Life of George Washington

Ways and means being provided, Governor Dinwiddie augmented the number of
troops to be enlisted to three hundred, divided into six companies. The
command of the whole, as before, was offered to Washington, but he shrank
from it, as a charge too great for his youth and inexperience. It was
given, therefore, to Colonel Joshua Fry, an English gentleman of worth and
education, and Washington was made second in command, with the rank of

The recruiting, at first, went on slowly. Those who offered to enlist, says
Washington, were for the most part loose idle persons without house or
home, some without shoes or stockings, some shirtless, and many without
coat or waistcoat.

He was young in the recruiting service, or he would have known that such is
generally the stuff of which armies are made. In this country especially it
has always been difficult to enlist the active yeomanry by holding out
merely the pay of a soldier. The means of subsistence are too easily
obtained by the industrious, for them to give up home and personal
independence for a mere daily support. Some may be tempted by a love of
adventure; but in general, they require some prospect of ultimate advantage
that may “better their condition.”

Governor Dinwiddie became sensible of this, and resorted to an expedient
rising out of the natural resources of the country, which has since been
frequently adopted, and always with efficacy. He proclaimed a bounty of two
hundred thousand acres of land on the Ohio River, to be divided among the
officers and soldiers who should engage in this expedition; one thousand to
be laid off contiguous to the fort at the fork, for the use of the
garrison. This was a tempting bait to the sons of farmers, who readily
enlisted in the hope of having, at the end of a short campaign, a snug farm
of their own in this land of promise.

It was a more difficult matter to get officers than soldiers. Very few of
those appointed made their appearance; one of the captains had been
promoted; two declined; Washington found himself left, almost alone, to
manage a number of self-willed, undisciplined recruits. Happily he had with
him, in the rank of lieutenant, that soldier of fortune, Jacob Van Braam,
his old “master of fence,” and travelling interpreter.

In his emergency he forthwith nominated him captain, and wrote to the
governor to confirm the appointment, representing him as the oldest
lieutenant, and an experienced officer.

On the 2d of April Washington set off from Alexandria for the new fort, at
the fork of the Ohio. He had but two companies with him, amounting to about
one hundred and fifty men; the remainder of the regiment was to follow
under Colonel Fry with the artillery, which was to be conveyed up the
Potomac. While on the march he was joined by a detachment under Captain
Adam Stephen, an officer destined to serve with him at distant periods of
his military career.

At Winchester he found it impossible to obtain conveyances by gentle means,
and was obliged reluctantly to avail himself of the militia law of
Virginia, and impress horses and waggons for service; giving the owners
orders on government for their appraised value. Even then, out of a great
number impressed, he obtained but ten, after waiting a week; these, too,
were grudgingly furnished by farmers with their worst horses, so that in
steep and difficult passes they were incompetent to the draught, and the
soldiers had continually to put their shoulders to the wheels.

Thus slenderly fitted out, Washington and his little force made their way
toilfully across the mountains, having to prepare the roads as they went
for the transportation of the cannon, which were to follow on with the
other division under Colonel Fry. They cheered themselves with the thoughts
that this hard work would cease when they should arrive at the company’s
trading-post and store-house at Wills’ Creek, where Captain Trent was to
have packhorses in readiness, with which they might make the rest of the
way by light stages. Before arriving there they were startled by a rumor
that Trent and all his men had been captured by the French. With regard to
Trent, the news soon proved to be false, for they found him at Wills’ Creek
on the 20th of April. With regard to his men there was still an
uncertainty. He had recently left them at the fork of the Ohio, busily at
work on the fort, under the command of his lieutenant, Frazier, late Indian
trader and gunsmith, but now a provincial officer. If the men had been
captured, it must have been since the captain’s departure. Washington was
eager to press forward and ascertain the truth, but it was impossible.
Trent, inefficient as usual, had failed to provide packhorses. It was
necessary to send to Winchester, forty miles distant, for baggage waggons,
and await their arrival. All uncertainty as to the fate of the men,
however, was brought to a close by their arrival, on the 25th, conducted by
an ensign, and bringing with them their working implements. The French
might well boast that they had again been too quick for the English.
Captain Contrecoeur, an alert officer, had embarked about a thousand men
with field-pieces, in a fleet of sixty bateaux and three hundred canoes,
dropped down the river from Venango, and suddenly made his appearance
before the fort, on which the men were working, and which was not half
completed. Landing, drawing up his men, and planting his artillery, he
summoned the fort to surrender, allowing one hour for a written reply.

What was to be done! the whole garrison did not exceed fifty men. Captain
Trent was absent at Wills’ Creek; Frazier, his lieutenant, was at his own
residence at Turtle Creek, ten miles distant. There was no officer to reply
but a young ensign of the name of Ward. In his perplexity he turned for
counsel to Tanacharisson, the half-king, who was present in the fort. The
chief advised the ensign to plead insufficiency of rank and powers, and
crave delay until the arrival of his superior officer. The ensign repaired
to the French camp to offer this excuse in person, and was accompanied by
the half-king. They were courteously received, but Contrecoeur was
inflexible. There must be instant surrender, or he would take forcible
possession. All that the ensign could obtain was permission to depart with
his men, taking with them their working tools. The capitulation ended.
Contrecoeur, with true French gayety, invited the ensign to sup with him;
treated him with the utmost politeness, and wished him a pleasant journey,
as he set off the next morning with his men laden with their working tools.

Such was the ensign’s story. He was accompanied by two Indian warriors,
sent by the half-king to ascertain where the detachment was, what was its
strength, and when it might be expected at the Ohio. They bore a speech
from that sachem to Washington, and another, with a belt of wampum for the
Governor of Virginia. In these he plighted his steadfast faith to the
English, and claimed assistance from his brothers of Virginia and

One of these warriors Washington forwarded on with the speech and wampum to
Governor Dinwiddie. The other he prevailed on to return to the half-king,
bearing a speech from him, addressed to the “Sachems, warriors of the Six
United Nations, Shannoahs and Delawares, our friends and brethren.” In this
he informed them that he was on the advance with a part of the army, to
clear the road for a greater force coming with guns, ammunition, and
provisions; and he invited the half-king and another sachem, to meet him on
the road as soon as possible to hold a council.

In fact, his situation was arduous in the extreme. Regarding the conduct of
the French in the recent occurrence an overt act of war, he found himself
thrown with a handful of raw recruits far on a hostile frontier, in the
midst of a wilderness, with an enemy at hand greatly superior in number and
discipline; provided with artillery, and all the munitions of war, and
within reach of constant supplies and reinforcements. Beside the French
that had come from Venango, he had received credible accounts of another
party ascending the Ohio; and of six hundred Chippewas and Ottawas marching
down Scioto Creek to join the hostile camp. Still, notwithstanding the
accumulating danger, it would not do to fall back, nor show signs of
apprehension. His Indian allies in such case might desert him. The
soldiery, too, might grow restless and dissatisfied. He was already annoyed
by Captain Trent’s men, who, having enlisted as volunteers, considered
themselves exempt from the rigor of martial law; and by their example of
loose and refractory conduct, threatened to destroy the subordination of
his own troops.

In this dilemma he called a council of war, in which it was determined to
proceed to the Ohio Company store-houses, at the mouth of Redstone Creek;
fortify themselves there, and wait for reinforcements. Here they might keep
up a vigilant watch upon the enemy, and get notice of any hostile movement
in time for defence, or retreat; and should they be reinforced sufficiently
to enable them to attack the fort, they could easily drop down the river
with their artillery.

With these alternatives in view, Washington detached sixty men in advance
to make a road; and at the same time wrote to Governor Dinwiddie for
mortars and grenadoes, and cannon of heavy metal.

Aware that the Assembly of Pennsylvania was in session, and that the
Maryland Assembly would also meet in the course of a few days, he wrote
directly to the governors of those provinces, acquainting them with the
hostile acts of the French, and with his perilous situation; and
endeavoring to rouse them to cooperation in the common cause. We will here
note in advance that his letter was laid before the Legislature of
Pennsylvania, and a bill was about to be passed making appropriations for
the service of the king; but it fell through, in consequence of a
disagreement between the Assembly and the governor as to the mode in which
the money should be raised; and so no assistance was furnished to
Washington from that quarter. The youthful commander had here a foretaste,
in these his incipient campaigns, of the perils and perplexities which
awaited him from enemies in the field, and lax friends in legislative
councils in the grander operations of his future years. Before setting off
for Redstone Creek, he discharged Trent’s refractory men from his
detachment, ordering them to await Colonel Fry’s commands; they however, in
the true spirit of volunteers from the backwoods, dispersed to their
several homes.

It may be as well to observe, in this place, that both Captain Trent and
Lieutenant Frazier were severely censured for being absent from their post
at the time of the French summons. “Trent’s behavior,” said Washington, in
a letter to Governor Dinwiddie, “has been very tardy, and has convinced the
world of what they before suspected–his great timidity. Lieutenant
Frazier, though not altogether blameless, is much more excusable, for he
would not accept of the commission until he had a promise from his captain
that he should not reside at the fort, nor visit it above once a week, or
as he saw necessity.” In fact, Washington, subsequently recommended Frazier
for the office of adjutant.



On the 29th of April Washington set out from Wills’ Creek at the head of
one hundred and sixty men. He soon overtook those sent in advance to work
the road; they had made but little progress. It was a difficult task to
break a road through the wilderness sufficient for the artillery coming on
with Colonel Fry’s division. All hands were now set to work, but with all
their labor they could not accomplish more than four miles a day. They were
toiling through Savage Mountain and that dreary forest region beyond it,
since bearing the sinister name of “The Shades of Death.” On the 9th of May
they were not further than twenty miles from Wills’ Creek, at a place
called the Little Meadows.

Every day came gloomy accounts from the Ohio; brought chiefly by traders,
who, with packhorses bearing their effects, were retreating to the more
settled parts of the country. Some exaggerated the number of the French, as
if strongly reinforced. All represented them as diligently at work
constructing a fort. By their account Washington perceived the French had
chosen the very place which he had noted in his journal as best fitted for
the purpose.

One of the traders gave information concerning La Force the French
emissary, who had beset Washington when on his mission to the frontier, and
acted, as he thought, the part of a spy. He had been at Gist’s new
settlement beyond Laurel Hill, and was prowling about the country with four
soldiers at his heels on a pretended hunt after deserters. Washington
suspected him to be on a reconnoitering expedition.

It was reported, moreover, that the French were lavishing presents on the
Indians about the lower part of the river, to draw them to their standard.
Among all these flying reports and alarms Washington was gratified to learn
that the half-king was on his way to meet him at the head of fifty

After infinite toil through swamps and forests, and over rugged mountains,
the detachment arrived at the Youghiogeny River, where they were detained
some days constructing a bridge to cross it.

This gave Washington leisure to correspond with Governor Dinwiddie,
concerning matters which had deeply annoyed him. By an ill-judged economy
of the Virginia government at this critical juncture, its provincial
officers received less pay than that allowed in the regular army. It is
true the regular officers were obliged to furnish their own table, but
their superior pay enabled them to do it luxuriously; whereas the
provincials were obliged to do hard duty on salt provisions and water. The
provincial officers resented this inferiority of pay as an indignity, and
declared that nothing prevented them from throwing up their commissions but
unwillingness to recede before approaching danger.

Washington shared deeply this feeling. “Let him serve voluntarily, and he
would with the greatest pleasure in life devote his services to the
expedition–but to be slaving through woods, rocks, and mountains, for the
shadow of pay–” writes he, “I would rather toil like a day laborer for a
maintenance, if reduced to the necessity, than serve on such ignoble
terms.” Parity of pay was indispensable to the dignity of the service.

Other instances of false economy were pointed out by him, forming so many
drags upon the expedition, that he quite despaired of success. “Be the
consequence what it will, however,” adds he, “I am determined not to leave
the regiment, but to be among the last men that leave the Ohio; even if I
serve as a private volunteer, which I greatly prefer to the establishment
we are upon. … I have a constitution hardy enough to encounter and
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.”

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