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Bill Thayer

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Talk 3

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Soldiers Unmasked
William Addleman Ganoe

published by
The Military Service Publishing Company
Harrisburg, Pa. 1939

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Talk 5

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p31  IV

The first game

One day at West Point it was my duty to take a prominent visitor, an Englishman, to a football game. We sat through three periods with little conversation. Knowing that British Rugby corresponds in its continuous motion to our basketball, I finally got up courage to ask him what he thought of the game he was witnessing. "Well," he said, "I think it's all very jolly, but I can't understand why they get down and pray so much."

That brings up the very first serious game we played with the British in this country. It was a contest we had for freedom between 1775 and 1783. Incidentally we lost the game, but we gained our independence. If the actual score could have been displayed in the headlines of a great news sheet, it would have read something like this: "The British rout the Colonials, 31‑6."

In the first period of that game, after the kick‑off at Lexington and Concord, the English General Howe shoved the Colonial Team right out of Long Island, and sent many of them to the sidelines. When he appeared before Manhattan, they ran away at  p32 the first sight of the British Team — ran pell-mell right through New York's East Side, until our head coach jumped in and actually had to beat them over the back to get them onto the playing field again. But they melted away despite entreaties and prodding. Of course it wasn't a team that George Washington had at that time. It was a collection of fellows who hadn't been taught the rules and principles of the game, did not understand team-work, who had few togs, were poorly conditioned and scarcely knew how to line up. All this was very humiliating since our country was abundantly rich to support a good coaching staff and to make an outlay for training and equipment. Besides the game had been advertised for over ten years. Yet nothing had been done to present even a good defensive line and back field. In fact, most of the men who turned out had never even tackled the dummy — let alone being assembled. It is not surprising then that when the Colonists were chased by General Howe down through New Jersey, that over half of Washington's squad just picked up and went home, refused to play any longer, said they'd played as long as they'd agreed to, and left him with a few to carry on against a quantity of well drilled and trained opponents. They were discontented not only at the poor showing but because they didn't have a chance. But Washington, instead  p33 of quitting, showed how much determined stuff was in him. When, with the handful remaining, the game looked hopelessly lost, he called for two brilliant forward passes down on his one‑foot line at Trenton and Princeton, which were successful. It was a daring play, but besides throwing a tiny scare into the British, the Colonists netted only eight yards and were forced to kick. They did a lot of justified kicking at this time in many other ways, but these desperate plays put back a lot of spirit into the team, in spite of the discouraging situation, and the desertion from Washington's ranks of players.

It was in the second period of the game that the Colonists made their first real touchdown at Saratoga. Of course, they outweighed the British about thirty pounds to the man, and that helped. Then, too, they had a fine captain of the team by the name of Arnold, who afterwards because of ill‑treatment on his own squad at the hands of some disgruntled alumni, went over and played on the British team. But meanwhile General Howe added to his lead by scoring with wide end sweeps and perfect interference two more touchdowns at the Brandywine and Germantown — and there the half ended. During the intermission both teams rested. The British went into luxurious training quarters in Philadelphia, where they built themselves up with good food and  p34 generally had a sprightly fine time, whereas the Colonists' squad sat out in the open and shivered and starved through a freezing winter, and the hardships took a further toll of Washington's line and backfield men. But a great thing happened at Valley Forge for Washington's remnants of a squad. The pupil of the master strategist abroad, Frederick the Great, arrived. It was Baron Von Steuben. At once Washington made him principal assistant coach. There was no department of the game in which he was not skilled. He was an untiring worker and had a kind, attractive personality as an instructor. He picked out the best material and made a sort of varsity squad. He emphasized the fundamentals of blocking and tackling in which the colonists were sadly lacking. As he drilled them in diversified plays and got them clicking as a team, the rest of the players watched them and then attempted to imitate them on separate fields. He did much as they do in those schools where everyone has to take part in sports, where intra-mural athletics are treated seriously. The effect of such coaching was immediately felt at Monmouth in the beginning of the third period, where the Colonists played the British to a standstill; and could have made another touchdown, had not Charles Lee, a good half-back when he wanted to play, run with the ball full-tilt toward  p35 the enemy's goal. He would actually have made a touchdown for the other side, if one of his own team-mates had not tackled him a little past midfield. But shortly afterward, this good showing of the Colonists was overcome by two touchdowns made by the British at Newport and Camden, where undrilled players faced veterans. Later Nathaniel Greene, a fine team captain, played well with a green squad riddled with injuries. Although he could not threaten the goal line, he stood the British on even terms at Guilford Court House. His defensive work with his inferior line was praiseworthy, but it didn't thrill the spectators or advance the ball. Then came Washington's strategy as a great coach. He fooled the British into the belief that he was playing a 6‑2‑2‑1 defense and suddenly with a fake kick attack, swooped down on Cornwallis at Yorktown. Even though the team was penalized for holding, he hung on. But the touchdown he was responsible for in his excellent head-work was offset by the fact that there had been imported more men from France to block the British than he had players from his own institution. The officials took the view that players brought in from another institution were ringers, and therefore the score as applying to the Colonists would have to be thrown out. And besides this touchdown didn't end the game, as so many  p36 people think it did. It was just the end of the third period. In the last and fourth quarter, the British quarter-back realized his lead of 31 to 6, and just held on, since he had a squad of three times as many hardy and well-drilled players as had been lost at Yorktown and altogether a better and bigger one than the Colonists had. Of course, the British were just content to stall around in midfield, occupying our principal cities. The game ended just as the entire British squad was called back to England, because the schedule makers in Europe had more important games for them to play over there. And that left the gridiron empty. If the game was not won by the Colonists, at least the field was. So irrespective of score, the Americans surged all over the gridiron and carried off both sets of goal-posts with a great hurrahing over the victory. And we've been hurrahing ever since.

Now the story of our Revolution as a game may appear to some to sound flippant, to poke fun at our troops and belittle them. No one reveres more the courage and fortitude of the men of '76 than the soldier. But so many of their sufferings and defeats were unnecessary, and so much of their efforts wasted because of lack of timely coaching, that the story as a game can briefly picture the play as the action took place. In principle, that was exactly what  p37 happened in our fight for freedom. We really never won the Revolution by either our power or our skill. And what's the use of fooling ourselves now? Are we not ready to look at this contest frankly in the face and learn its lessons? Because of our failure to coach or equip our squad properly, we dragged on eight years of death by exposure, disease and the bullet. And this procedure is all the sadder and more tragic when we recognize that the material available in the colonies was as fine in raw ruggedness, character and marksman­ship as anywhere in the world. Men who joined the ranks became discouraged by the wholesale when they saw themselves too often officered by persons as unskilled and unlettered as they, when they realized that they had little chance against soldiers well-trained and equipped. They keenly felt the disgrace and uselessness of it all. It was natural that they deserted in shoals or left at the expiration of short-time enlistments. The Continental Line, which Steuben coached and who stuck all through the war, were able and heroic, but were few by comparison. The great majority stayed only as long a time as would correspond to a few days on a football squad. Washington and Steuben couldn't count on what material they could coach or could have for any one game. Green Americans against expert British,  p38 were the rule. If you can picture a coach on any gridiron receiving from the farm or the store a new set of men every two days, with most of the old set leaving at the same time, and attempting to produce a team for a game each Saturday, you have in a mild way Washington's situation. We know that when we put untrained and unconditioned men into a football game, we reap more serious injuries than if the men are hardened and trained. If those casualties exist where the human body is the only weapon, how much more unspeakable are the added injuries where bad weather, poor shelter, loss of food and sleep, bullets and cannon balls were the weapons. So in the Revolution we put men in a more terrible plight than we'd think of allowing even in modern football.

But a more surprising thing is what we did after the war was over. We dismissed our entire coaching staff and all of the squad except 80 men, who just worked around the training quarters and received no practice or instruction in the game. Our people had the idea that there would never be another game. They contended that any attempt at a continuous coaching system with a paid staff was getting back to professionalism — to despotism and tyranny. Since armies in Europe were playthings of Kings, then all armies would be that way. They  p39 took the same line of reasoning as the man who says, "Since some church members are hypocrites, then all churches are wrong." Washington tried his best with all his pleading and logic, to show how false was such a view. He begged and advised in so many of his letters and testaments that it seems nothing could be more important to him. He wrote of the Revolution: "Had we formed a permanent army in the beginning — we should not have been the greatest part of the war inferior to the enemy, indebted for our safety to their inactivity, enduring frequently the mortification of seeing opportunities to ruin them pass unimproved for the want of a force, which the country was completely able to afford; and of seeing the country ravaged, our towns burnt, the inhabitants plundered, abused, murdered with impunity from the same cause." He also wrote, "To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace." Henry Lee, Governor of Virginia about the same time went further. "Convinced as I am that a government is the murderer of its citizens which sends them to the field uninformed and untaught, where they are to meet men of the same age and strength, mechanized by education and discipline for battle, I cannot withhold my denunciation of its wickedness and folly."

Thus the people were warned against their slump — and we shall soon see how they paid for it.

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