Tomorrow morning, people will line Main Street to watch a Roxboro tradition take place in front of their very eyes. As they fill the sidewalks on either side of the street, the July 4th parade will be the town’s day’s first official observance of Independence Day march slowly past. Fire engines will blast their sirens, children (and grownups too) will wave from the floats and trucks that fill the parade. And people will wave flags all over the place. Later tomorrow night, in a moment that is uniquely Roxboro, people will line Madision Boulevard and its parking lots to watch the fireworks explode in the sky over the high school.
July 4 was an important day in our history, but I’ll make another argument. Today – July 3 – is an equally important date in our history. On July 3, 1775, a year and a day before the brave patriots affixed their signatures to one of America’s founding documents, a young Virginian arrived in Boston to take control of the Continental Army.
George Washington was already seen by his political friends as a leader and, among the men who were considered for the post, he had the most military experience of the bunch. But the truth is, he really didn’t have that much military experience. He fought in the French & Indian War, where he commanded, at most, 2,000 men. When he was plucked from the swamps of eastern Virginia to lead the Continental Army, he was in command of a Virginia militia with about 100 regulars.
Historians rate Washington as a mediocre general when it came to military tactics, but he possessed the skills his compatriots sent him to Boston to use: he could lead. He could strategize. He could get his troops – ill-fitted, underpaid and undertrained – to follow him to places most of us might think foolhardy.
Washington also had the common sense to realize he was being sent to battle a much larger, much better-trained army and that facing them mano-a-mano on the field of battle would be a bad idea. Instead, he opted to engage the British in small battles and skirmishes. He figured out how to get his army to move more quickly than the stodgy British military. That allowed him to employ the element of surprise, when he did attack the redcoats.
Washington’s strategy surely drew the war out longer. He reportedly made it home to Mount Vernon only once in six years and that was while he was on his way from one engagement to another. But if Washington had tried to end the war quickly, it almost certainly would have been a British victory – something our American brains just can’t fathom.
We rest comfortably in this country these days believing that we have the best-trained, best-resourced and best-equipped military machine in the world.
But George Washington didn’t have that advantage on this date, 244 years ago. He had to devise a David-type strategy against a Goliath-type foe. And he had to get a bunch of old men and young boys to agree to follow behind him.
Today, in 1775 – a year and a day before the Declaration of Independence was signed – American colonists signaled the beginning of the end of British rule when they sent that farmer/soldier to Boston to take control of a motley crew of man and save a fledgling country.