General George Washington: America’s First Operational Artist

Linking Strategy with Tactical Action During the American Revolution’s New Jersey Campaign

The American Revolution’s New Jersey campaign, in which George Washington led the Continental army to victory against Hessian mercenaries at Trenton and the British regulars at Princeton, provides an instructive case study in operational art and on the concept’s discrete character. Washington’s conduct at the First Battle of Trenton demonstrated the effective use of sequential tactical action in the pursuit of strategic objectives, synchronized in time, space, and purpose, within the means he possessed. As such, George Washington emerged as the first American operational artist. This article analyzes operational art and its relationship to strategy, as they relate to the actions of Washington during the New Jersey campaign’s First Battle of Trenton on 25-26 December 1776.

J.F.C. Fuller (Wikimedia)

Two military theorists—J.F.C. Fuller and Robert Leonhard—provide instructive definitions of operational art, both of which help elucidate George Washington’s role as America’s first operational artist. J.F.C. Fuller, an early-20th century British army officer and military theorist, spoke of operational art in the parlance of the time, referring to the concept as grand tactics. Fuller wrote that, “Grand tactics secures military action by converging all means of waging war towards gaining a decision” and that the aim of grand tactics is the destruction of the enemy’s plan, which forces the enemy to culminate or accept the terms of peace.[1] The decision Fuller spoke of is the acceptance, either willingly or forcefully, of the contested policy, and that grand tactics is a battle of wills, embodied by competing plans, both of which are driven by their respective policy.[2]

Robert Leonhard, a late-20th century American theorist and veteran of the Gulf War, suggests operational art is the employment of grouped tactical actions, or campaigns, to attain the strategic goals of a given situation.[3] Furthermore, Leonhard contends that battle is the foundation of strategic victory. Because of this, the operational artist “must be skilled at using battles along with other assets to structure a winning campaign.”[4] However, Leonhard cautions that the correct use of operational art always focuses on keeping the strategic objective within sight and is judicious in the expenditure of resources in pursuit of those objectives.[5]

In briefly comparing the two definitions, Fuller’s thoughts are focused on the adversary—waging war to force the enemy to make a decision; while Leonhard’s are focused internally—on achieving one’s strategic objectives. The complementary nature of Fuller and Leonhard’s definitions are useful in analyzing Washington’s actions during the New Jersey campaign due to the nature of problems he faced. Washington had to force the British coalition into a strategic decision (i.e. accepting defeat at the hands of the rebel colonies), while also accomplishing American strategic objectives, to include the preservation of the Continental army and expulsion of the British coalition from the American colonies.

The First Battle of Trenton: Applied Operational Art

Following his defeat at Long Island in August 1776, Washington found himself and his army on the far side of the Hudson River in New Jersey. By December 1776, Washington and his army were in a precarious situation—the Continental army was short on victories, the enlistments of many of his troops were set to expire, and some of his volunteer regiments were electing to walk away from the conflict. As historian John Lynn writes, “Only a miracle seemed likely to save Washington’s bedraggled army.”[6] Further, Lynn suggests that the fighting in New York taught Washington that he could not match the British in open battle.[7] However, Washington’s actions indicated that he was aware that in order to win the war, in spite of his force’s inferiority in quantity and quality, he would have to occasionally take the offensive and win battles.

By this point in the revolution, Washington had three primary options available. He could continue to evade the combined British-Hessian coalition while rebuilding his force and logistics in order to buy time for future offensive action. Another option was a direct strike at the main British army located in Princeton under command of Sir William Howe. Lastly, he could launch a limited objective attack on the combined coalition, attacking Hessian forces at Trenton. The first option, while attractive, discounted the psychological aspect of war—Washington’s force was in need of a victory, however small, to help offset the failure of the New York campaign. Furthermore, an attack on Howe’s main army in Princeton was troublesome for a variety of issues. Most notably, any such attack would exceed Washington’s operational reach—balancing the natural tension between momentum, protection, and endurance—likely forcing culmination at a disadvantageous point.[8] Of secondary concern, Washington’s force lacked the depth in manpower to carry any such attack through to victory. Therefore, Washington settled on the third option: a campaign in New Jersey with the first step being an attack on the Hessian forces in Trenton. The campaign had the potential to grow beyond Trenton and culminate in Princeton if the initial attack succeeded, and if Washington could keep his losses in men and materiel to a minimum.[9]

"Washington Crossing the Delaware" by Emanuel Leutze (Wikimedia)

On the night of 25 December 1776, Washington crossed the Delaware River with 2,400 soldiers, force marched nine miles, and attacked the Hessian garrison at Trenton on the morning of December 26.[10] The Hessians, serving as a screen for the British main body further north, were caught off guard by the attack and fell to Washington’s force within the day. The Hessians lost approximately 30 soldiers and had over 800 soldiers captured at Trenton. Following the overwhelming victory, Washington decided to quickly withdraw to the safety of the far side of the Delaware River.[11] Understanding the relevance of the temporal seams between the activities in war drove Washington’s decision to take the offensive at Trenton, illustrating his understanding of striking when an opponent is vulnerable or off-balance to offset one’s own weakness.

Washington’s operational approach and related actions at the First Battle of Trenton demonstrated clear thinking on operational art. The elements of operational art, while not explicitly stated in Washington’s orders to his generals and lieutenants, can be found apparent throughout the New Jersey campaign. The campaign demonstrated the relationship between operational art and strategy as Washington’s actions demonstrated the balancing of ends, ways, and means, while remaining mindful of the policy that drove the war. Specifically, the Continental Congress’ policy was to evict the British forces from the colonies and to gain independence from the British crown. Strategically, the Colonial position had to account for disproportionate resources, a largely volunteer military, and a navy not on par with its British opponent. Historian Russell Weigley states that, “The strategies of the American army during the Revolutionary War had to be a strategy founded upon weakness.”[12] Thus, Washington balanced his army’s ends, defeating the British military, with his finite means, through ways which maximized the effort and resources expended.

Washington’s actions were guided by two primary conditions within his end state, the primary being the preservation of his army and the secondary being the defeat of the British-Hessian coalition.[13] To be sure, he appears to have possessed a similar understanding of coalition warfare to that of Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz, who stated, “One country may support another’s cause, but will never take it so seriously as it takes its own.”[14] Washington actions indicated that he was aware of his army’s limitations  in regards to the superiority of the combined British-Hessian army, of which the British army was the center of gravity. Because of this, his plan, an indirect approach on the British center of gravity, embodied by a strike on the Hessian contingent garrisoned at Trenton, would likely yield favorable results in terms of fracturing the coalition.

Similarly, Washington’s actions embodied British military theorist B.H. Liddell Hart’s position on defeating coalitions, in which Liddell Hart states, “In a campaign against more than one state or army it is more fruitful to concentrate first against the weaker partner, than to attempt the overthrow of the stronger in the belief that the latter’s defeat will automatically involve the collapse of the other.”[15] Washington’s Trenton raid expressed the idea of attacking the joints of a coalition to erode their unity, while simultaneously utilizing an indirect approach to weaken the enemy’s center of gravity, which is fundamental to operational art. Furthermore, while Washington’s actions occurred sooner in history, the manner in which he sought to erode the British-Hessian coalition bears remarkable similarity to Napoleon Bonaparte’s “strategy of central position” in which he sought to prevent the fusion of allied armies in order to defeat the coalition in detail.[16]

Moreover, Washington’s actions during the month of December 1776 acknowledged the limiting factors on his ability to project power and strike with a significant amount of force to achieve his desired effect. In addition, his actions during this period demonstrated the necessity for the continued existence of his army and its relation to the success of the Revolution. Because of this Washington had to protect his force, husband his resources, and fight only when advantageous. Moreover, given the condition of his army, the time remaining on many of their enlistments, and his logistics situation, an offensive directed against the British main body in Princeton would likely culminate before reaching Princeton; consequently, a strike to Princeton was out of the question. However, a strike on a closer objective, such as the Hessian garrison just across the Delaware River, was well within his operational reach, or as historians Richard Hamilton and Holger Herwig write, Washington sensed the “appropriate moment” based upon a variety of factors, and struck within his army’s operational reach to surprise the Hessian garrison in Trenton.[17] Interrelated, Washington’s position on the far side of the Delaware River provided him an excellent base from which to project power and strike the Hessian army in Princeton, demonstrating an effective application of the concept of basing.    

Moreover, Washington’s actions at the First Battle of Trenton demonstrates an understanding between the reciprocity of adversaries in relation to their position in the activities of war.[18] Washington sensed that the Hessian contingent quartered in Trenton was likely safely residing in the “protect” activity, conducting garrison duties and local security operations.[19] While not as ideal as attacking during a transition between activities, Washington’s action demonstrated that exploiting opportunity, both temporal and physical, in striking while the Hessians were unprepared would allow him to benefit from a relative advantage. Washington was then able to carry these characteristics forward during the campaign’s other two battles, the Second Battle of Trenton, and the Battle of Princeton.  

In writing on the options available to Washington, historian John Keegan wrote, “The colonists, moreover, had the confidence to take the offensive to the enemy whenever the chance offered.”[20] To be sure, the initial battle at Trenton proved to be decisive during the New Jersey campaign because it served as the fountainhead for subsequent successful action against the combined British-Hessian force in New Jersey. On the heels of Washington’s success at Trenton on December 25-26, 1776, the British sent a force of approximately 6,000 soldiers, under the command of Lord Charles Cornwallis, to engage and destroy Washington’s force at Trenton. Cornwallis, thinking he had trapped Washington and his force along the Delaware River, launched a series of counterattacks on January 2, 1777, seeking to destroy the American operational center of gravity—Washington’s army. For his part, Washington managed to keep his army intact, conducting what historian David Hackett Fischer referred to as a “brilliantly managed defense” in the process, repelling three major British thrusts, thus ending the Second Battle of Trenton.[21]

Following the defeat of British and Hessians at Trenton, Washington conferred with his war council on what next to do. Washington did not propose a course of action, but instead framed the problem and sought the input from his subordinates on how best to address the problem. The essence of the problem was whether to continue the attack against an off-balance British force, taking the fight to Princeton, or to consolidate at Trenton and continue to evade the British coalition through the winter. Exceeding operational reach and culminating prior to achieving success was a concern with a strike against Princeton, but the potential gain outweighed the risk, so the Continental army struck out for the British garrison within the city.[22]

"Washington at the Battle of Princeton, 1777" by Don Troiani. (Mount Vernon)

Bypassing the residual British forces at Trenton, Washington’s army closed on Princeton on January 3, 1777, and subsequently launched an effective offensive which defeated the remaining British garrison.[23] Like other operations throughout the war, and even within the campaign itself, the prelude to the battle was fraught with friction—including Washington’s force being unable to arrive at the city before daybreak, thus largely ceding the element of surprise. However, Washington’s success at Princeton served to be the nail in the coffin for the New Jersey campaign, as Cornwallis withdrew his forces following the setback.[24]

The New Jersey campaign, while certainly not a walk in the park for Washington saw the general come into his own as an operational artist. To be sure, he was still plagued with the problems associated with leading an all-volunteer, militia-based force—to include not only recruitment and retention, but also discipline, pay, and battlefield prowess. Moreover, he still had to worry about logistics and whether or not the Continental Congress in Philadelphia could keep his army supplied. However, the New Jersey campaign demonstrated Washington’s evolution of understanding in how to fight the British coalition. He could not fight the way he preferred to fight, modeled on the British way of warfare, as he had dabbled with earlier in the war. Instead, the campaign demonstrated evolved thinking on how he had to fight. Historian Russell Weigley defined Washington’s method of fighting as a “strategy of erosion” that sought to chip away the “resolution of the British by gradual, persistent action against the periphery of their armies,”[25] while historian John Lynn described it as a “strategy of attrition.”[26]

Furthermore, he avoided allowing the British to pull his army into decisive battle, instead effectively manipulating tempo to keep the British coalition off-balance, creating indecision, and thus, opportunity ripe for exploitation.[27] Washington’s decisions on when and how to engage the British and Hessian coalition during the New Jersey campaign embody the Clausewitzian idea of war being a pulsation of violence, variable in strength and the speed in which it discharges energy.[28] This idea—the effective manipulation of tempo at the tactical and operational levels—is a critical component for an operational artists, and Washington’s practice during the campaign was masterful. His attacks at Trenton and Princeton struck during temporal seams, while his successful defense during the Second Battle of Trenton created the conditions that allowed his force to rout the British at Princeton.

Furthermore, Washington’s action embodied both J.F.C. Fuller and Robert Leonhard’s theories on operational art. In the case of Fuller, Washington’s actions during the campaign clearly demonstrate how tactical action was used to disrupt the British coalition’s plan. While this did not immediately result in strategic victory, it was the first major campaign victory of the war, laying the foundation for further operational victories as the war progressed. In the case of Leonhard, the tactical victories at Trenton and Princeton culminated in an overall campaign victory that was guided by prudent use of available means.

Washington Rallying the Americans at the Battle of Princeton by William Tylee Ranney (Wikimedia)


Operational art is continually being massaged as theorists, historians, and soldiers seek to accurately capture the essence and scope of the concept. Contemporary joint doctrine defines operational art as the use of creative thinking to develop stratagem and approaches for the employment of forces, while balancing ends, ways, means, and risk.[29] Similarly, two preeminent military theorist provide slightly different views. J.F.C. Fuller describes operational art as the use of military force to achieve a decision, while Robert Leonhard states that operational art is the use of grouped tactical actions to attain strategic ends. . However, operational art possesses more nuance than placing forces in the field and sending them on their way to achieve a strategic end state. Operational art is critically linked to the ability to identify or sense the transitory phases or seams in the activities in war and generating options to exploit the enemy in those phases or positions of imbalance.

The American Revolution’s New Jersey campaign allowed General George Washington to surface as America’s first operational artist. Washington’s decisions and associated actions during the campaign demonstrate the interdependency between tactical and operational actions in pursuit of strategic objectives. Through experimentation and adaptation, Washington was able to manage meager resources, with a force that always teetered close to collapsing, to an approach that allowed him to erode the British and Hessian physical and morale will to resist. Furthermore, Washington’s actions during the New Jersey campaign demonstrate focused action guided by a clear understanding of national policy and its associated strategy.

Amos Fox is an officer in the United States Army. He is currently a student at the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S Government.

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Header Image: "Hour of Victory" by Edward Percy Moran. (Mount Vernon)


[1] J.F.C. Fuller, The Foundations of the Science of War (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Command and General Staff College Press, 1993), 108.

[2] Ibid., 110.

[3] Robert Leonhard, The Art of Maneuver: Maneuver Warfare Theory and AirLand Battle (New York: Ballantine Press, 1991), 10-11.

[4] Ibid., 11.

[5] Ibid., 9.

[6] John A. Lynn, “Nations in Arms,” in The Cambridge History of Warfare, Geoffrey Parker ed., (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 191.

[7] Ibid.

[8] ADRP 3-0, 2-9.

[9] David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 263.

[10] Lynn, Nations in Arms, 191..

[11] Russell F. Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military and Policy (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1973), 11-12.

[12] Ibid., 5.

[13] Caroline Cox, “Integrity and Leadership,” in The Art of Command: Military Leadership from George Washington to Colin Powell, Harry S. Laver and Jeffrey J. Matthews ed., (Lexington, KY: The University of Kentucky Press, 2010), 24.

[14] Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 603.

[15] B.H. Liddell Hart, Strategy (New York: Penguin Group, 1991), 147.

[16] Robert M. Citino, Quest for Decisive Victory: From Stalemate to Blitzkrieg in Europe, 1899-1940 (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2002), 4-5.

[17] Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig, War Planning, 1914 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 4.

[18] Robert Leonhard defines the “activities in war” as movement, striking, and protecting. He contends that understand one’s position in the activities of war in relation to that of the enemy is germane to effective application of operational art. For further reading see, Robert R. Leonhard, Fighting by Minutes: Time and the Art of War (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1994), 15-16.

[19] Fischer, Washington’s Crossing, 204-205.

[20] John Keegan, A History of Warfare (New York: Random House, 1993), 347.

[21] Fischer, Washington’s Crossing, 305-307.

[22] Ibid., 313-314.

[23] Ibid., 385.

[24] Ibid., 334-343.

[25] Weigley, American Way of War, 15.

[26] Lynn, Nations in Arms, 191.

[27] Antulio J. Echevarria II, Reconsidering the American Way of War: U.S. Military Practice from the Revolution to Afghanistan (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2014), 69.

[28] Clausewitz, On War, 87.

[29] Joint Publication 3-0, Joint Operations (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2011), II-3.