I herewith confess to having had an unpatriotic thought: as a youth, I was dismissive of the Father of His Country. I grew up as an impressionable boy in the age of generals Marshall, Patton, Bradley, and Eisenhower. Each of their great World War II battles in the 1940s was—or so it seemed to me—a relentless advance on the road to the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers, something every American wanted desperately. But in nine engagements with the British in an eight-year war, General Washington won only three! This was an embarrassment to national pride! A patriotic boy wants a general to win every battle and reckons little the value of strategic withdrawals, exhausting attrition, and the ultimate prize—winning the war.

Then, too, George Washington (1732– 1799) always seemed so much more remote and inaccessible than most national military heroes, even though his picture, a...

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