George Washington is a familiar name in American history, but one area in which Washington has not yet been duly recognized is in his unwavering support for soldiers and veterans.
Washington’s advocacy for the military began while he was the commander of the Continental Army. He and his troops faced a lack of food, clothing, ammunition and other supplies. Although one of Washington’s first commands as commander-in-chief was to request more supplies, these shortages plagued him throughout the war. Historian Ron Chernow wrote, “Seldom in history has a general been handicapped by such constantly crippling conditions…He repeatedly had to exhort Congress and the thirteen states to remedy desperate shortages of men, shoes, shirts, blankets, and gunpowder. This meant dealing with selfish, apathetic states and bureaucratic incompetence in Congress. He labored under a terrible strain that would have destroyed a lesser man.”
Washington was too determined and dedicated to his men to give up, an attitude that is reflected in his correspondence to Congress during the war. In 1778, while suffering alongside his men at Valley Forge, Washington wrote to Congress, “Something must be done-important alterations must be made; necessity requires, that our resources should be enlarged and our system improved: for without it, if the dissolution of the army should not be the consequence, at least, its operations must infallibly be feeble, languid and ineffective.”
Despite Congress’ inaction, Washington doggedly continued his petitioning. He admits to this persistence in one letter, “I have so often, and so fully communicated my want of Arms to Congress that I should not have given them the trouble of receiving another Letter upon this subject.”
In 1783, as the war was drawing to a close, many soldiers remained unpaid, which led to widespread frustration and disillusionment within the army. Capitalizing on these feelings, a group of soldiers gathered and threatened disbandment. Washington, alarmed by these threats, came to one of their meetings and delivered a passionate speech urging them to stay committed to the cause. Washington demonstrated his empathy, stating “I have ever considered my own military reputation as inseparably connected with that of the army–as my heart has ever expanded with joy, when I have heard its praises–and my indignation has arisen, when the mouth of detraction has been opened against it–it can scarcely be supposed, at this late stage of the war, that I am indifferent to its interests.”
Although Washington was sympathetic to the soldiers’ plight, he also knew that victory would be lost if the army disbanded. He implored them “to give one more distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism and patient virtue.” Washington promised to personally continue advocating for them until they were justly compensated, a covenant that was fulfilled after the war when he able to secure five full years of pay for the soldiers.
Washington’s speech was convincing and ultimately persuaded the dissenters. Before reading, their General drew out a pair of glasses and put them on, saying, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for, I have not only grown gray, but almost blind in the service of my country.” Remembering Washington’s kindness fighting alongside them, many of the men wept at this moment and all later agreed to abandon rebellion.
Long before this near-revolution, Washington had been concerned about the lack of pay and pension for his men. Five years earlier, he wrote Congress: “It must also be a comfortless reflection to any man, that after he may have contributed to securing the rights of his country, at the risk of his life and the ruin of his fortune, there would be no provision made.” Washington wasn’t just content with compensation for his soldiers, he wanted Congress to provide all veterans with a parcel of land upon their dismissal from the Army as well.
Washington’s men continued to recognize him as their advocate years after the war ended. Caleb Brewster, a member of the Culper Spy Ring, wrote Washington to ask for his assistance in procuring his pension, saying, “I humbly entreat your Excellency to take my distressed case into his benevolent consideration.” Ever the altruistic leader, Washington fulfilled the request by signing a bill in 1790 that authorized pension payments for wounded veterans and mentioned Brewster, by name, as one of the recipients.
At a time when veterans were unrecognized and unsupported, Washington’s support for them was revolutionary. He was the first to acknowledge the incredible heroism and virtuosity of veterans, and he worked tirelessly, in difficult circumstances, to ensure they were properly rewarded—giving us yet further proof of his incredible character.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.