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The Importance of Leadership

An article about George Washington in one of the Sunday papers caused me to re-visit his triumph at Princeton, which was won at far narrower odds in his favor than I had earlier thought.

After the British defeated some of Washington's best troops in his advance guard (a major advantage in itself), Washington's raw militia numbered about 3,000 against 1,000 experienced British regulars. But the British were armed with both muskets and bayonets while the Americans had only muskets. So in terms of weaponry (counting the 1000 bayonets), Washington's advantage was more like 3-2, not 3-1. Normally, the greater British experience would have carried the day. (If I were to "handicap" such a fight, I'd now rate the more numerous militia less than 50-50.)

Washington rode up to the front lines, and dared the British (directly in front of him) to fire at maximum range. Directed by their officers, nearly all the British, including those out of range, did so, and missed, while the more numerous (and better shooting) Americans returned fire against their opposite numbers with some success (roughly a 2% hit rate). Making light of their difficulties, Washington assured his men, "This is a parade boys, and there are only a few of them." (I've "modernized" his English.)

Then the Americans did what militia often do when this well-led; they rallied around their commander to protect him. In "coming together" like this, they thereby protected THEMSELVES. Now, they could not be shattered by the shock of a British charge; the enemy would have to cut them apart, one by one, with bayonets.

If the British had co-ordinated their assault for one blow, they might have succeeded against the green, bayonetless Americans. But they launched three, piecemeal charges of about 300 men each, odds of 1 to 10 that could not prevail even against raw, bayonetless militia. The much more numerous Americans beat off the assaults with rifle butts (or rifle handles held by buts), and occasional bursts of fire. Physical casualties were about the same; 100 shot Britishers, 100 stabbed Americans.

But the British "stranded" dozens of prisoners in the seesaw fighting (taking none of their own, they were out for blood), amounting to a total of about 200 on the day. An army normally falls apart when it suffers 30% casualties (100 shot, 200 prisoners out of 1,000), versus 100 out of 3,000, or 3% for the Americans, and the British did. Like Wellington did later in the final hour at Waterloo, Washington sent his men forward in a "fine fox chase" that cleared the field of enemy.

The Americans had won battles like Lexington and Concord with gunfire, but this was the first time EVER that they had beaten off British bayonet charges--and without bayonets of their own. (The British had used this weapon to great effect in the open ground around New York City.) This success caused Congress to authorize the issue of bayonets, and the training of soldiers to use them. Like the battle itself, this represented major step in the long road to American indepedence.