George Washington - Ada Russell

The Hero's Life Among the Redskins

When George, not quite sixteen years of age, left school, he went to live at Mount Vernon with Lawrence, already a man of influence and importance, a member of the House of Burgesses of Virginia and Adjutant General of his district. At Belvoir, not far away, he met the Fairfaxes and became a constant companion of Lord Fairfax in his hunting. Their friendship led to the engagement of George to survey Lord Fairfax's estate and many consequent adventures which all helped to train the young man in hardihood and judgment.

On horseback, with a hunting-knife and tomahawk in his belt, he set out with one of the Fairfaxes and a few servants on a surveying expedition. Sometimes they bivouacked at some Indian campfire, and they depended for food on what they shot or caught—wild turkey or other game—cooking it on forked sticks and eating it off pieces of wood they found suitable for plates. Sometimes they came at night to a squatter's hut. A letter from George to a friend says: "Since you received my last letter I have not slept above three or four nights in a bed, but after walking a good deal all day I have Iain down before the fire upon a little straw, hay, fodder or a bear-skin—whichsoever was to be had—with man, wife and children, like dogs and cats; and happy is he who gets the berth nearest the fire. I have never had my clothes off, but have lain and slept in them, except the few nights I have been in Fredericksburg." For the first time he saw Indian settlements and wigwams and war-dances and heard their war-whoops. Sometimes they found the settler's hut too filthy to sleep in; and at the house of one 'Solomon Hedge, Esq., J. P.,' where they supped, they were given neither knife nor fork to eat with.

However, this wonderful boy of sixteen was not playing at Boy Scouts; he was professionally engaged to survey a part of Lord Fairfax's estate, and he carried out his job with thoroughness and success. As a result of his report on the attractiveness of a site, Lord Fairfax shortly afterward moved across the Blue Ridge and established himself in a manor-house he called Greenaway Court, a delightful house of the best eighteenth century type and henceforth a centre of social life in Virginia. Here, it is said, George Washington first read the History of England.

George returned to Mount Vernon by the 12th April, 1748. Three years later he was appointed Public Surveyor, and in after years his surveys of land were referred to as though they were legal documents. It is obvious that this practice was the best experience possible for an Army officer who was to be called on to plan campaigns, understand routes and distances and have a profound knowledge of backwoodsmen and Indians. It is sad to recall that the subsequent career of Washington dealt a mortal blow to Lord Fairfax, the friend who had given him his first surveying commission.

"Joe!" Lord Fairfax cried to his black servant when nearly thirty years later there came the news of the surrender of Cornwallis and the whole English army, "Carry me to my bed, for it is high time for me to die."

When George was nineteen years old, his brother Lawrence retired from the position of Adjutant General of his district and obtained the office for George, who received the rank of Major, with the duty of commanding the militia. Before taking up his new work, he accompanied Lawrence, who had developed consumption, to spend the winter in the West Indies. The holiday failed to restore Lawrence to health, and George caught the smallpox; he recovered speedily, but. Lawrence only returned home to die—26th July, 1752, aged thirty-four. He bequeathed the remainder of his estate, on the death of his little daughter, to George, and as the child soon died, Mount Vernon came into George's possession and became his home.

The next important event in his life was the outbreak of war between England and France. We shall give a short account of this war—The Seven Years' War—in the next chapter. It did not begin officially until 175G, but for a good many years before that date a state of practical warfare existed, and Washington had his first taste of battle and made the first steps in his military career.

Great Britain and France were, as they have nearly always been since their history began, on very ill terms with each other. They were never without subjects of quarrel, but their quarrels were taking an acuter turn than ever through their colonial possessions and their commercial rivalry.

France was busily building strong fortresses which should connect her Canadian possessions in the north with her colony of Louisiana in the south of North America, and so confine the British colonists strictly to the seaboard. She had a traditional claim to the valleys of the Mississippi and Ohio, founded on ancient explorations. In India, too, France and Great Britain were rivals, for through that clerk of genius, Clive, Great Britain had laid the foundations of her Indian Empire.

While the French, without declaring war, sent expeditions to occupy the valleys of the Ohio and the Mississippi, and claimed all the country west of the Alleghany Mountains, the British formed an "Ohio Company," to dispute that valley with the French, and planned the invasion of Canada, where the great struggle was to be fought out. Both countries tried to get the Indians' aid, by means of bribery and diplomacy. Of the series of French forts toward the Mississippi, the chief were Fort Niagara, a fort at the Forks of the Ohio, called Fort Duquesne after the French Governor of Canada, and one at Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain. The fighting in the Ohio district brought George Washington into the field. He had now attained his majority and was the head of his family, and in every way a man. In the preceding century Conde and Turenne in their twenties had led the armies of France to their greatest victories, and although Washington was far from having their precocious military genius, no one would have hesitated to entrust him with the command of an important expedition. In the coming war he played a prominent part and it was of incalculable value to him as an experience. To many of the American soldiers of the War of Independence, the Seven Years' War was their military school, and they could not have had a better one.

The Ohio Company pleaded for help against the French, and Dinwiddie, Governor of Virginia, decided to send a memorial to French Headquarters on the Ohio to expostulate on their treatment of peaceful British traders. His choice of an envoy fell on George Washington, and Washington gladly accepted the dangerous errand. Taking with him traders who knew the routes, and interpreters who knew the French language, the young man set forth from Williamsburg in the late autumn of 1753 on a journey which snow and floods made extremely hazardous. On his way he attended Indian councils, exchanged strings of wampum with Indian chiefs, sought to understand their politics and win them over to the British side. He arrived at the French fort on 11th December and on the following day presented his letter. While the French Commander affected to deliberate Washington took mental note of all he saw, and even succeeded in making a plan of the fort. He only obtained an evasive reply, but from his observations it was clear that the French meant to make a big attack in the following spring. He was in such haste to report to the Governor that he left his suite and baggage to follow and with one companion took what was reported to be a short cut on foot. His companion gloomily declared that there was not one chance in ten of arriving by such a route in such weather. A wandering Indian, who had been stealthily following them ever since they left the French fort, appeared at a moment when they were tired and footsore and offered to carry Washington's pack. He accepted gladly, and the Indian beguiled them from their route and tried to murder them. Safely through this peril, they came to the Alleghany River, which they could not ford. They made a raft with the one hatchet they possessed; and from this in midstream Washington was violently ejected by a collision with a flood of broken ice. They had to abandon the raft and swim to an island in the river, where they spent the night, exercising themselves the whole time so that they should not die of cold. Fortunately the river froze hard in the night and they were able to cross on the ice. It was a most unpleasant experience. At last, safe and sound once more at Williamsburg, Major Washington handed to the Governor the French note and the belts of wampum given him by all the Indian chieftains with whom he had concluded alliances, and, not the least valuable, a Journal kept by himself. This Journal was immediately published throughout England and America and made people in general aware that a great war was approaching and that they must be prepared. At "Home" everyone clamoured for a declaration of war on France and sufficient enthusiasm was aroused in the colonies to permit the raising of a good many companies. Several were formed in Virginia and the command was offered to Washington, who was requested to lead an attack on the French on the Ohio. He refused. "It is not modesty," he said, "but love for my country. It is a charge too great for my youth and inexperience to be trusted with." He was therefore made lieutenant-colonel under Colonel Joshua Fry, and on the death of Fry very shortly he was obliged to step into command of the expedition. In spite of his modesty, he said at this time of himself: "I have a constitution hardy enough to undergo the most severe trials, and I flatter myself resolution to face what any man dares, as shall be proved when it comes to the test," and after a first scrap with the French he wrote to his brothers:

"I fortunately escaped without any wound; for the right wing, where I stood, was exposed to and received all the enemy's fire. . . . I heard the bullets whistle, and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound." This very un-English outburst of military enthusiasm was much laughed at at Home, where it was even carried to the King's ears. George II remarked, "He would not say so if he had been used to hear many," and Horace Walpole said dryly, "Rodomontade!" The hero himself felt in later years that it was not the sort of thing to say—it was rather like the famous "I cannot tell a lie"—and when some one asked him if he really had said it, he replied: "If I did, it was when I was young."

At the fort which he constructed at Great Meadows Washington obtained his first experience in disciplining men whom he was eventually to lead in far different battles for far different ends. Now his heart was full of loyalty to Great Britain; he was proud of possessing a commission in His Majesty's Army; and he looked forward to performing distinguished service for a country he loved and revered without any but traditional knowledge and the stories his parents and people like the Fairfaxes had told him about it. He was a fine specimen of "loyal Virginia." Brought up to almost military obedience at home, he was at first in despair over the raw material of his companies. We should hardly have considered them amateur soldiers, so hardy were they and such good shots, but they were colonists and pioneers with all the spirit of independence of their class, and it was a long and arduous task to subdue them to rule and order. Washington therefore set forth on a career of training that was to redound to his glory, and his standard of a soldier's behaviour may be seen by his measures against profanity: If any man were heard to swear he received twenty-five lashes without any formality of court martial, and on a second offence the punishment was increased. Washington had something of the spirit that gave such success to the Ironsides of Cromwell.

As the French made no attack on Great Meadows, Washington set forth for Fort Duquesne, leaving a company from North Carolina under Captain Mackay, an officer holding a commission in the regular British army, to hold the fort at Great Meadows. On hearing, however, from the Indians that 800 Frenchmen and 400 Indians were approaching, he returned, and stayed a short time longer in this fort, which he named from the hard conditions under which he stayed there, "Fort Necessity." On 3rd July, 1754, the French appeared and the following morning, after a sharp siege, Washington was forced to capitulate, obtaining honourable conditions from the French commander. The first momentous 4th of July in his life was not a glorious one. The French losses being nearly four times those of the British, Governor Dinwiddie and the Virginia House of Burgesses decreed a vote of thanks to Washington and his army, "for their bravery and the gallant manner in which they had conducted themselves in the defence of their country."

Dinwiddie at this point had a fatal idea; disputes as to command and precedence had sprung up occasionally between officers in the regular army and provincial officers, and he secured the passing of an Act of Parliament at Home by which the former always took precedence of the latter. This Act perhaps first sowed in Washington's mind the seeds of revolt. He at once declared that he could not serve under such conditions, handed in his commission to the Governor, and retired into private life at Mount Vernon. It was not pride, he said to Fairfax, but proper self-respect. The colonies thereupon declared themselves incapable of dealing with the French menace, and Great Britain, fully aware of the necessity for action, made extensive preparations. To deal with what was recognised as a serious matter, a brave and experienced general was appointed—Major-General Braddock, a man of the highest reputation for valour and successful leadership under European conditions, but of an unpliable character, stiff, proud and obstinate. Horace Walpole called him, "a very Iroquois in disposition." He came out with splendid and elaborate equipments and superfluities, because all Governors and Generals from the Old Country liked, and were perhaps instructed, to impress the colonists. He also came out with a bold heart and every confidence that his task would be an easy one. No prosperous breeze impelled his canvas, and poets of old might have seen the direst Fates in attendance on Braddock and his army, for he was to bring shame on his country and an evil end to himself.

He of course asked for Lieut.-Col. Washington, as Washington was by this time the recognised local authority on the French encroachments, and when Braddock was told that he was in retirement at his farm, he said, with the eighteenth century fondness for classical allusions: "He must leave his farm, as Cincinnatus did, for the service of his country!"

Washington found the chance to see fighting under so distinguished a general and with the best British regular troops irresistible, and so he left his plough and came to be one of Braddock's aides-de-camp, experiencing a thrill of joyful anticipation as he presented himself at Headquarters. He was about to discover how that magic thing, British discipline, was obtained and maintained.

The modest programme for 1755, as planned by the Duke of Cumberland at Home, was, first for Braddock to step into Fort Duquesne, then trip into the French fort of Niagara, then take Fort Frontenac, while other operations were proceeding in Canada. When Washington set out with Braddock's fine army of "Regulars" and Virginians, in all nearly 3,000 men, well accoutred and provided for, banners flying and bands playing, he exclaimed: "This is the grandest spectacle I ever beheld."

He was rather astonished at Braddock's remark that "Fort Duquesne can hardly detain me above three or four days," and Benjamin Franklin, whom we meet here for the first time, as Postmaster, ventured to expostulate: those fine troops and artillery would undoubtedly take Fort Duquesne, he said, strongly fortified and garrisoned as it was, but it was the march there that was to be feared. The Virginians all disapproved of the route chosen, the troops having to march in a slender line Dearly four miles long, as it might be "cut like thread" by ambushed Indians. Braddock smiled, we are told, at his ignorance and remarked:

"These savages may indeed be a formidable enemy to your raw American militia; but upon the King's regular and disciplined troops, Sir, it is impossible they should make any impression."

"I was conscious," says Franklin, "of an impropriety in my disputing with a military man in matters of his profession, and said no more."

Braddock also laughed at the very idea of consulting White Thunder, Silver Heels and other famous Indian sachems, who arrived at his Headquarters with their warriors and departed grievously offended at his scorn.

Hewing his way through forests where loiterers were scalped by Indians, and scaling mountains, Braddock soon learned that war in America was different from war in Europe, and at last complied with Washington's blunt request that he would leave his wagon-loads of cumbersome equipments and comforts behind, with part of his force, while the rest made a dash for Fort Duquesne; even then the Regular officers of the advance party would not part with their hand-mirrors and scent-bottles and, it was well known to the Virginians, deplored the lack of smartness of their colleagues. Also Braddock, accustomed to strict routine, stopped, it was said, to "level every molehill and make bridges over every brook," and meanwhile all possibility of a surprise attack passed away. Sometimes the Army only did two miles a day. Washington fell ill and stayed behind with the second party, but joined up the day before the attack and requested the indignant Braddock that the Virginia Rangers, not the Regulars, might advance to the assault on the French fort, now only fifteen miles away. Of course his request was refused.

On the morning of the 9th of July, 1755, the British troops forded the Monongahela in fine style, with drums beating and colours flying, and at noon passed another ford leading straight to Fort Duquesne. Before them lay level ground bordered by deep, thickly wooded ravines which the Virginians were extremely surprised that the General did not have searched before letting his army proceed. Instead, the British troops marched along "as if in a review in St. James's Park," and after the advance body had passed through the plain, large bands of hidden French and Indians began to discharge heavy volleys of musketry on the main force, which was preparing to follow. The advance party returned to their aid, but all were alike shot down by the foe hidden in the ravines on their flanks, a foe yelling in such a blood-curdling way that it struck terror into the hearts of the Regulars, ignorant of Indian warfare and of the Indian use of these terrifying cries. The whole country round about re-echoed with war-whoops, and those Indians who from moment to moment appeared to aim a deadly shot or to scalp a fallen soldier were painted and befeathered in a ghastly way. So demoralised were the British rank and file that they began to shoot round them indiscriminately, and the havoc wrought on Braddock's troops was inflicted as much by themselves as by the foe. The British officers all fought bravely on that fatal day. Braddock, ever in the thick of the slaughter, showed personal courage, but never attempted to direct his men's firing toward the ravines where the foe was hidden. Five horses were killed under him, and at last a bullet, passing through his right arm, penetrated his lung. He fell from his horse, but still prayed to he left on the field, and was with difficulty removed to a place of safety.

During the whole of this scene Washington had been the most conspicuous figure on the field and a constant mark for the deadly and invisible enemy. All the other aides-de-camp were killed or wounded early in the fray, and he alone carried the General's orders from one part to another. The Indians said afterward that it was no good trying to hit him as he was obviously under the protection of the Great Spirit. A fellow-combatant wrote of him:

"I saw him take hold of a brass field-piece as if it had been a stick. He looked like a fury; he tore the sheet-lead from the touch-hole; he placed one hand on the muzzle, the other on the breach; he pulled with this and he pushed with that, and wheeled it round as if it had been nothing. It tore the ground like a plough. The powder monkey rushed up with the fire, and then the cannon began to bark, I tell you. They fought and they fought, and the Indians yelled, when the rest of the cannon made the bark of the trees fly and the Indians came out. That place was called Rock Hill, and they left five hundred men dead on the ground."

After Braddock's fall, Washington and the Virginians protected as far as they were able the flight of the Regular troops. The retreat of the British army was carried out in the utmost disorder, baggage and even official papers being abandoned and every man doing just as he thought best to secure his personal safety. Washington rode off to seek provisions and ambulance, etc., for the defeated and wounded army, and a few days later Braddock, having scarcely uttered a word since the disaster, died at Great Meadows, where Washington read the funeral service, the chaplain having been killed.

Colonel Dunbar, left with the heavy stores, might, the people of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania thought, have even now if he had gone to the rescue retrieved this great misfortune, but he too was seized with panic and, abandoning the frontier to a foe not numerous and dangerously emboldened with easy victory, he never stopped in his retreat until he arrived at Philadelphia, where he went into winter quarters "in the dog-days."

Washington wrote to his mother that "The dastardly behaviour of those they call Regulars exposed all others that were inclined to do their duty to almost certain death." Franklin said: "This whole transaction gave us the first suspicion that our exalted ideas of the prowess of the British Regular troops had not been well-founded." Washington unwittingly wended his way back to Williamsburg, where he urged on the Governor an immediate attack on Fort Duquesne before the French and Indians recovered from their celebrations of their victory. The Indians had become so venturesome that the colonists were in a worse plight than before the arrival of the troops from Great Britain. Washington was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the scanty forces that could be raised in Virginia and established himself at the frontier town of Winchester to protect the country from alarming Indian raids.

This command meant another brush of an unpleasant character with British authority, for a Captain Dagworthy at Fort Cumberland refused to obey orders, claiming that having a commission in the Regular Army he was Washington's superior, To settle this question Washington rode to Boston, a distance of five hundred miles, in the depth of winter, with quite a suite of friends and liveried servants, there to lay the case before Major-General Shirley, now Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in North America. At Boston the distinguished young colonel who had saved the remnants of Braddock's army and was so tall, handsome and perfectly dressed, with such correct appointments, obtained considerable social success, and won from Shirley a ruling that a commission from a provincial Governor was equal to one from the King.

He got back to Williamsburg in March, 1756, just when the province was in a panic over an Indian inroad that reached as far as Winchester. All around families were being murdered, and no road was safe. He wrote urgent letters to Lord Loudoun, Shirley's successor, and passed the next two years in doing what he could to protect the borders.