On first arriving in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to take command of the Continental Army in midsummer, the forty-three-year-old George Washington moved into one of the largest, most elegant houses in town, a gray clapboard Georgian mansion half a mile from the college on the King's Highway. Three stories tall, with an unobstructed view of the Charles River, it belonged to a wealthy Loyalist who, fearing for his life and the lives of his family, had abandoned the place, fine furnishings and all, to take refuge in Boston. For Washington, who had a fondness for handsome architecture and river views, the house suited perfectly, his office established in a drawing room off the front hall.

The house became a hive of activity. It was there that Washington conferred with his highest-ranking officers, convened his councils of war, and, with staff help, coped with numberless problems of organization, issued orders, and labored over correspondence--paperwork without end. There, too, he received or entertained local dignitaries and politicians and their wives, always in elegant fashion, as was both his pleasure and part of the role he felt he must play. And as with everything connected with that role--his uniform, the house, his horses and equipage, the military dress and bearing of his staff--appearances were of great importance: a leader must look and act the part.

To judge by surviving household accounts, Virginia hospitality more than lived up to its reputation at Cambridge. Purchases included quantities of beef, lamb, roasting pig, wild ducks, geese, turtle, and a variety of fresh fish, of which Washington was especially fond; plums, peaches, barrels of cider, brandy and rum by the gallon, and limes by the hundreds, these to fend off scurvy.

The domestic staff included a steward, two cooks (one of whom was French), a kitchen maid, a washerwoman, eight others whose duties were not specified and included several slaves, plus a personal tailor for the commander. Washington's body servant, a black slave named William ("Billy") Lee, was his steady companion.

As apparent to all, His Excellency was in the prime of life. A strapping man of commanding presence, he stood six feet two inches tall and weighed perhaps 190 pounds. His hair was reddish brown, his eyes gray-blue, and the bridge of his prominent nose unusually wide. The face was largely unlined, but freckled and sun-beaten and slightly scarred by smallpox. A few "defective teeth" were apparent when he smiled.

He carried himself like a soldier and sat a horse like the perfect Virginia gentleman. It was the look and bearing of a man accustomed to respect and to being obeyed. He was not austere. There was no hint of arrogance. "Amiable" and "modest" were words frequently used to describe him, and there was a softness in his eyes that people remembered. Yet he had a certain distance in manner that set him off from, or above, others.

"Be easy... but not too familiar," he advised his officers, "lest you subject yourself to a want of that respect, which is necessary to support a proper command."

It was a philosophy unfamiliar to most Yankees, who saw nothing inappropriate about a captain shaving one of his soldiers. A Connecticut delegate to the Continental Congress, Eliphalet Dyer, who had heartily joined in the unanimous decision to make Washington the commander-in-chief, judged him to be no "harum scarum" fellow.

What was the hold he had over men? There was nothing foreordained about George Washington's success as a general. But he saw things as they were, and he saw himself as he was. As subject as any man to moments of doubt and uncertainty, he managed to summon the self-confidence necessary to persevere amid disaster. He was committed heart and soul to the cause, resilient, open to new ideas and seldom failed to learn from his mistakes. Through the often dark year of 1776, he would not only overcome his own fears but help his countrymen conquer theirs, too--a supreme act of providential leadership.

Born in Tidewater Virginia on February 11, 1732 (by the Old Style calendar), George Washington was the great-grandson of John Washington, who had emigrated from Northampton, England, in 1657. His father, Augustine Washington, was a tobacco planter also known for his "noble appearance and manly proportions." His mother, Mary Bell, was widowed when Washington was eleven. Because of the family's reduced circumstances, he had had little education--only seven or eight years of schooling by private tutor, no training in Latin or Greek or law, as had so many prominent Virginia patriots--and, as those close to him knew, he was self-conscious about this.

By steady application he had learned to write in a clear, strong hand and to express himself on paper with force and clarity. He learned to dance--Virginians loved to dance and he was no exception--and he learned to comport himself in the elaborately polite society of the day with perfect manners and polish. (Of the 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation that he had laboriously copied down as a boy, Rule Number One read: "Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those who are present.") He enjoyed parties and particularly the company of attractive women.

The great teacher for Washington was experience. At age sixteen, he had set out to make his way in the world, as a surveyor's apprentice on an expedition into the wilderness of western Virginia, over the Blue Ridge Mountains, and as years passed he spent more time in the backcountry beyond the Blue Ridge than all but a few from the Tidewater. In addition, surveying proved highly remunerative.

In 1753, at twenty, he had been sent by the governor of Virginia to the wilds of western Pennsylvania, to challenge French claims to the Allegheny River valley, and publication of his diary of the venture, The Journal of Major George Washington, made his daring and resourcefulness known throughout the colonies and in Europe. A year later, on his first command, inexperience and poor judgment led to his famous encounter with French troops and Indians at Great Meadows, in the same remote corner of western Pennsylvania--the small, bloody backwoods incident, and first defeat for Washington, that set in motion the conflict that ultimately involved much of the world.

"I heard the bullets whistle; and believe me there is something charming in the sound," he had written in a letter printed later in the London Magazine, which could be taken as the bravado of a callow youth, but, as he had found, he was one of those rare few who, under fire, were without fear.

If, as a young officer, he seemed at times flagrantly, unattractively ambitious, he had long since overcome that. In 1759, spurned in his desire for a royal commission, he had "retired" at age twenty-seven to the life of a Virginia planter and, that same year, married Martha Dandridge Custis of Williamsburg, an attractive, extremely wealthy widow with two children, to whom he gave full devotion.

Like other planters of the Tidewater, Washington embraced a life very like that of the English gentry. English by ancestry, he was, in dress, manner, and his favorite pastimes, as close to being an English country gentleman as was possible for an American of the day, and intentionally. His handsome green coach with its brass fittings and leather lining had been custom built in England to his specifications. He ordered his clothes from England, and only the finest English wools and linens and latest fashions would do. He wore English boots, English shoes, and Morocco leather slippers, all made to order for him in London. The books on his shelves, including the military treatises, were published in London. The very glass in the windows through which he viewed his domain was imported English glass.

Only the year before taking command, Washington had commenced an ambitious expansion of his Virginia home, Mount Vernon, which, when completed, would double its size. He was adding a library and building a two-story dining room, or banquet hall, suitable for entertaining on a grand scale. He was a builder by nature. He had a passion for architecture and landscape design, and Mount Vernon was his creation, everything done to his own ideas and plans. How extremely important all this was to him and the pleasure he drew from it, few people ever understood.

He had an abiding dislike of disorder and cared intensely about every detail--wallpaper, paint color, ceiling ornaments--and insisted on perfection. He hated to be away from the project. Even at war, with all that weighed on his mind, he worried that things were not being handled as he wished at Mount Vernon and filled pages of instruction for his manager.

Second only to his passion for architecture and landscape design was a love of the theater, which again was quite characteristic of Virginians. He had seen his first known theatrical production at age nineteen on a trip with his older brother to Barbados. It was the first and only time Washington had ever been beyond American shores and the place where he was "strongly attacked" by smallpox. Later, at Williamsburg, as a member of the Virginia legislature, he had attended the theater regularly. During a visit to Annapolis, he recorded going to "the play" four nights out of five. In New York later he attended the theater seven times and saw his first production of Hamlet.

But of all the theatrical productions he had seen it was Cato, by the English author Joseph Addison, the most popular play of the time, that Washington loved best. One line in particular he was to think of or quote frequently in his role now as commander-in-chief: " 'Tis not in mortals to command success, but we'll do more, Sempronius, we'll deserve it."

Though Washington was often said to be the richest man in America, he probably did not rank among the ten richest. He was very wealthy, nonetheless, and in large part because of his marriage to Martha Custis. His wealth was in land, upwards of 54,000 acres, including some 8,000 acres at Mount Vernon, another 4,000 acres in Virginia's Dismal Swamp, nearly all of which he had acquired for speculation. In addition, he owned more than one hundred slaves, another measure of great wealth, whose labors made possible his whole way of life.

In a popular English novel of the day, The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, Tobias Smollett wrote that to be a country gentleman one was "obliged to keep horses, hounds, carriages, with suitable numbers of servants, and maintain an elegant table for the entertainment of his neighbors." It could have been a description of life at Mount Vernon, with the difference that the servants were black slaves.

Among the Virginia gentry who had taken up fox hunting with an exuberance no less than to be found on the country estates of England, Washington stood out. Thomas Jefferson considered him "the best horseman of his age." That Washington was known to hunt up to seven hours straight, riding as close to the hounds as possible, "leaping fences, and going extremely quick," and always to the end, to be in on the kill, was considered not only a measure of his love of the chase and his exceptional physical stamina, but also of his uncommon, unrelenting determination.

Stories were told of extraordinary feats of strength--how, for example, Washington had thrown a stone from the bed of a stream to the top of Virginia's famous Natural Bridge, a height of 215 feet. The Philadelphia artist Charles Willson Peale, who had been a guest at Mount Vernon in 1772 while painting Washington's portrait, described how he and several other young men were on the lawn throwing an iron bar for sport, when Washington appeared and, without bothering to remove his coat, took a turn, throwing it "far, very far beyond our utmost limit."

Washington's wealth and way of life, like his physique and horsemanship, were of great importance to large numbers of the men he led and among many in Congress. The feeling was that if he, George Washington, who had so much, was willing to risk "his all," however daunting the odds, then who were they to equivocate. That he was also serving without pay was widely taken as further evidence of the genuineness of his commitment.

There were, to be sure, those in the ranks and among the local populace who had little fondness for Virginia planters and their high-and-mighty airs, or who saw stunning incongruity in the cause of liberty being led by a slavemaster.

It was also a matter of record that Washington had been retired from military life for fifteen years, during which he had not even drilled a militia company. He had never led an army in battle, never before commanded anything larger than a regiment.

Washington was quite aware of his limitations. To his wife Martha he wrote that "far from seeking this appointment, I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it, not only from my unwillingness to part with you and the family, but from a consciousness of its being a trust too great for my capacity... it has been a kind of destiny that has thrown me upon this service..."

Yet he had attended Congress in his splendid blue and buff uniform, conspicuously signaling a readiness to take command. If he saw the responsibility as too great for his ability, it was because he had a realistic idea of how immense that responsibility would be. For such a trust, to lead an undisciplined, poorly armed volunteer force of farmers and tradesmen against the best-trained, best-equipped, most formidable military force on earth--and with so much riding on the outcome--was, in reality, more than any man was qualified for.

The most intriguing aspects of Washington's character--his capacity to learn, his courage under fire, and his ability to overcome his own insecurities and uncertainties in order to lead against all odds--were on vivid display in the Battle of Trenton. As the summer had worn on, things looked terrible for the Continental Army. Washington's troops were sick and underfed, and he was still trying to find his footing as commander-in-chief. At the Battle of Brooklyn, the Americans suffered a terrible defeat and, for a time in late August, the British seemed only hours away from crushing the rebellion completely. On the night of August 29, 1776, Washington masterminded a tactical retreat from Brooklyn by night. Wind and fog providentially cooperated, and the general learned a new, important lesson: there was an art to moving under cover of darkness, across water, and thus surprising your enemy. In August the surprise was that the Americans had slipped a trap. By Christmas, facing British positions at Trenton, manned by Hessians, across the Delaware River, Washington would apply the lesson again--and begin to turn the tide of the war.

Christmas day the weather turned ominous. A northeast storm was gathering. The Delaware was up, and filled with broken sheets of ice. In the course of the day, Congressman and physician Benjamin Rush had a private meeting with Washington, during which Washington seemed "much depressed." In "affecting terms," he described the state of the army. As they talked, Washington kept writing something with his pen on small pieces of paper. When one of them fell to the floor by Rush's foot, he saw what was written: "Victory or Death." It was to be the password for the night.

Washington crossed early and watched the slow process from the New Jersey side. About eleven o'clock, the storm struck, a full-blown northeaster.

As during the escape from Brooklyn, Washington's other daring river-crossing by night, the storm was again, decisively, a blessing and a curse--a blessing in that it covered the noise of the crossing, a curse in that, with the ice on the river, it was badly slowing progress when time was of the essence. The plan was to have the whole army over the river no later than midnight, in order to reach Trenton before dawn.

According to Washington, it was three o'clock, three hours behind schedule, before the last of the troops, horses, and cannon were across. At that point the attack might have been called off, the men sent back over the river, since the entire plan rested on the element of surprise and the chances for surprise now seemed gone. Washington decided, as he later told John Hancock, "to push on at all events."

The march south from McKonkey's Ferry was for many the most harrowing part of the night. The storm grew worse, with cold driving rain, sleet, snow, and violent hail. There was little light to see by. A few men carried lanterns, and torches were mounted on some of the cannon. Men and horses kept slipping and skidding in the dark.

When handed a message from General Sullivan saying that the men had found their guns too soaked to fire, Washington answered, "Tell the general to use the bayonet."

There were to have been three different attacks, but only Washington's columns made it through. The troops reached their assigned positions outside Trenton an hour after daylight. Most of the townspeople had fled, taking as much as possible of their belongings. In the bare houses and the stone barracks were quartered the 1,500 Hessians who occupied the town.

Their commander, Johann Gottlieb Rall, was a sturdy, able career soldier, and at age fifty-six a senior among officers. He was a man of limited imagination. He spoke little or no English and had only contempt for the rebel army.

Harassed by rebel patrols that kept coming over the Delaware, Rall had established outposts beyond the town and insisted that each night one company sleep with their muskets ready to be called out at a moment's notice, and they were called out, it seemed to some, more often than necessary. If anything, the colonel was thought to be too much on edge.

It was the size of the attack to come, and in such weather, that Rall did not anticipate, and in this he was not alone. On December 24, James Grant received "certain intelligence" that the rebels were planning an attack on Trenton. While he did not think them "equal to the attempt," he alerted Rall, telling him to be on guard. Rall received the message at five o'clock the afternoon of the 25th.

Not long after, a dozen Hessians on guard on the Pennington Road beyond town were fired on in the dark by an American patrol, which had quickly withdrawn. Rall himself rode out through the storm to look things over and concluded that this was the attack he had been warned about. On such a night, he assumed nothing more would happen. Later in the evening Rall attended a small Christmas gathering at the home of a local merchant and was playing cards when, reportedly, a servant interrupted to deliver still another warning message that had been delivered to the door by an unknown Loyalist, and this Rall is said to have thrust into his pocket.

It is not known what time he returned to his quarters or whether, as later said, he had had too much to drink.

The attack began just after eight o'clock. The Hessians on guard had trouble at first making out who they were and how many there were.

Washington's 2,400 Americans, having been on their feet all night, wet, cold, their weapons soaked, went into the fight as if everything depended on them. Each man "seemed to vie with the other in pressing forward," Washington wrote.

In town the Hessians came rushing out of their houses and barracks into the streets. As fast as the Hessians began forming up, Henry Knox's cannon opened fire with deadly effect and in minutes--"in the twinkling of an eye," Knox said--cleared the streets.

When the Hessians retreated into the side streets, they found the enemy coming at them with fixed bayonets. For a brief time, a thousand or more Americans and Hessians were locked in savage house-to-house fighting.

It was all happening extremely fast, in wild confusion and swirling snow made more blinding by clouds of gunpowder smoke. Colonel Rall, who had been rousted from his bed and was quickly on horseback and in command in the midst of the fray, ordered a charge. Men were being hit all around him. The line faltered. He ordered a retreat into an orchard at the southeast edge of town. Then Rall, too, was hit and fell from his horse, mortally wounded. The Hessians in the orchard, finding themselves surrounded, lay down their arms and surrendered.

It had all happened in forty-five minutes or less. Twenty-one Hessians had been killed, 90 wounded. The prisoners taken numbered approximately 900. Another 500 had managed to escape, most of them by the bridge over Assunpink Creek.

Incredibly, in a battle of such extreme savagery, only four Americans had been wounded, and not one American had been killed. The only American fatalities were two soldiers who had frozen to death during the night on the road.

On the last day of 1776, Washington made a dramatic appeal to the veteran troops of the Continental Army to stay with him. Having no authority whatever to do so, he offered a bounty of ten dollars for all who would stay another six months after their enlistments expired that day--a considerable sum for men whose pay was six dollars a month.

One of the soldiers would remember his regiment being called into formation and His Excellency, astride a big horse, addressing them "in the most affectionate manner." The great majority of the men were New Englanders who had served longer than any and who had no illusions about what was being asked of them. Those willing to stay were asked to step forward. Drums rolled, but no one moved. Minutes passed. Then Washington "wheeled his horse about" and spoke again.

"My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected, but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty, and to your country, which you can probably never do under any other circumstance."

Again the drums sounded and this time the men began stepping forward. "God Almighty," wrote Nathanael Greene, "inclined their hearts to listen to the proposal and they engaged anew."

And new battles were at hand. In a crucial showdown at Princeton in early January, the sight of Washington in combat set an example of courage such as he had never seen, wrote one young officer afterward. "I shall never forget what I felt... when I saw him brave all the dangers of the field and his important life hanging as it were by a single hair with a thousand deaths flying around him. Believe me, I thought not of myself."

As thrilling as the news of Princeton was for the country, coming so quickly after Trenton, it was Trenton that meant the most, Trenton and the night crossing of the Delaware that were rightly seen as a great turning point. With the victory at Trenton came the realization that Americans had bested the enemy, bested the fearsome Hessians, the King's detested hirelings, outsmarted them and outfought them, and so might well again.

In all, it would be another six and a half years before the Treaty of Paris ending the war was signed in 1783. Financial support from France and the Netherlands, and military support from the French army and navy, would play a large part in the outcome. But in the last analysis it was Washington and the army that won the war for American independence.

He was not a brilliant strategist or tactician, not a gifted orator, not an intellectual. At several crucial moments he had shown marked indecisiveness. He had made serious mistakes in judgment. But experience had been his great teacher from boyhood, and in this his greatest test, he learned steadily from experience.

By the time the war ended, it had taken the lives of an estimated 25,000 Americans, or roughly 1 percent of the population. In percentage of lives lost, it was the most costly war in American history, except for the Civil War.

The year 1776, celebrated as the birth year of the nation and for the signing of the Declaration of Independence, was for those who carried the fight for independence forward a year of all-too-few victories, of sustained suffering, disease, hunger, desertion, cowardice, disillusionment, defeat, terrible discouragement, and fear, as they would never forget, but also of phenomenal courage and bedrock devotion to country, and that, too, they would never forget.

Fromby David McCullough. To be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright (c) 2005 by David McCullough.