George Washington Classical Sun Tzu Strategist And

George Washington: Classical Sun Tzu Strategist And Master In The Art Of War Essay, Research Paper

The American defeat of the British during the Revolutionary War was a direct result of George Washington’s incredible leadership and generalship which epitomized the greatness of Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”


The key to the success of the American Revolution was the George Washington himself. Faced with a near impossible task of defeating a tremendously powerful enemy, Washington was required to defy the odds. So how does Washington’s accomplishment of this task relate to Sun Tzu and his teachings of “The Art of War”? There crucial points come to light: (1) Washington’s selection as to command the Continental Army and inherent command capabilities, (2) Washington’s strategy for winning the war against the Empire of Great Britain, (3) The art of maneuver that eventually lead to the critical defeat of Cornwallis and the British at Yorktown.

Washington as a Commander

Washington’s selection to be the leader of the Continental Army was the wisest choice that the newly formed Continental Congress could have made. Washington’s selection as Commander of the Continental Army did more to win the Revolutionary war than any other decision made during the conflict. His personal character epitomizes perfectly the five traits required in a successful general: wisdom, sincerity, humanity, courage, and strictness. (Sun Tzu p. 65) These five crucial traits will become apparent and Washington’s strategy to win the War of Independence is elaborated on further

Washington was the embodiment of everything fine in the American character. He had no delusions of grandeur and was second only to Benjamin Franklin as a diplomat with the French. In caring for his troops and their families he would spend his own money to help them. Washington brought more than just military ability and statesmanship to the Revolution he brought character. General Washington was respected not just by the rank and file, but also by people in all parts of the colonies. Although he did not inspire his men to fanatical loyalty as Napoleon or Nelson, the troops under his command knew they could count upon his valor, military judgment, and fair justice always. (Morison, p. 314-5) Everyone, from the highest gentleman in Congress to the lowest private in the Army, could depend on George Washington’s character at all times.

Strategy to Win the War

Washington’s reevaluation of the situation after the failure in New York was the strategy he should have adopted from the start of the war. His knowledge of war fighting was learned by direct observation and experience. In this, he realized to win he must more that all else, preserve the integrity of the Continental Army. “Washington concluded that if the army could be kept alive, the Revolutionary cause would remain alive.” (Weigley, p. 12) In gaining this insight, Washington set about on a new course to victory in that the “Art of War” is demonstrated.

Washington first plans for a strategic defensive, thereby preserving his army. He avoids battle whenever possible and continues to draw the British into a prolonged war of attrition. It is this continuous maneuvering that gives Washington control of the flow of the War. For no matter where the British Army strikes, or what city they may take, or what battle they may win, the Continental Army under Washington’s astute leadership perseveres.

Next Washington had to attrite or erode the British resolve. Not only take away the British Army’s will to fight, but take away the people of England’s support for the war as well. “For there has never been a protracted war from which a country had benefited.” (Sun Tzu, p. 73) In drawing out the war, Washington strategy of attrition attacks the very heart of the British strategy for a swift end to the colonial revolt. Since the British are still at war with France, the drain on resources abroad in the colonies weakens British strength in defense of England. “…what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy;” (Sun Tzu, p77)

Washington avoided confrontations with the strong British Army whenever possible and only strikes at parts of the British Army, never the entire force. By fighting and winning small battles Washington builds credibility in the Continental Army while continuously harassing and tiring the British Army. Through “skirmish” warfare continues to harass and dog the British forces, especially their lines of supply and communication. “He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious.” (Sun Tzu, p.82)

In a daring move Washington made and unorthodox winter strike against Trenton. It is here more than anywhere else that Washington’s true courage comes to light. With the Continental Army falling apart around him, and badly needing to restore morale and raise recruitment, Washington boldly mounts an attack on Christmas Day 1776, crossing the Delaware River from Valley Forge to strike Trenton. Washington defeated the Hessian outpost and boldly reversed the momentum of the war. (2Weigley, p. 39-40)

Washington’s victories at Trenton and Princeton established the credibility of the Continental Army as a force to be reckoned with and demonstrated his capability of unconventional and unexpected actions. Washington’s leadership and generalship are validated, the Colonies inspired by his bravery, and more importantly his strategy against the British is proven. “…a skilled commander seeks victory from the situation and does not demand it from his subordinates.” (Sun Tzu, p. 93) The British realize that the war has only just begun.

The War of Maneuver

Washington now needed time to build the Continental Army to a level capable of defeating the British in a full up battle. So began Washington’s “game of chess” with the British. “Now war is based on deception. Move when it is advantageous and create changes in the situation by dispersal and concentration of forces.” (Sun Tzu, p. 106).

Since the British never knew where the Continental Army would strike, they had to garrison several major cities that were crucial seaports.

Washington’s movements were extremely simple. By forcing the enemy to follow your forces, you control his movements; thus, win or lose, as long as the Continental Army still existed, the British Army would continue to pursue it. And so Washington engages in this complex game of chess, where superiority in number of pieces is irrelevant if checkmate cannot be achieved. Washington does a masterful job of avoiding the British “checkmate”. “He who knows the art of the direct and indirect approach will be victorious. Such is the art of maneuvering.” (Sun Tzu, p. 106)

Washington’s strategy came together when Cornwallis pulled out of the southern campaign and encamped at Yorktown. Washington, recognizing that this was the moment to strike, executed a brilliant plan to engage the British at Yorktown. In a feint towards New York that through the Northern British Army under General Clinton off-balance, Washington began the movements of forces towards Yorktown. Preparations were made in advance to ensure provisions were positioned, roads and bridges were intact, and so on went the orders from Washington. Not a single detail was overlooked. The French followed the routes recommended by Washington, and the two great armies converged on Yorktown. This move showed the sheer brilliance of the organizational talents of George Washington. (Middlekauff, p. 563-4)

Checkmate Washington. Without much of a fight, General Cornwallis conceded, surrendering his army October 19, 1781. For all intensive purposes, the Revolutionary War was over. Washington’s strategy was validated as the British lost the will to continue the fight and had more pressing matters in the continuing struggle against France.

Strategic Perspective

Great Britain lost the Revolutionary War more so than George Washington and the Colonials won it. The British failed to abide by Sun Tzu’s teachings and suffered defeat. One of the most crucial errors on the part of the British was not dividing the thirteen colonies. If the spirit of the colonies could be broken, or if they could be entangled in argument and battle amongst themselves, the momentum of the revolution may have been stemmed to begin with. The internal struggles within forming the Continental Congress, writing the Declaration of Independence, and eventually the Bill of Rights and Constitution, was immense. If the British had been able to get some of the colonies to remain loyal, they could have broken the spirit of the Colonials.

“When he is united, divide him”. (Sun Tzu, p. 69) This marks the first failure of the British to stem the tide of the American Revolution.

When the actual war broke out, the British Empire was spread around the globe. Since the Revolution wasn’t taken to be too difficult a task to handle, the troops deployed were not enough to quickly quell the uprising. As the war dragged on, the British continued small piecemeal operations. Never did they hit full force at once quickly and powerfully. As Washington’s Continental Army survived and continued to outmaneuver their forces, the British continued to play along with Washington’s “cat-and-mouse” games. England became embroiled in long and costly war of attrition, several thousand miles away from home. And here the British forgot the most important lesson of history, “For there has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited.” (Sun Tzu, p. 73)

The English lines of supply and communication became more stressed as the war dwindled on. American “privateers” were wrecking havoc on British merchant shipping. Morale at home in England was diminishing as the war dragged on. The British never fully grasped the American strategy of the war; thus, they themselves could not have an effective strategy of their own. Although the British kept winning and winning battles, they kept losing the war more every day. “…to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is…” (Sun Tzu, p. 77) The British needed to defeat the Colonials will to continue the war.

The three crucial points of offensive strategy according to Sun Tzu are: 1) attack his strategy; 2) attack his alliances; and 3) attack his army. (Sun Tzu, p. 77-8) The British never fully understood the American strategy of basically holding on until the British tire and loose the will to continue the war. The British also failed horribly in disrupting the alliance between America and France. After losing the Battle of Saratoga, the French realized the Colonies were a force to be reckoned with, and allied themselves. This added even more pressure on the British because now they had to concentrate more forces for defense at home. On top of all this, the British failed to destroy the Continental Army, and instead continued to fight for cities. While these cities were crucial to British supply lines, they did nothing to stem the build up of the Continental Army.

In the end, the British had only one army available to fight in the colonies, Cornwallis’, for the rest of the troops were guarding vital seaports. When Cornwallis was surrounded by combined American and French troops, and even more importantly, cut-off by sea due to the French Navy, he surrendered his army. The last mobile army in the colonies was captured, but more importantly, and overlooked at most of the time, was the rare and crucial defeat of the British Navy to break the French blockade and rescue Cornwallis’ army.


Although the British made a torrent of critical errors during the Revolutionary War, there can be no doubt that George Washington lead the Continental Army and the Colonies to victory and independence. Washington recognized the challenges of the task ahead and met them head on, able to turn defeat to victory in the end. “To be able to adhere to his own cautious advice despite all the pressures of circumstances, politics, and martial tradition probably made Washington the right strategist for the American Revolution.” (Weigley, p. 17)

Washington’s innate ability of knowing exactly when to attack and when to retreat made him victorious in the Revolutionary War. A master in the Art of War, Washington always knew when to move, and when not to move; Sun Tzu records it best on page 51:

When the enemy advances, we retreat!

When the enemy halts, we harass!

When the enemy seeks to avoid battle, we attack!

When the enemy retreats, we pursue!

Washington’s dedication to the cause of the American Revolution inspired and impressed everyone. He was a great general, and astute politician, and a symbol of the cause for independence. He was a master in the arts of war.

Handel, Michael I. Masters of War. Portland: Frank Cass & Company Limited, 1996.

Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause. The American Revolution 1763-1789. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Morison, Samuel E. The Oxford History of the American People, vol 1. New York: Penguin Books USA, Inc. 1994.

Sun Tzu. The Art of War. Translated by Samuel B. Griffith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963.

Von Clausewitz, Carl. Translated and edited by Sir Michael Howard and Peter Paret. On War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976.

Weigley, Russel F. The American Way of War. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973.

Weigley, Russel F. History of the United States Army. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1st Edition, 1984.


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