General Washington, by Bradley T. Johnson, Chapter 2

Washington and Lee University

General Washington

By General Bradley T. Johnson



IN recognition of his service on the expedition to the Ohio, Major Washington was promoted lieutenant colonel of a Virginia regiment, Fry being colonel, to be posted at Winchester, at the foot of the great valley of Virginia, and right across the great trail by which the Northern Indians had been used from time immemorial to communicate with the great nations which held the mountain ranges and valleys of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Tennessee. It was the highway of the Iroquois or Six Nations and the Cherokees.

It was plain to the Virginian intellect—English and Protestant as it was—that the Jesuits were scheming, and putting forward the Indians to exterminate the settlements of the Church established by Henry VIII, where traditions of Poictiers, and Cressy, and Agincourt stimulated confidence in themselves and contempt for Frenchmen, and hatred of the Pope and all his works. The old struggle between the lily and the rose was to be tried over again, and no Virginian gentleman doubted his duty, or the result. Dinwiddie, the Lieutenant Governor, was a narrow and bigoted Scotchman, greatly impressed with a sense of the dignity of his office, and of the inferiority of provincials to the home-born British subject. His Majesty’s commission, in his opinion, conferred a patent of superiority which brought with it wisdom and infallibility. The wrangle between the House of Burgesses, elected by the gentry of Virginia, and the Governor, appointed by a cabinet ignorant of the environment or the development or of the feelings of the provincials, of necessity impaired their efficient support of the defense of Virginia. But the determination to protect her ancient borders from encroachment was absolutely unalterable.

The tradition of the spoliation of Virginia, by the Penn and Calvert grants, was fresh in every one’s mind, but while they proposed to be loyal to his Majesty, and yield obedience to his orders in council, they would in no wise suffer aliens in race and religion, with whom their ancestors had waged war for twenty generations, to extend their hold on the Continent, or to trespass on the ancient borders of the Old Dominion. Therefore this regiment, under Fry and Washington, was posted on outposts to break communication between the North and South, and to keep watch over the movements of the hereditary enemy on the Ohio.

The mouth of Wills Creek, on the Potomac, in Maryland, was the head of flatboat and canoe navigation, and the nearest point to the French posts. It was selected as a depot by Governor Sharpe, of Maryland, where he collected some stores, and whence was sent out by the combined authority of the Governors of Maryland and Virginia an expedition to seize the point at the confluence of the Alleghany and the Monongahela, where their union makes the 0hio—a position Major Washington had selected and reported as the proper place for an advanced post against the French on the lakes Captain Trent was pushed out to establish a post at the confluence of the two rivers. With the usual alertness of incompetency, Captain Trent differed from the judgment of Major Washington, and decided that a point below the junction was the best place for a fort, and set his men to work there with spade and pickaxe, and, mounting his horse, pushed back to the post at Wills Creek.

It was hard living and hard sleeping on the Ohio. Mere dying had no particular interest for the pioneer race; that all came in the way of business, and no one took any special pains to avoid it. It was like a mountain road—you might get through, and you might not; you tried it all the same.

The appearance of the Virginians, their digging of dirt, their cutting down of trees, their sharpening of stakes, all flew through the forest, in the spring breeze, and Captain Contrecœur, a bright young Frenchman, at the nearest post, took upon himself to investigate them and to verify them.

So down the Alleghany he started with a thousand Frenchmen and Indians, in bateaux and canoes, and incontinently stopped the intrenching operations of the Virginians. Captain Trent was away. Lieutenant Frazier, his second in command, was at his home, ten miles distant—a matter entirely within his right, for he had entered the service and assumed the responsibility of command at the fort on the express understanding that he was to be permitted to remain at his own home, and only visit the fort weekly, or as often as he thought necessary. The Frenchman marched the Virginians out of the work with scant ceremony, and permitted them to depart with their intrenching tools, on their promise not to come near the Ohio again for a year.

On the 2d of April Colonel Washington set out from Alexandria, with two companies of the new regiment, for the outpost on the Ohio. His supplies and baggage were pushed and hauled up the Potomac to the mouth of Wills Creek in bateaux and canoes. His whole force consisted of about one hundred and fifty men; but on arriving at Wills Creek, where Captain Trent was to have collected pack horses for him, he found Trent a fugitive—no pack horses, and no outpost on the Ohio. He decided to move out as far as possible and occupy the best position practicable, and therefore pushed into the wilderness beyond Cumberland, or Wills Creek, through the mountain defiles, over the mountain ranges, and through the forest with about three hundred men. Progress was necessarily slow, where a way for wheels had to be cut along the mountain side and a road cleared through the heavy timber.

In ten days they had not advanced more than twenty miles, to the Little Meadows. Notwithstanding the difficulties of the country, he marched forty or fifty miles farther north, to the falls of the Youghiogheny. There he heard that the French were coming, and had crossed the ford of the river eighteen miles off. He had only three hundred men, Virginian frontiersmen, and fighting men to be sure, but it was utter recklessness that pushed such a force out in the wilderness nearly a hundred miles from re-enforcement or support. Three hundred Virginians could march and fight their way from Winchester or Staunton to Lake Erie or Lake Michigan against Indians only, but nothing but the self-confidence of Englishmen could explain why an inexperienced young soldier would undertake to penetrate a wilderness with a mere handful of men, in the face of the unknown force of Frenchmen, then the first soldiers of the age.

When, however, he learned that eight hundred French were marching on him, and only eighteen miles off, he promptly selected a position for a fight. At the Great Meadows he started to construct a fort. The locality was bad; it was too far out from his supports. The topography was worse. General Sharpe, of Maryland, a soldier of experience, of courage, and sense, criticised the whole performance with remorseless severity. “Fort Necessity,” says Sharpe, “was a little, useless intrenchment in a valley between two eminences.” It was, in fact, a meadow of no great area, surrounded by low hills covered with heavy timber. While he was at work at his “fort” news came that a hostile party was in his neighborhood, and his Indian ally—the Half King of the Senecas—wanted his assistance to at[t]ack it.

Washington started at once, with forty men, to find the enemy, surprised him in camp, and killed and captured Jumonville and the entire party save one, who escaped. This was Colonel Washington’s first experience of the singing of a hostile bullet, and, being a healthy, strong young Virginian, it is reasonable to believe that he enjoyed it His ancestors in Virginia for three generations had been fighting Indians, as in England for ten they had been fighting Frenchmen, and this combined operation of killing both Frenchmen and Indians must have been a reasonable, commendable, and agreeable performance of duty and pleasure.

Contrecœur, with his French troops, pushed rapidly on him, to avenge the insult in the capture of his advance party, and the death of Jumonville, its commanding officer. He closed the Virginians up in Fort Necessity and took possession of the wooded heights surrounding it. Some nonsense has been written about Colonel Washington’s gallantry in offering battle to his adversary outside of his trenches. Now, Washington, though reckless and overconfident in this first experience, has never been suspected of an utter lack of sense. In war it is business to kill as many of the other side as you can and have as few of your own people killed as possible; so you use every advantage to save your men and to destroy the others; and the idea of abandoning shelter, and offering with three hundred men to fight eight hundred “in the open,” never did occur to any one but an idiot or a lunatic. Therefore Washington must be acquitted of the charge of offering to fight the French “in the open” at Fort Necessity.

The truth is, he and his Virginians stuck to their earthworks, and their ditch, and their stockade, as closely as bark to the trees; but the Frenchmen surrounded them, sheltered themselves behind trees, and fired over the walls of Fort Necessity into the uncovered troops there, with perfect security and comfort to themselves. This continued the whole day, in a drizzling rain. The Virginian loss was severe. Twelve had been killed and forty-three wounded; so when the French drums beat a parley at dark, the Virginian colonel was glad to treat for terms. His position was utterly untenable, and it was only a question of time when his entire force would be shot down, and it was his duty to save his men for future use of the State.

No one among the Virginians could speak or read French. Old Jacob Van Braam, the Dutchman who had been pretending to teach Washington fencing and the sword exercise at Mount Vernon, had been commissioned major, and was present with the command. He was sent out to see the Frenchmen, and returned with several offers of terms, all of which were rejected by Colonel Washington. At last, late at night, Major Van Braam brought in terms of capitulation written in French. He translated them to the council of Virginian officers. According to his translation, they agreed to honorable terms of surrender; the defeated party should march out of their fort with drums beating and colors flying, should salute their flag, and carry off all their arms, military stores, and effects, except artillery, which they were to destroy. They pledged themselves not to erect buildings or to occupy land, or to approach near the Ohio for twelve months.

But the articles of capitulation also referred to the assassination of De Jumonville, and Washington was thus made to admit that he had murdered a French officer. This phrase Van Braam translated as “the death of De Jumonville,” and thus its significance and intention escaped the Virginians. The terms of capitulation gave great offense in some of the colonies, and were sharply criticised at home.

Governor Sharpe wrote that “everybody was talking of the unmilitary conduct of Colonel Washington,” and Horace Walpole said that the French had clipped the wings of that gay “fanfaron,” Major Washington; but the Virginians had a truer appreciation of youthful dash and imprudence, and through their House of Burgesses gave a vote of thanks to the officers, and a donation in money to the men, for their fidelity and gallantry in defense of their country.

This first campaign of Washington is a curious incident in his career, and gives an interesting insight into his character. A genuine soldier does not give great consideration to arithmetic. If generals never fought until success was demonstrably certain, there would be no pitched battles; but in the real soldier so much of imagination mingles with analysis and logic, and chance so often determines the event, that he is always ready to take desperate chances. Since the capitulation of Fort Necessity, the advance into the wilderness with so small a force has been considered the next thing to foolhardiness; yet Andrew Lewis afterward, with a few Virginians, fought more Indians with success than the French force that captured Fort Necessity; and George Rogers Clarke broke the Indian power and occupied the Northwest for Virginia with no greater force.

If Colonel Washington had surprised and routed Contrecœur at Fort Du Quesne—as was entirely possible—his expedition would have been considered a dashing exploit, whose vigor and celerity would have redeemed its risk. Success is the only test of merit in military matters.

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