Life of George Washington

“Our hopes, dear George,” wrote Mr. Robinson, the Speaker of the House of
Burgesses, “are all fixed on you for bringing our affairs to a happy issue.
Consider what fatal consequences to your country your resigning the command
at this time may be, especially as there is no doubt most of the officers
will follow your example.”

In fact, the situation and services of the youthful commander, shut up in a
frontier town, destitute of forces, surrounded by savage foes, gallantly,
though despairingly, devoting himself to the safety of a suffering people,
were properly understood throughout the country, and excited a glow of
enthusiasm in his favor. The Legislature, too, began at length to act, but
timidly and inefficiently. “The country knows her danger,” writes one of
the members, “but such is her parsimony that she is willing to wait for the
rains to wet the powder, and the rats to eat the bowstrings of the enemy,
rather than attempt to drive them from her frontiers.”

The measure of relief voted by the Assembly was an additional appropriation
of twenty thousand pounds, and an increase of the provincial force to
fifteen hundred men. With this, it was proposed to erect and garrison a
chain of frontier forts, extending through the ranges of the Allegany
Mountains, from the Potomac to the borders of North Carolina; a distance of
between three and four hundred miles. This was one of the inconsiderate
projects devised by Governor Dinwiddie.

Washington, in letters to the governor and to the speaker of the House of
Burgesses, urged the impolicy of such a plan, with their actual force and
means. The forts, he observed, ought to be within fifteen or eighteen miles
of each other, that their spies might be able to keep watch over the
intervening country, otherwise the Indians would pass between them
unperceived, effect their ravages, and escape to the mountains, swamps, and
ravines, before the troops from the forts could be assembled to pursue
them. They ought each to be garrisoned with eighty or a hundred men, so as
to afford detachments of sufficient strength, without leaving the garrison
too weak; for the Indians are the most stealthy and patient of spies and
lurkers; will lie in wait for days together about small forts of the kind,
and, if they find, by some chance prisoner, that the garrison is actually
weak, will first surprise and cut off its scouting parties, and then attack
the fort itself. It was evident, therefore, observed he, that to garrison
properly such a line of forts, would require, at least, two thousand men.
And even then, a line of such extent might be broken through at one end
before the other end could yield assistance. Feint attacks, also, might be
made at one point, while the real attack was made at another, quite
distant; and the country be overrun before its widely-posted defenders
could be alarmed and concentrated. Then must be taken into consideration
the immense cost of building so many forts, and the constant and consuming
expense of supplies and transportation.

His idea of a defensive plan was to build a strong fort at Winchester, the
central point, where all the main roads met of a wide range of scattered
settlements, where tidings could soonest be collected from every quarter,
and whence reinforcements and supplies could most readily be forwarded. It
was to be a grand deposit of military stores, a residence for commanding
officers, a place of refuge for the women and children in time of alarm,
when the men had suddenly to take the field; in a word, it was to be the
citadel of the frontier.

Beside this, he would have three or four large fortresses erected at
convenient distances upon the frontiers, with powerful garrisons, so as to
be able to throw out, in constant succession, strong scouting parties, to
range the country. Fort Cumberland he condemned as being out of the
province, and out of the track of Indian incursions, insomuch that it
seldom received an alarm until all the mischief had been effected.

His representations with respect to military laws and regulations were
equally cogent. In the late act of the Assembly for raising a regiment, it
was provided that, in cases of emergency, if recruits should not offer in
sufficient number, the militia might be drafted to supply the deficiencies,
but only to serve until December, and not to be marched out of the
province. In this case, said he, before they have entered upon service, or
got the least smattering of duty, they will claim a discharge; if they are
pursuing an enemy who has committed the most unheard-of cruelties, he has
only to step across the Potomac, and he is safe. Then as to the limits of
service, they might just as easily have been enlisted for seventeen months,
as seven. They would then have been seasoned as well as disciplined; “for
we find by experience,” says he, “that our poor ragged soldiers would kill
the most active militia in five days’ marching.”

Then, as to punishments: death, it was true, had been decreed for mutiny
and desertion; but there was no punishment for cowardice; for holding
correspondence with the enemy; for quitting, or sleeping on one’s post; all
capital offences, according to the military codes of Europe. Neither were
there provisions for quartering or billeting soldiers, or impressing
waggons and other conveyances, in times of exigency. To crown all, no
court-martial could sit out of Virginia; a most embarrassing regulation,
when troops were fifty or a hundred miles beyond the frontier. He earnestly
suggested amendments on all these points, as well as with regard to the
soldiers’ pay; which was less than that of the regular troops, or the
troops of most of the other provinces.

All these suggestions, showing at this youthful age that forethought and
circumspection which distinguished him throughout life, were repeatedly and
eloquently urged upon Governor Dinwiddie, with very little effect. The plan
of a frontier line of twenty-three forts was persisted in. Fort Cumberland
was pertinaciously kept up at a great and useless expense of men and money,
and the militia laws remained lax and inefficient. It was decreed, however,
that the great central fort at Winchester recommended by Washington, should
be erected.

In the height of the alarm, a company of one hundred gentlemen, mounted and
equipped, volunteered their services to repair to the frontier. They were
headed by Peyton Randolph, attorney-general, a man deservedly popular
throughout the province. Their offer was gladly accepted. They were
denominated the “Gentlemen Associators,” and great expectations, of course,
were entertained from their gallantry and devotion. They were empowered,
also, to aid with their judgment in the selection of places for frontier

The “Gentlemen Associators,” like all gentlemen associators in similar
emergencies, turned out with great zeal and spirit, and immense popular
effect, but wasted their fire in preparation, and on the march. Washington,
who well understood the value of such aid, observed dryly in a letter to
Governor Dinwiddie, “I am heartily glad that you have fixed upon these
gentlemen to point out the places for erecting forts, but regret to find,
their motions so slow.” There is no doubt that they would have conducted
themselves gallantly, had they been put to the test; but before they
arrived near the scene of danger the alarm was over. About the beginning of
May, scouts brought in word that the tracks of the marauding savages tended
toward Fort Duquesne, as if on the return. In a little while it was
ascertained that they had recrossed the Allegany Mountain to the Ohio in
such numbers as to leave a beaten track, equal to that made in the
preceding year by the army of Braddock.

The repeated inroads of the savages called for an effectual and permanent
check. The idea of being constantly subject to the irruptions of a deadly
foe, that moved with stealth and mystery, and was only to be traced by its
ravages, and counted by its footprints, discouraged all settlement of the
country. The beautiful valley of the Shenandoah was fast becoming a
deserted and a silent place. Her people, for the most part, had fled to the
older settlements south of the mountains, and the Blue Ridge was likely
soon to become virtually the frontier line of the province.

We have to record one signal act of retaliation on the perfidious tribes of
the Ohio, in which a person whose name subsequently became dear to
Americans, was concerned. Prisoners who had escaped from the savages
reported that Shingis, Washington’s faithless ally, and another sachem,
called Captain Jacobs, were the two heads of the hostile bands that had
desolated the frontier. That they lived at Kittanning, an Indian town,
about forty miles above Fort Duquesne; at which their warriors were fitted
out for incursions, and whither they returned with their prisoners and
plunder. Captain Jacobs was a daring fellow, and scoffed at palisaded
forts. “He could take any fort,” he said, “that would catch fire.”

A party of two hundred and eighty provincials, resolute men, undertook to
surprise, and destroy this savage nest. It was commanded by Colonel John
Armstrong; and with him went Dr. Hugh Mercer, of subsequent renown, who had
received a captain’s commission from Pennsylvania, on the 6th of March,

Armstrong led his men rapidly, but secretly, over mountain, and through
forest, until, after a long and perilous march, they reached the Allegany.
It was a moonlight night when they arrived in the neighborhood of
Kittanning. They were guided to the village by whoops and yells, and the
sound of the Indian drum. The warriors were celebrating their exploits by
the triumphant scalp-dance. After a while the revel ceased, and a number of
fires appeared here and there in a corn-field. They were made by such of
the Indians as slept in the open air, and were intended to drive off the
gnats. Armstrong and his men lay down “quiet and hush,” observing every
thing narrowly, and waiting until the moon should set, and the warriors be
asleep. At length the moon went down, the fires burned low; all was quiet.
Armstrong now roused his men, some of whom, wearied by their long march,
had fallen asleep. He divided his forces; part were to attack the warriors
in the corn-field, part were despatched to the houses, which were dimly
seen by the first streak of day. There was sharp firing in both quarters,
for the Indians, though taken by surprise, fought bravely, inspired by the
war-whoop of their chief, Captain Jacobs. The women and children fled to
the woods. Several of the provincials were killed and wounded. Captain Hugh
Mercer received a wound in the arm, and was taken to the top of a hill. The
fierce chieftain, Captain Jacobs, was besieged in his house, which had
port-holes; whence he and his warriors made havoc among the assailants. The
adjoining houses were set on fire. The chief was summoned to surrender
himself. He replied he was a man, and would not be a prisoner. He was told
he would be burnt. His reply was, “he would kill four or five before he
died.” The flames and smoke approached. “One of the besieged warriors, to
show his manhood, began to sing. A squaw at the same time was heard to cry,
but was severely rebuked by the men.” [Footnote: Letter from Col.

In the end, the warriors were driven out by the flames; some escaped, and
some were shot. Among the latter was Captain Jacobs, and his gigantic son,
said to be seven feet high. Fire was now set to all the houses, thirty in
number. “During the burning of the houses,” says Colonel Armstrong, “we
were agreeably entertained with a quick succession of charged guns,
gradually firing off as reached by the fire, but much more so with the vast
explosion of sundry bags, and large kegs of powder, wherewith almost every
house abounded.” The colonel was in a strange condition to enjoy such an
entertainment, having received a wound from a large musket-ball in the

The object of the expedition was accomplished. Thirty or forty of the
warriors were slain; their stronghold was a smoking ruin. There was danger
of the victors being cut off by a detachment from Fort Duquesne. They made
the best of their way, therefore, to their horses, which had been left at a
distance, and set off rapidly on their march to Fort Lyttleton, about sixty
miles north of Fort Cumberland.

Colonel Armstrong had reached Fort Lyttleton on the 14th of September, six
days after the battle, and fears were entertained that he had been
intercepted by the Indians and was lost. He, with his ensign and eleven
men, had separated from the main body when they began their march, and had
taken another and what was supposed a safer road. He had with him a woman,
a boy, and two little girls, recaptured from the Indians. The whole party
ultimately arrived safe at Fort Lyttleton, but it would seem that Mercer,
weak and faint from his fractured arm, must have fallen behind, or in some
way become separated from them, and had a long, solitary, and painful
struggle through the wilderness, reaching the fort sick, weary, and half
famished. [Footnote: “We hear that Captain Mercer was fourteen days in
getting to Fort Lyttleton. He had a miraculous escape, living ten days on
two dried clams and a rattlesnake, with the assistance of a few
berries.”–_New York Mercury for October_ 4, 1756.] We shall have to
speak hereafter of his services when under the standard of Washington,
whose friend and neighbor he subsequently became. [Footnote: Mercer was a
Scotchman, about thirty-four years of age. About ten years previously he
had served as Assistant Surgeon in the forces of Charles Edward, and
followed his standard to the disastrous field of Culloden. After the defeat
of the “Chevalier,” he had escaped by the way of Inverness to America, and
taken up his residence on the frontier of Pennsylvania.]



Throughout the summer of 1756, Washington exerted himself diligently in
carrying out measures determined upon for frontier security. The great
fortress at Winchester was commenced, and the work urged forward as
expeditiously as the delays and perplexities incident to a badly organized
service would permit. It received the name of Fort Loudoun, in honor of the
commander-in-chief, whose arrival in Virginia was hopefully anticipated.

As to the sites of the frontier posts, they were decided upon by Washington
and his officers, after frequent and long consultations; parties were sent
out to work on them, and men recruited, and militia drafted, to garrison
them. Washington visited occasionally such as were in progress, and near at
hand. It was a service of some peril, for the mountains and forests were
still infested by prowling savages, especially in the neighborhood of these
new forts. At one time when he was reconnoitering a wild part of the
country, attended merely by a servant and a guide, two men were murdered by
the Indians in a solitary defile shortly after he had passed through it.

In the autumn, he made a tour of inspection along the whole line,
accompanied by his friend, Captain Hugh Mercer, who had recovered from his
recent wounds. This tour furnished repeated proofs of the inefficiency of
the militia system. In one place he attempted to raise a force with which
to scour a region infested by roving bands of savages. After waiting
several days, but five men answered to his summons. In another place, where
three companies had been ordered to the relief of a fort, attacked by the
Indians, all that could be mustered were a captain, a lieutenant, and seven
or eight men.

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