One of the most striking instances of Washington turning attention from himself to others is what I believe to be the only authentic utterance we have from him on a battlefield. Of course, after he died, old veterans remembered a lot of things he said in battle. But much of this was embroidered: There was a General Scott, for instance, who remembered Washington at the battle of Monmouth cursing at General Charles Lee. “He swore like an angel from Heaven,” Scott recalled. “He swore ’til the leaves shook on the trees. Never in my life have I heard such wonderful swearing.” The problem is, General Scott at the time was two miles away, so unless he had bionic ears, he didn’t hear anything. There is one phrase, however, that comes up over and over again in the accounts of many different people, for which reason I suspect it’s a real quote. It’s a phrase Washington used to address his troops – “my brave fellows.”
At the battle of Princeton, Washington is reported to have said, “Parade with me, my brave fellows. We will have them soon.” Before the battle of Trenton, when he was trying to get the troops to re-enlist, he said: “My brave fellows, you have done more than could be expected of you. But I’m asking you to do this one more thing and re-enlist.” Time and again he uses this phrase. And in doing so, of course, he’s asserting what remains to be seen: The soldiers, at the moment he addresses them, are not necessarily showing bravery. They may be confused. They may not know what is expected of them. They may be on the point of panic or fear. But he addresses them as “my brave fellows” to motivate them.
This is not the only way to motivate troops. Other generals have done it differently. Frederick the Great would say to his troops, “Do you dogs want to live forever?” That’s one way to do it. But Washington’s way was to say, “my brave fellows,” which means, “My fellows, be brave.”