In 1759, Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, a rich young widow, and settled on his estate at Mt. Vernon. He was a member (1759–74) of the house of burgesses, became a leader in Virginian opposition to the British colonial policy, and served (1774–75) as a delegate to the First Continental Congress. After the American Revolution broke out at Concord and Lexington, the Congress organized for defense, and, largely through the efforts of John Adams, Washington was named (June 15, 1775) commander in chief of the Continental forces.
He took command (July 3, 1775) at Cambridge, Mass., and found not an army but a force of unorganized, poorly disciplined, short-term enlisted militia, officered by men who were often insubordinate. He was faced with the problem of holding the British at Boston with a force that had to be trained in the field, and he was constantly hampered by congressional interference. Washington momentarily overcame these handicaps with the brilliant strategic move of occupying Dorchester Heights, forcing the British to evacuate Boston on Mar. 17, 1776.
Against his wishes the Continental Congress compelled him to attempt to defend New York City with a poorly equipped and untrained army against a large British land and sea force commanded by Sir William Howe. He was not yet experienced enough to conduct a large-scale action, and he committed a military blunder by sending part of his force to Brooklyn, where it was defeated (see Long Island, battle of) and surrounded. With the British fleet ready to close the only escape route, Washington saved his army with a masterly amphibious retreat across the East River back to Manhattan. Seeing that his position was completely untenable, he began a retreat northward into Westchester co., which was marked by delaying actions at Harlem Heights and White Plains and by the treacherous insubordination of Charles Lee. The retreat continued across the Hudson River through New Jersey into Pennsylvania, as Washington developed military skill through trial and error.
With colonial morale at its lowest ebb, he invaded New Jersey. On Christmas night, 1776, he crossed the Delaware, surrounded and defeated the British at Trenton, and pushed on to Princeton (Jan. 3, 1777), where he defeated a second British force. In 1777 he attempted to defend Philadelphia but was defeated at the battle of Brandywine (Sept. 11). His carefully planned counterattack at Germantown (Oct. 4, 1777) went awry, and with this second successive defeat certain discontented army officers and members of Congress tried to have Washington removed from command. Horatio Gates was advanced as a likely candidate to succeed him, but Washington's prompt action frustrated the so-called Conway Cabal.
After Germantown, Washington went into winter quarters at Valley Forge. Seldom in military history has any general faced such want and misery as Washington did in the winter of 1777–78. He proved equal to every problem, and in the spring he emerged with increased powers from Congress and a well-trained striking force, personally devoted to him. The attack (June 28, 1778) on the British retreating from Philadelphia to New York was vitiated by the actions of Charles Lee, but Washington's arrival on the field prevented a general American rout (see Monmouth, battle of). The fortunes of war soon shifted in favor of the colonial cause with the arrival (1780) of French military and naval forces, and victory finally came when General Cornwallis surrendered to Washington on Oct. 19, 1781. Washington made the American Revolution successful not only by his personal military triumphs but also by his skill in directing other operations.