Life of George Washington

And in a letter to his friend Colonel Fairfax–“For my own part,” writes
he, “it is a matter almost indifferent whether I serve for full pay or as a
generous volunteer; indeed, did my circumstances correspond with my
inclinations, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter; _for
the motives that have led me here are pure and noble. I had no view of
acquisition but that of honor, by serving faithfully my king and

Such were the noble impulses of Washington at the age of twenty-two, and
such continued to actuate him throughout life. We have put the latter part
of the quotation in italics, as applicable to the motives which in after
life carried him into the Revolution.

While the bridge over the Youghiogeny was in the course of construction,
the Indians assured Washington he would never be able to open a waggon-road
across the mountains to Redstone Creek; he embarked therefore in a canoe
with a lieutenant, three soldiers, and an Indian guide, to try whether it
was possible to descend the river. They had not descended above ten miles
before the Indian refused to go further. Washington soon ascertained the
reason. “Indians,” said he, “expect presents–nothing can be done without
them. The French take this method. If you want one or more to conduct a
party, to discover the country, to hunt, or for any particular purpose,
they must be bought; their friendship is not so warm as to prompt them to
these services gratis.” The Indian guide in the present instance, was
propitiated by the promise of one of Washington’s ruffled shirts, and a

The river was bordered by mountains and obstructed by rocks and rapids.
Indians might thread such a labyrinth in their light canoes, but it would
never admit the transportation of troops and military stores. Washington
kept on for thirty miles, until he came to a place where the river fell
nearly forty feet in the space of fifty yards. There he ceased to explore,
and returned to camp, resolving to continue forward by land.

On the 23d Indian scouts brought word that the French were not above eight
hundred strong, and that about half their number had been detached at night
on a secret expedition. Close upon this report came a message from the
half-king, addressed “to the first of his majesty’s officers whom it may

“It is reported,” said he, “that the French army is coming to meet Major
Washington. Be on your guard against them, my brethren, for they intend to
strike the first English they shall see. They have been on their march two
days. I know not their number. The half-king and the rest of the chiefs
will be with you in five days to hold a council.”

In the evening Washington was told that the French were crossing the ford
of the Youghiogeny about eighteen miles distant. He now hastened to take a
position in a place called the Great Meadows, where he caused the bushes to
be cleared away, made an intrenchment and prepared what he termed “a
charming field for an encounter.”

A party of scouts were mounted on waggon horses, and sent out to
reconnoitre. They returned without having seen an enemy. A sensitiveness
prevailed in the camp. They were surrounded by forests, threatened by
unseen foes, and hourly in danger of surprise. There was an alarm about two
o’clock in the night. The sentries fired upon what they took to be prowling
foes. The troops sprang to arms, and remained on the alert until daybreak.
Not an enemy was to be seen. The roll was called. Six men were missing, who
had deserted.

On the 25th. Mr. Gist arrived from his place, about fifteen miles distant.
La Force had been there at noon on the previous day, with a detachment of
fifty men, and Gist had since come upon their track within five miles of
the camp. Washington considered La Force a bold, enterprising man, subtle
and dangerous; one to be particularly guarded against. He detached
seventy-five men in pursuit of him and his prowling band.

About nine o’clock at night came an Indian messenger from the half-king,
who was encamped with several of his people about six miles off. The chief
had seen tracks of two Frenchmen, and was convinced their whole body must
be in ambush near by.

Washington considered this the force which had been hovering about him for
several days, and determined to forestall their hostile designs. Leaving a
guard with the baggage and ammunition, he set out before ten o’clock, with
forty men, to join his Indian ally. They groped their way in single file,
by footpaths through the woods, in a heavy rain and murky darkness,
tripping occasionally and stumbling over each other, sometimes losing the
track for fifteen or twenty minutes, so that it was near sunrise when they
reached the camp of the half-king.

That chieftain received the youthful commander with, great demonstrations
of friendship, and engaged to go hand in hand with him against the lurking
enemy. He set out accordingly, accompanied by a few of his warriors and his
associate sachem Scarooyadi or Monacatoocha, and conducted Washington to
the tracks which he had discovered. Upon these he put two of his Indians.
They followed them up like hounds, and brought back word that they had
traced them to a low bottom surrounded by rocks and trees, where the French
were encamped, having built a few cabins for shelter from the rain.

A plan was now concerted to come upon them by surprise; Washington with,
his men on the right; the half-king with his warriors on the left; all as
silently as possible. Washington was the first upon the ground. As he
advanced from among the rocks and trees at the head of his men, the French
caught sight of him and ran to their arms. A sharp firing instantly took
place, and was kept up on both sides for about fifteen minutes. Washington
and his party were most exposed and received all the enemy’s fire. The
balls whistled around him; one man was killed close by him, and three
others wounded. The French at length, having lost several of their number,
gave way and ran. They were soon overtaken; twenty-one were captured, and
but one escaped, a Canadian, who carried the tidings of the affair to the
fort on the Ohio. The Indians would have massacred the prisoners had not
Washington prevented them. Ten of the French had fallen in the skirmish,
and one been wounded. Washington’s loss was the one killed and three
wounded which we have mentioned. He had been in the hottest fire, and
having for the first time heard balls whistle about him, considered his
escape miraculous. Jumonville, the French leader, had been shot through the
head at the first fire. He was a young officer of merit, and his fate was
made the subject of lamentation in prose and verse–chiefly through
political motives.

Of the twenty-one prisoners the two most important were an officer of some
consequence named Drouillon, and the subtle and redoubtable La Force. As
Washington considered the latter an arch mischief-maker, he was rejoiced to
have him in his power. La Force and his companion would fain have assumed
the sacred character of ambassadors, pretending they were coming with a
summons to him to depart from the territories belonging to the crown of

Unluckily for their pretensions, a letter of instructions, found on
Jumonville, betrayed their real errand, which was to inform themselves of
the roads, rivers, and other features of the country as far as the Potomac;
to send back from time to time, by fleet messengers, all the information
they could collect, and to give word of the day on which they intended to
serve the summons.

Their conduct had been conformable. Instead of coming in a direct and open
manner to his encampment, when they had ascertained where it was, and
delivering their summons, as they would have done had their designs been
frank and loyal, they had moved back two miles, to one of the most secret
retirements, better for a deserter than an ambassador to encamp in, and
staid there, within five miles of his camp, sending spies to reconnoitre
it, and despatching messengers to Contrecoeur to inform him of its position
and numerical strength, to the end, no doubt, that he might send a
sufficient detachment to enforce the summons as soon as it should be given.
In fact, the footprints which had first led to the discovery of the French
lurking-place, were those of two “runners” or swift messengers, sent by
Jumonville to the fort on the Ohio.

It would seem that La Force, after all, was but an instrument in the hands
of his commanding officers, and not in their full confidence; for when the
commission and instructions found on Jumonville were read before him, he
professed not to have seen them before, and acknowledged, with somewhat of
an air of ingenuousness, that he believed they had a hostile tendency.
[Footnote: Washington’s letter to Dinwiddie, 29th May, 1754.]

Upon the whole, it was the opinion of Washington and his officers that the
summons, on which so much stress was laid, was a mere specious pretext to
mask their real designs and be used as occasion might require. “That they
were spies rather than any thing else,” and were to be treated as prisoners
of war.

The half-king joined heartily in this opinion; indeed, had the fate of the
prisoners been in his hands, neither diplomacy nor any thing else would
have been of avail. “They came with hostile intentions,” he said; “they had
bad hearts, and if his English brothers were so foolish as to let them go,
he would never aid in taking another Frenchman.”

The prisoners were accordingly conducted to the camp at the Great Meadows,
and sent on the following day (29th), under a strong escort to Governor
Dinwiddie, then at Winchester. Washington had treated them with great
courtesy; had furnished Drouillon and La Force with clothing from his own
scanty stock, and, at their request, given them letters to the governor,
bespeaking for them “the respect and favor due to their character and
personal merit.”

A sense of duty, however, obliged him, in his general despatch, to put the
governor on his guard against La Force. “I really think, if released, he
would do more to our disservice than fifty other men, as he is a person
whose active spirit leads him into all parties, and has brought him
acquainted with all parts of the country. Add to this a perfect knowledge
of the Indian tongue, and great influence with the Indians.”

After the departure of the prisoners, he wrote again respecting them: “I
have still stronger presumption, indeed almost confirmation, that they were
sent as spies, and were ordered to wait near us till they were fully
informed of our intentions, situation, and strength, and were to have
acquainted their commander therewith, and to have been lurking here for
reinforcements before they served the summons, if served at all.

“I doubt not but they will endeavor to amuse you with many smooth stories,
as they did me; but they were confuted in them all, and, by circumstances
too plain to be denied, almost made ashamed of their assertions.

“I have heard since they went away, they should say they called on us not
to fire; but that I know to be false, for I was the first man that
approached them, and the first whom they saw, and immediately they ran to
their arms, and fired briskly till they were defeated.” … “I fancy they
will have the assurance of asking the privileges due to an embassy, when in
strict justice they ought to be hanged as spies of the worst sort.”

The situation of Washington was now extremely perilous. Contrecoeur, it was
said, had nearly a thousand men with him at the fort, beside Indian allies;
and reinforcements were on the way to join him. The messengers sent by
Jumonville, previous to the late affair, must have apprised him of the
weakness of the encampment on the Great Meadows, Washington hastened to
strengthen it. He wrote by express also to Colonel Fry, who lay ill at
Wills’ Creek, urging instant reinforcements; but declaring his resolution
to “fight with very unequal numbers rather than give up one inch of what he
had gained.”

The half-king was full of fight. He sent the scalps of the Frenchmen slain
in the late skirmish, accompanied by black wampum and hatchets, to all his
allies, summoning them to take up arms and join him at Redstone Creek, “for
their brothers, the English, had now begun in earnest.” It is said he would
even have sent the scalps of the prisoners had not Washington interfered.
[Footnote: Letter from Virginia.–London Mag., 1754.] He went off for his
home, promising to send down the river for all the Mingoes and Shawnees,
and to be back at the camp on the 30th, with thirty or forty warriors,
accompanied by their wives and children. To assist him in the
transportation of his people and their effects thirty men were detached,
and twenty horses.

“I shall expect every hour to be attacked,” writes Washington to Governor
Dinwiddie, on the 29th, “and by unequal numbers, which I must withstand, if
there are five to one, for I fear the consequence will be that we shall
lose the Indians if we suffer ourselves to be driven back. Your honor may
depend I will not be surprised, let them come at what hour they will, and
this is as much as I can promise; but my best endeavors shall not be
wanting to effect more. I doubt not, if you hear I am beaten, but you will
hear at the same time that we have done our duty in fighting as long as
there is a shadow of hope.”

The fact is, that Washington was in a high state of military excitement. He
was a young soldier; had been for the first time in action, and been
successful. The letters we have already quoted show, in some degree, the
fervor of his mind, and his readiness to brave the worst; but a short
letter, written to one of his brothers, on the 31st, lays open the recesses
of his heart.

“We expect every hour to be attacked by superior force; but if they forbear
but one day longer we shall be prepared for them. … We have already got
intrenchments, and are about a palisade, which, I hope, will be finished
to-day. The Mingoes have struck the French, and, I hope, will give a good
blow before they have done. I expect forty odd of them here to-night,
which, with our fort, and some reinforcements from Colonel Fry, will enable
us to exert our noble courage with spirit.”

Alluding in a postscript to the late affair, he adds: “I fortunately
escaped without any wound; for the right wing, where I stood, was exposed
to, and received, all the enemy’s fire; and it was the part where the man
was killed and the rest wounded. _I heard the bullets whistle, and,
believe me, there is something charming in the sound._”

This rodomontade, as Horace Walpole terms it, reached the ears of George
II. “He would not say so,” observed the king, dryly, “if he had been used
to hear many.” [Footnote: This anecdote has hitherto rested on the
authority of Horace Walpole, who gives it in his memoirs of George II., and
in his correspondence. He cites the rodomontade as contained in the express
despatched by Washington, whom he pronounces a “brave braggart.” As no
despatch of Washington contains any rodomontade of the kind; as it is quite
at variance with the general tenor of his character; and as Horace Walpole
is well known to have been a “great gossip dealer,” apt to catch up any
idle rumor that would give piquancy to a paragraph, the story has been held
in great distrust. We met with the letter recently, however, in a column of
the London Magazine for 1754, page 370, into which it must have found its
way not long after it was written.]

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