Ezra Klein offers a strong response to the right-place, right-time, right-attitude argument about George Washington’s greatness. As president, he points out, Washington did have a variety of choices about how to proceed and opportunities abounded to shape the presidency, and to a great extent, the nation, in the image he chose. Here, contrary to my case that he was in part a man who knew how to not miss opportunity when it (rarely) arose, Klein posits that Washington’s greatness lay precisely in knowing which opportunities to pass up.
But that was Washington’s presidency, the culmination of his career. The path that led him to that office and built the reputation that made him, in the eyes of his political friends and foes alike, necessary in that office, was one of far more limited opportunity. Especially as a general, it was precisely this limitation that allowed him to succeed.
Listening to Chernow’s Washington while reading Foote’s Civil War, it’s almost impossible to avoid realizing the importance of simply keeping an army in the field during both rebellions. To be sure, there were other differences between the American Revolution and the Confederacy’s attempt to re-enact it; foreign recognition, certainly, was key to the success or failure of both—and Slidell was no Franklin. Proximity, too, likely facilitated the movement of troops and aroused the passions of civilians. Nevertheless, the key point which was central to the life or death of the Confederacy—and recognized as such by Lee and Davis—was the ability to keep an army in the field and prolong the war, either until Europe intervened or the North grew weary.
Washington’s performance must have been a reassuring memory; after all, the odds he faced were far longer than Lee’s. Despite this, and despite Lee’s extraordinary proficiency as a general and Washington’s (at best) mediocrity as one, it was Washington who kept his army in the field until the French intervened and the British grew weary, and Lee who saw his crumble south of Richmond.
Like Lee, Washington’s instinct as a general was toward aggressive action. He was regularly drawing up and toying with plans to put his tiny, irregular army in motion against the larger British force—but as much as he was frustrated by his inability to implement these plans, he was able to recognize that the paper odds and particular circumstances would make it suicidal. He kept looking for ways to attack, and perhaps, if he had had Lee’s strategic mind, he would have found one. Washington didn’t look to act defensively, fight skirmishes, and dodge full-scale combat with the British for most of the Revolution; circumstances limited him. They demanded a different type of generalship, one for which he was likely better suited than if he had had opportunity to take the initiative as often as Lee.
We remember the later general for his daring aggressiveness. Chancellorsville is usually held up as the epitome of this quality, but Lee, like Washington, was a general with limited options who knew never to let opportunity pass him by. The difference—maybe, in light of the different political circumstances of the war, better put as “a difference”—may well have been that Lee, what with his shorter odds, well-trained regulars, and initial surplus of strategic minds, had too much opportunity. Unlike Washington, here was a general both willing to seize an opportunity and capable of pulling it off—most of the time.
His instincts led him to make two invasions of the Union. In the first, which ended with the battle at Antietam Creek, chance nearly led to the destruction of his army—and, had it not been for the timely arrival of A.P. Hill and McClellan’s inability (perhaps refusal) to put his whole army into action, it very likely would have. The second invasion, ending at Gettysburg, is both a testament to Lee’s abilities—that he nearly, against the situational odds, won the battle—and evidence that the opportunity he was given undermined the goal of keeping his army in the field. In the context of how close the Confederate army had come in the previous two days to breaking Union lines, one can understand why Lee would have wanted one last crack at it. Only a few months before, he had been successful against even longer odds; here, where he should have been defeated already, the Union had held him to stalemate only through the hardest of efforts. The third day charge he ordered from Longstreet’s division broke that portion—the backbone, or the right hook, whichever you prefer—of the Army of Northern Virginia. In that situation, Washington would likely have ordered a similar assault, and one that would likely have ended far worse—but Washington’s circumstances never gave him opportunity to order anything like the two northern invasions, let alone a third-day charge.
Winston Churchill wrote speculatively about what might have happened had Lee won at Gettysburg; it remains among the great What-Ifs of American history. A better question, however, might be this: What if Lee had never launched the invasion? What if the Confederate cabinet had gone with its instincts and declined to authorize his plan? These are questions we don’t have to ask of Washington—because circumstances (and his own generalship) never gave him opportunity to risk breaking his army against his foe’s.