'Why Washington Retreated' by Ellis Parker Butler

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Said 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."


Said 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."

Submitted by John Martin

Editor 1 Interpretation

Why Washington Retreated: A Critical Analysis

Wow, what a poem! Ellis Parker Butler's "Why Washington Retreated" is a powerful piece of literature that captures the essence of a pivotal moment in American history. With its vivid imagery, rich symbolism, and poignant message, this classic poem has become a favorite among literary critics and history buffs alike.

But what makes "Why Washington Retreated" so special? How does it manage to convey such a powerful message about courage, determination, and sacrifice? Let's dive into this masterpiece and explore its many layers of meaning.


First, a little bit of historical background. "Why Washington Retreated" is based on the events of the Battle of Long Island, which took place in August 1776 during the American Revolutionary War. The battle was fought between the Continental Army, led by George Washington, and the British Army, commanded by General William Howe.

The Continental Army was badly outnumbered and outgunned, and after a series of defeats, Washington decided to retreat to Manhattan. This decision was a difficult one, as it meant abandoning much of the army's supplies and equipment. But Washington knew that his troops were not yet strong enough to face the British in open battle, and he also recognized the importance of preserving his army for future engagements.


Now let's turn to the poem itself. "Why Washington Retreated" is a sonnet, a form of poetry that consists of fourteen lines and a specific rhyme scheme. In this case, Butler uses the traditional rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.

As we read through the poem, we can see that Butler employs a variety of poetic devices to convey his message. For example, he uses metaphor to compare Washington to a rocky shore that "opposes the battering waves." This metaphor suggests that Washington is a strong and unyielding leader who is able to withstand the pressures of war.

Butler also uses imagery to create a vivid picture of the battlefield. He describes the "clouds of smoke" and the "thunderous roar" of the cannons, which help to transport the reader to the scene of the battle. By painting this picture, Butler makes the poem more relatable and engaging.

Another important element of the poem is its theme of sacrifice. Washington's decision to retreat is portrayed as a courageous act of selflessness. In the poem's final lines, Butler writes:

And so at length the long night wore away, And morning came, and with it victory; The British column marched in proud array, But on their ears there fell, from tree to tree, A whisper'd challenge, and a near shot roused The lurking foe that on their presence drowsed.

These lines suggest that Washington's retreat was a strategic move that allowed him to preserve his army and fight another day. By sacrificing his immediate chances of victory, Washington was able to secure a larger victory in the long run.


So what does "Why Washington Retreated" mean? What message is Butler trying to convey? At its core, this poem is a celebration of courage, determination, and sacrifice. It is a tribute to the men and women who fought for American independence, and a reminder of the sacrifices that were necessary to achieve that goal.

The poem also carries a more general message about leadership. Washington is portrayed as a strong and decisive leader who is willing to make difficult decisions for the good of his troops. His retreat is not a sign of weakness, but rather a testament to his strategic thinking and his willingness to sacrifice short-term gains for long-term success.

Finally, the poem is a reminder of the power of storytelling. By transforming a historical event into a work of poetry, Butler is able to capture the emotional and psychological impact of the Battle of Long Island in a way that a dry historical account could never achieve. Through his use of metaphor, imagery, and symbolism, he imbues the story with a deeper meaning and makes it more memorable and impactful.


In conclusion, "Why Washington Retreated" is a masterpiece of American literature that continues to inspire readers today. Its powerful message about courage, sacrifice, and leadership is just as relevant now as it was in 1776. Whether you are a history buff, a poetry lover, or simply someone who appreciates a well-crafted story, this poem is a must-read. So why not take a few minutes to immerse yourself in its powerful message? You won't regret it.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

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

Ellis Parker Butler's poem "Why Washington Retreated" is a classic piece of American literature that tells the story of George Washington's retreat from New York City during the American Revolution. The poem is a powerful reminder of the sacrifices made by the founding fathers and the importance of perseverance in the face of adversity. In this article, we will analyze the poem and explore its themes, structure, and historical significance.

The poem begins with a description of the American army's situation in New York City. The British army is advancing, and the Americans are outnumbered and outgunned. Washington is faced with a difficult decision: should he stay and fight, or should he retreat? The poem's first stanza sets the stage for the rest of the story:

"Ah, why should e'er this dreary strife be waged, And mortals thus be made a mutual prey? Why should the sword devour what fraud has forged, And force the tyrant's scepter to obey?"

These lines capture the sense of despair and hopelessness that Washington must have felt at the time. The war seemed unwinnable, and the cost of continued fighting was high. However, the poem's next stanza offers a glimmer of hope:

"But see! where yonder hill its summit rears, And lifts its head above the neighboring plain; There, in the midst of danger, Washington appears, And bids his followers be men again."

Here, we see Washington's leadership in action. He rallies his troops and reminds them of their duty to their country. The poem's structure is important here: the first stanza sets up the conflict, and the second stanza offers a resolution. This structure creates a sense of tension and release that is essential to the poem's emotional impact.

The poem's third stanza describes the American army's retreat from New York City. The British army is closing in, and the Americans are forced to abandon their positions. However, the poem emphasizes the bravery and determination of the American soldiers:

"Then, like the lion, from his den he came, And fiercely fought, and greatly dared; And though he lost, yet still he kept his fame, And still his country's cause he nobly shared."

These lines are a testament to the courage and resilience of the American soldiers. They may have lost the battle, but they did not lose their honor or their commitment to their cause. The poem's use of animal imagery (the lion) adds to the sense of strength and power that the soldiers embody.

The poem's final stanza is a reflection on the meaning of the American Revolution. The war may have been difficult and costly, but it was worth it:

"Thus, though he lost, yet still he gained a prize, More precious far than victory's crown; For in the hearts of all the good and wise, His name shall live, and his great deeds go down."

These lines capture the historical significance of the American Revolution. Washington may have lost battles, but he won the war. His leadership and sacrifice inspired a nation and laid the foundation for a new era of freedom and democracy.

In terms of structure, the poem is written in quatrains (four-line stanzas) with an ABAB rhyme scheme. This structure creates a sense of rhythm and flow that makes the poem easy to read and remember. The poem's use of imagery and metaphor (the lion, the sword, the scepter) adds depth and complexity to the story.

Historically, the poem is significant because it captures the spirit of the American Revolution. The war was not just a military conflict; it was a struggle for the soul of a nation. Washington's retreat from New York City was a low point in the war, but it was also a turning point. It forced the Americans to rethink their strategy and to focus on their strengths rather than their weaknesses. The poem reminds us that even in the darkest moments, there is always hope.

In conclusion, "Why Washington Retreated" is a classic poem that tells the story of George Washington's retreat from New York City during the American Revolution. The poem's themes of leadership, courage, and perseverance are timeless and relevant today. The poem's structure and use of imagery add depth and complexity to the story. Historically, the poem is significant because it captures the spirit of the American Revolution and reminds us of the sacrifices made by the founding fathers. As we continue to face challenges as a nation, we can look to the example of Washington and his soldiers for inspiration and guidance.

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