21 February 2011

Happy Birthday, Col. Washingon (and Capt. Lincoln)!

By looking at the newspaper ads this morning, those of us who aren't working today will be celebrating Washington's Birthday with the purchase of automobiles, furniture, and white goods: "I cannot tell a lie--the savings are stupendous!"

The holiday commemorates the birth of George Washington, the first president of the United States. Government offices and banks are closed today. For the rest of us, Washington's Birthday is apparently just another excuse to hate public employees and bankers.

I come not to bury this American Caesar, however, I come to praise him. After all, he's one of the archetypes of the U.S. citizen-soldier: He was a citizen who took up arms as part of an organized militia. He was soldier who took off the uniform to serve in a new government. He declined royal trappings and promises of permanent office, and returned instead to life on his farm.

To quote Henry Lee's eulogy for Washington: "A citizen, first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."

According to Wikipedia, by the way, the official federal holiday is still called "Washington's Birthday"--not "Presidents Day." (There are also some state and regional variations in terms, spelling, and purpose of the holiday.)

While there have been attempts to also officially commemorate on this day the birth of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th U.S. president, the connection is only an informal one, existing only in the popular mind and in gaudy newspaper advertisements. "A house divided against itself cannot stand--that's why you need a new washer and dryer!"

By law, the federal holiday annually falls between Feb. 15 and 21. Washington was actually born on Feb. 22, 1732. Lincoln was born Feb. 12. 1809.

The National Guard Bureau lists both Washington and Lincoln in its pantheon of U.S. presidents who have also served in uniform.

Here's what it says about each man's military career:

Col. George Washington
In 1753, the governor of Virginia appointed George Washington, a self-reliant young surveyor, as Adjutant with the rank of major over one of the state's four military districts. As a lieutenant colonel in the French and Indian Wars, Washington soon saw first hand the problems faced by citizen-soldiers who left their homes and plows to resist the French. Victorious in their first skirmish, Washington and his Virginians erected Fort Necessity and later had to withdraw. In the retreat Washington won the affection of his men and kept up their spirits with his personal example. In 1775, Washington and his militia joined British General Edward Braddock to clear the French out of the Ohio Valley. Braddock died in battle praising Washington and his blue-clad Virginians for their courage in saving part of the English forces.

From 1758 to 1775, Washington served his home state in a variety of ways. He commanded the Virginia Militia as Colonel Washington. He served in the Virginia House of Burgesses and the Continental Congress. When the Continental Congress sought a commander for the Colonial Army, they turned to George Washington of Virginia as the logical choice. Washington's militia experience during the French and Indian Wars stood him in good stead during the American Revolution. He had learned how to get the most out of limited manpower and military stores. More than that, he knew that the esprit de corps of militia, even ill-trained and poorly equipped, could be the fighting equal of British professionals. Washington became the first president of the United States of America in 1789.
Capt. Abraham Lincoln
In 1832, the governor of Illinois called for the state militia to campaign against the Indians under Black Hawk. Black Hawk was the war chief of the Sacs, who had tried to reclaim territories which they had given up by treaties. Young Abraham Lincoln joined a volunteer company and was elected captain. He said later that he had no success in life which gave him so much satisfaction as his experience with the Illinois Militia. When it appeared that his unit would not see service, many of its members disbanded and went home. This group included Abraham Lincoln ... who left because he wanted to be of real service. On the same day Lincoln was mustered out, however, he reenlisted as a private ... in a scouting service sometimes called the Independent Spy Battalion. He was mustered out of the Battalion on June 16, 1832. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln became 16th president of the United States of America.

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