washington, V.478, VI.300; etc.


Thayer's Note:

a Oliver Lyman Spaulding, Jr. (1875‑ March 27, 1947), recognized early in his life as an expert in the modern methods of historical research as applied to military history, was called on to be one of the founding instructors in the Historical Section of the U. S. Army War College, then its chief from 1919 to 1924. He had written several manuals and large-scale works on field artillery, and a number of articles on military history in various scholarly journals, tending to focus on military education and training: as for example, The Ancient Military Writers (CJ 28:657‑669). At the time he wrote this article, he was Professor of Military Science, Harvard University (1931‑1935). In 1935 he was chief of the Historical Section of the War College for a second time; and after his retirement in 1939 with the rank of Brigadier General, a third time from 1941 to 1945. He was the author of The United States Army in War and Peace (1937), Pen and Sword in Greece and Rome (also 1937), and Ahriman: A Study in Air Bombardment (1939); and the co-author of Warfare: A Study of Military Methods from Earliest Times (1925) and The Second Division American Expeditionary Forces in France, 1917‑1919 (1937), as well as the translator of The Power of Personality in War, a military classic by Maj. Gen. Baron Hugo von Freytag-Loringhoven.

He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery next to his father, Oliver Lyman Spaulding, Sr. (1833‑1922) — a veteran of the War between the States who rose to the rank of brevet brigadier general in the Federal forces, and was eventually a U. S. Representative and Assistant Secretary of the Treasury.


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