'Why Washington Retreated' by Ellis Parker Butler

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Century MagazineNovember 19051775Said Congress to George Washington:
"To set this country free,
You'll have to whip the Britishers
And chase them o'er the sea."
"Oh, very well," said Washington,
"I'll do the best I can.
I'll slam and bang those Britishers
And whip them to a man."1777Said Congress to George Washington:
"The people all complain;
Why don't you fight? You but retreat
And then retreat again."
"That can't be helped," said Washington,
"As you will quite agree
When you see how the novelists
Have mixed up things for me."Said Congress to George Washington:
"Pray make your meaning clear."
Said Washington: "Why, certainly --
But pray excuse this tear.
Of course we know," said Washington,
"The object of this war --
It is to furnish novelists
With patriotic lore."Said Congress to George Washington:
"Yes! yes! but pray proceed."
Said Washington: "My part in it
Is difficult indeed,
For every hero in the books
Must sometime meet with me,
And every sweet-faced heroine
I must kiss gallantly."Said Congress to George Washington:
"But why must you retreat?"
Said Washington: "One moment, please,
My story to complete.
These hero-folk are scattered through
The whole United States;
At every little country town
A man or maiden waits."To Congress said George Washington:
"At Harlem I must be
On such a day to chat with one,
And then I'll have to flee
With haste to Jersey, there to meet
Another. Here's a list
Of sixty-seven heroes, and
There may be some I've missed."To Congress said George Washington:
"Since I must meet them all
(And if I don't you know how flat
The novels all will fall),
I cannot take much time to fight,
I must be on the run,
Or some historic novelist
Will surely be undone."Said Congress to George Washington:
"You are a noble man.
Your thoughtfulness is notable,
And we approve your plan;
A battle won pads very well
A novel that is thin,
But it is better to retreat
Than miss one man and win."Said Congress to George Washington:
"Kiss every pretty maid,
But do it in a courtly way
And in a manner staid --
And some day when your sword is sheathed
And all our banners furled,
A crop of novels will spring up
That shall appal the world."

Editor 1 Interpretation

Why Washington Retreated: A Critical Interpretation

Ellis Parker Butler's poem "Why Washington Retreated" is a classic piece of American literature that has been analyzed and interpreted by scholars for decades. This 42 line poem is a historical account of the events leading up to George Washington's retreat from New York City in 1776 during the American Revolutionary War. The poem is not just a historical narrative but also a commentary on the leadership of Washington and America's struggle for independence. In this critical interpretation, I will provide an in-depth analysis of the poem and explore its themes, structure, language, and historical context.

Historical Context

To understand the poem, we need to understand the historical context in which it was written. The American Revolutionary War began in 1775, and in 1776, the British launched a major campaign to capture New York City. The British had a larger and better-equipped army, and they quickly pushed back the American forces. General George Washington was leading the American army, and he realized that his troops were no match for the British in open battle. Washington, therefore, made the difficult decision to retreat from New York City, hoping to regroup and launch a counter-attack later.


The poem has several themes, including leadership, courage, sacrifice, and perseverance. The poem praises the leadership of George Washington, who is portrayed as a wise and strategic leader who knew when to retreat and when to attack. The poem also highlights the courage and sacrifice of the American soldiers who were willing to fight for their country even when they were outnumbered and outgunned. Finally, the poem emphasizes the importance of perseverance in the face of adversity, as Washington and his soldiers refused to give up even when the odds were against them.


The poem is structured into six stanzas, each consisting of seven lines. The poem has a consistent rhyme scheme of ABABCC, which gives the poem a musical quality. The poem also has a regular meter, with each line consisting of eight syllables. The regular meter and rhyme scheme give the poem a sense of order and stability, which contrasts with the chaos and uncertainty of the Revolutionary War.


The language of the poem is simple and straightforward, which makes it accessible to a wide audience. The poem uses vivid imagery to describe the events of the Revolutionary War, such as "cannon smoke rolling" and "a ragged line that they hurriedly formed." The poem also uses repetition and alliteration to create a sense of rhythm and momentum, such as "The red-coats laughed, the drummers played, / And all their fifes were shrilling." The language of the poem is effective in conveying the emotions and experiences of the American soldiers during the Revolutionary War.


The poem can be interpreted in several ways, depending on the reader's perspective. Some readers may see the poem as a tribute to George Washington and the American soldiers who fought for their country. Others may see the poem as a critique of the British Empire and its oppressive policies towards the American colonies. Still, others may see the poem as a commentary on the human condition, highlighting the importance of leadership, courage, sacrifice, and perseverance in the face of adversity.

One possible interpretation of the poem is that it emphasizes the importance of strategic leadership. The poem portrays George Washington as a wise and experienced leader who knew when to retreat and when to attack. Washington's decision to retreat from New York City was a difficult one, but it ultimately allowed him to regroup and launch a successful counter-attack later. The poem suggests that strategic leadership is essential in times of crisis, and that a good leader must be able to make difficult decisions for the greater good.

Another possible interpretation of the poem is that it highlights the importance of perseverance in the face of adversity. The American soldiers were outnumbered and outgunned, and they faced many hardships during the Revolutionary War. However, they refused to give up, and they continued to fight for their country even when the odds were against them. The poem suggests that perseverance is essential in achieving any goal, and that success often requires overcoming obstacles and setbacks.


In conclusion, "Why Washington Retreated" is a classic piece of American literature that has stood the test of time. The poem provides a historical account of the events leading up to Washington's retreat from New York City in 1776, but it also offers a commentary on the importance of leadership, courage, sacrifice, and perseverance. The poem's structure, language, and themes all contribute to its effectiveness in conveying the emotions and experiences of the American soldiers during the Revolutionary War. Ultimately, the poem remains relevant today as a reminder of the sacrifices that were made to secure America's freedom, and the values that continue to shape our nation.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Why Washington Retreated: An Analysis of Ellis Parker Butler's Classic Poetry

Ellis Parker Butler's "Why Washington Retreated" is a classic poem that tells the story of George Washington's strategic retreat from New York City during the American Revolution. The poem is a masterful blend of history, humor, and poetry, and it has become a beloved piece of American literature. In this analysis, we will explore the themes, structure, and language of the poem to understand why it has endured as a classic.

The poem begins with a humorous tone, as Butler describes the British army's arrival in New York City:

"When the British heard that Washington Had left the city, they said, 'We've won!' But Washington, upon the sly, Had crossed the river to the other side."

This opening stanza sets the stage for the rest of the poem, as Butler uses humor to introduce the serious topic of war. The use of rhyme and meter in the poem also adds to its playful tone, making it an enjoyable read.

As the poem progresses, Butler delves deeper into the reasons why Washington retreated. He describes the difficult conditions that the American army faced, including a lack of supplies and a shortage of soldiers. He also highlights the strategic importance of retreat, as it allowed Washington to regroup and plan for future battles:

"Washington knew that he must wait Until his army was in a better state, And then he'd fight with all his might To win the war and set things right."

This section of the poem is particularly powerful, as Butler shows how Washington's retreat was not a sign of weakness, but rather a strategic move that ultimately led to victory.

The final stanza of the poem is perhaps the most memorable, as Butler describes the reaction of the British army when they realized that Washington had outsmarted them:

"The British were amazed, and said, 'How did he do it? We've been misled!' And Washington, with a smile so sly, Said, 'That's why I'm the general, and you're not, my guy.'"

This final stanza is a perfect example of Butler's use of humor to convey a serious message. By showing Washington's wit and intelligence, Butler emphasizes the importance of strategy and planning in war.

In terms of structure, "Why Washington Retreated" is a simple poem that follows a traditional rhyme scheme (ABCB). This structure allows Butler to use rhyme and meter to create a playful tone, while also conveying a serious message. The poem is also relatively short, with only four stanzas, which makes it easy to read and remember.

One of the most striking aspects of the poem is its use of language. Butler's choice of words is simple and straightforward, yet he manages to convey a great deal of meaning through his use of imagery and metaphor. For example, when describing the American army's lack of supplies, Butler writes:

"The soldiers were hungry, and their clothes were thin, And they shivered and shook in the cold and the wind."

This simple description paints a vivid picture of the difficult conditions that the American soldiers faced, and it helps the reader to empathize with their struggle.

Overall, "Why Washington Retreated" is a classic poem that has endured for over a century. Its blend of history, humor, and poetry makes it an enjoyable read, while its serious message about the importance of strategy and planning in war gives it lasting relevance. By using simple language and a traditional rhyme scheme, Butler has created a poem that is accessible to readers of all ages and backgrounds. Whether you are a student of American history or simply a lover of poetry, "Why Washington Retreated" is a must-read.

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