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BOOK REVIEW

Washington as general: careless, lucky, and still mighty

When I was in school in Detroit at Von Steuben Junior High -- named after a Prussian officer who helped turn ragtag American revolutionary militiamen into saluting soldiers -- we saw the life of George Washington as a straight, heroic march from downed cherry tree to military glory at Yorktown.

But was Washington a good general?

Edward G. Lengel, a Revolutionary War specialist at the University of Virginia, describes a Washington who was a little vain, rash, occasionally careless, and perhaps one of the luckiest generals ever to escape repeated opportunities for destruction. Lengel's sometimes awkwardly written ''General George Washington" doesn't break new ground but does give the first full account in decades of the general's military career. And Lengel is merciless.

As commander in chief of the Continental Army, Washington piled up a record of tactical mistakes. In New York, he failed ''to reconnoiter battlefields adequately." He committed thousands of troops to hold an indefensible Fort Washington. In the battle for Philadelphia, Washington chose the wrong town to defend and allowed the British to cut his army off from the capital of the rebellion. Washington, as a rebel leader, should have perhaps stuck to a guerrilla war. But ''his instincts were always for seeking decisive engagements."

So he wasn't a Nelson or a Wellington. But Lengel says the country was fortunate in getting more of a visionary than a vanquisher. Washington worked ceaselessly. He was brave to the point of ignoring shot and shell -- his inclination was to run toward the sound of gunfire. But more, he was devoted to democratic ideals and held onto a vision of the Colonies -- as represented by the motley militias he shaped -- working together to build a nation.

It was not a decisive engagement but the winter-long struggle to keep body and soul together at Valley Forge that gave Washington his greatest victory, and Lengel his most inspired passages. All the elements of character came together. Washington toiled to keep his men alive and the army whole. ''One day, provision shortages demanded immediate attention; the next, poor clothing, typhus, desertion, loyalist sedition, British raids . . . or any of a hundred other problems appeared." He used all his powers of political suasion to get Colonial governors to send supplies. He reorganized army administration. With the help of Friedrich Von Steuben, he kept drilling the men. Sickness and shortages would kill 2,000, but Washington inspired his army and led it through to the other side.

Lengel had wide access to Washington's papers and was obviously eager to make use of the trove. But he sometimes uses the quotes to carry the story, and his narrative voice fades out. The lure of using original sources to tell the tale does pay off in passages of period flavor: After the Trenton victory, American General Joseph Reed tells of the ''great Quantities of Spirituous Liquors at Trenton of which the Soldiers drank too freely to admit of Discipline or Defence in Case of Attack." But often we get leaden dispatches.

Though one gets the idea that a more tightly written book was possible, Lengel creates a compelling picture of a man who was ''the archetypal American soldier -- the amateur citizen-soldier who has struggled to learn war on the job." He didn't shine as a military genius. But in him were all the details of character the country needed at that moment. The sum of his parts was the greatness of Washington.

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