Everyone has heard the story of George Washington‘s nighttime crossing of the Delaware River on a frosty Christmas morning in 1776, but few remember his equally treacherous nighttime march to Germantown only ten months later.
It began on the evening of October 3, 1777. The Continental Army was camped out at Pennypacker’s Mill, about thirty-five miles northwest of Philadelphia, after a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Brandywine Creek.
All year, Washington’s reputation had been growing after the two surprise victories — at the Battles of Trenton and Princeton — that followed his surreptitious crossing of the Delaware. “Had he lived in the days of idolatry,” wrote the Pennsylvania Journal, he would have “been worshiped as a god.” To which Frederick the Great added that Washington’s back-to-back victories “were the most brilliant of any recorded in the annals of military achievements.”
But all that was in the past and nearly forgotten already. On September 11, the British and their German mercenaries had crossed Brandywine Creek, outflanked Washington’s men, and dealt the Americans a horrific blow, killing 200 and capturing another 400.
Almost immediately, Washington’s admirers turned against him. Thomas Jefferson ridiculed his leadership as “too slow, even indolent, much too weak, and…not without his portion of vanity and presumption.” John Adams prayed for “one great soul” to lead them out of this mess.
Convening with his generals at Pennypacker’s Mill, Washington decided to launch an ambitious strike in Germantown “to remind the English that an American army still existed.” He divided 10,000 soldiers into four columns, carefully coordinated to attack the enemy at all angles simultaneously.
The maneuver took a bad turn at dawn when one of the columns encountered a British regiment before reaching their destination. They engaged in a bloody skirmish and wasted ammunition before the British retreated.
Next, Washington found himself in an unwelcome (and unwise) diversion when his column came across a stone country house filled with British soldiers and, instead of sending most of his men around the house as planned, stalled the entire maneuver by trying to overtake it — only to find that it was a nearly impenetrable fortress.
After sapping valuable time in vain, Washington pressed on. By the time he got to Germantown, his careful coordination was dashed, and the Americans found themselves in a confusing firefight amid fog and smoke. By the end of the day, they had suffered twice as many fatalities as the British. The Battle of Germantown was a resounding loss.
While Washington was regrouping, his rival General Horatio Gates was winning an overwhelming victory at the Battle of Saratoga, capturing 5,000 enemy soldiers. That fall, a campaign spread through Congress to replace Washington with Gates. Meanwhile, Gates, believing his own hype, resisted Washington’s orders to send some of his troops to help Washington defend the Delaware.
The tension became so unbearable that Washington threatened to resign when he received word that Congress was planning to promote a brigadier who criticized Washington’s leadership as “miserable indeed.”
But Congress had bigger plans in mind. They created a Board of War to oversee Washington, a not-so-subtle hint that they no longer trusted him to run his own army, and as its first president they named none other than Horatio Gates.
While Washington was fighting on the political front to keep his job, his men were fighting on the physical front to stay alive, for that was the infamous winter they spent at Valley Forge. The conditions were so harsh that over 2,000 men died.
“The General is well but much worn with fatigue and anxiety,” wrote Martha Washington of her husband. “I never knew him to be so anxious as now.”
This portrait of Washington — defeated repeatedly, hounded by critics, tired, and anxious — is the opposite of the legend that we usually celebrate today, on his birthday, but it’s the key to understanding his monumental achievement. It was from this depth of despair, this dire moment of complete failure, that Washington rallied his pitiful band of amateur soldiers, inspiring awesome loyalty and uncommon courage to defeat the mighty British empire.
What set Washington apart from his peers wasn’t his ability to conquer — he actually lost more battles than he won — but rather his ability to survive, to persevere, to stand tall in the face of every setback.
Greatness, he taught us, lies not in the ease with which we succeed but rather the fortitude with which we fail — and the gusto with which we get up, dust ourselves off, and try again. And again. And again. Until we get it right.
An abbreviated version of this op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.