Celebrating 17 years

The Life of George Washington

Chapter One

The ancestors of George Washington were among the first settlers of the oldest British colony in America. He was the third in descent from John Washington, an English gentleman, who about the middle of the 17th century emigrated from the north of England, and settled in Westmoreland county, Virginia.

In the place where he had fixed himself, his great grandson, the subject of the following history, was born on the 22d of February, 1732. His immediate ancestor was Augustine Washington, who died when his son George was only ten years old.

The education of the young orphan, or course, devolved on his mother, who added one to the many examples of virtuous matrons, who, devoting themselves to the care of their children, have trained them up to be distinguished citizens. In one instance her fears, combining with her affection, prevented a measure, which, if persevered in, would have given a direction to the talents and views of her son, very different form that which laid the foundation of his fame.

George Washington, when only fifteen years old, solicited and obtained the place of a midshipman in the British navy; but his ardent zeal to serve his country, then at war with France and Spain, was, on the interference of his mother, for the present suspended, and for ever diverted from the sea service. She lived to see him acquire higher honours than he ever could have obtained as a naval officer; nor did she depart this life till he was elevated to the first offices, both civil and military, in the gift of his country. She was, nevertheless, from the influence of long established habits, so far from being partial to the American revolution, that she often regretted the side her son had taken in the controversy between her king and her country.

In the minority of George Washington, the means of education in America were scanty; his was therefore very little extended beyond what is common, except in mathematics. Knowledge of this kind contributes more perhaps than any other to strengthen the mind. In his case it was doubly useful; for, in the early part of his life, it laid the foundation of his fortune, by qualifying him for the office of a practical surveyor, at a time when good land was of easy attainment; and its intimate connexion with the military art, enabled him at a later period to judge more correctly of the proper means of defending his country, when he was called upon to preside over its armies.

Of the first nineteen years of George Washington's life, little is known. His talents being more solid than showy, were not sufficiently developed for public notice, by the comparatively unimportant events of that early period. His contemporaries have generally reported, that in his youth he was grave, silent, and thoughtful; diligent and methodical in business, dignified in his appearance, and strictly honourable in all his deportment; but they have not been able to gratify the public curiosity with any striking anecdotes.

His patrimonial estate was small, but that little was managed with prudence and increased by industry. In the gayest period of his life, he was a stranger to dissipation and riot. That he had established a solid reputation, even in his juvenile years, may be fairly presumed from the following circumstances. At the age of nineteen he was appointed one of the adjutants general of Virginia, with the rank of major. When he was barely twenty-one, he was employed by the government of his native colony, in an enterprise which required the prudence of age as well as the vigour of youth.

The French, as the first European discoverers of the river Missisippi, claimed all that immense region whose waters run into that river. In pursuance of the claim, in the year 1753, they took possession of a tract of country supposed to be within the chartered limits of Virginia, and were proceeding to erect a chain of posts from the lakes of Canada to the river Ohio, in subserviency to their grand scheme of connecting Canada with Louisiana, and limiting the English colonies to the east of the Alleghany mountains.

Mr. Dinwiddie, then governor of Virginia, dispatched Washington with a letter to the French commandant on the Ohio, remonstrating against the prosecution of these designs, as hostile to the rights of his Britannic majesty. The young envoy was also instructed to penetrate the designs of the French; to conciliate the affection of the native tribes; and to procure useful intelligence.

In the discharge of the trust, he set out on the 15th of November, from Will's Creek, then an extreme frontier settlement, and pursued his course through a vast extent of unexplored wilderness, amidst rains and snows and over rivers of very difficult passage, and among tribes of Indians, several of whom, from previous attentions of the French, were hostile to the English. When his horses were incompetent, he proceeded on foot with a gun in his hand and a pack on his back.

He observed everything with the eye of a soldier, and particularly designated the forks of the Monongahela and Alleghany river, (the spot where Fort Duquesne was afterwards built, and where Pittsburgh now stands) as an advantageous position for a fortress. Here he secured the affections of some neighbouring Indians, and engaged them to accompany him. With them; he ascended the Alleghany river and French Creek, to a fort on the river le Boeuf, one of its western branches. He there found Mons. Le Gardeur de St. Pierre, the commandant on the Ohio, and delivered to him Dinwiddie's letter; and receiving his answer, returned with it to Williamsburg on the 78th day after he had received his appointment.

The patience and firmness displayed on this occasion by Washington, (added to his judicious treatment of the Indians) both merited and obtained a large share of applause. A journal of the whole was published, and inspired the public with high ideas of the energies both of his body and mind.

The French were too intent on their favourite project of extending their empire in America, to be diverted from it by the remonstrances of a colonial governor. The answer brought by Washington was such as induced the assembly of Virginia to raise a regiment of 300 men, to defend their frontiers and maintain the right claimed in behalf of Great-Britain over the disputed territory. Of this Mr. Fry was appointed colonel, and George Washington, lieutenant-colonel. The latter advanced with two companies of this regiment early in April, as far as the Great Meadows, where he was informed by some friendly Indians, that the French were erecting fortifications in the fork between the Alleghany and Monongahela rivers; and also, that a detachment was on its march from that place towards the Great Meadows.

War had not been yet formally declared between France and England, but as neither was disposed to recede from their claims to the lands on the Ohio, it was deemed inevitable, and on the point of commencing. Several circumstances were supposed to indicate an hostile intention on the part of the advancing French detachment. Washington, under the guidance of some friendly Indians, in a dark rainy night surprised their encampment, and, after firing once, rushed in and surrounded them. The commanding officer, Mr. Jumonville, was killed, one person escaped, and all the rest immediately surrendered.

Soon after this affair, Col. Fry died, and the command of the regiment devolved on Washington, who speedily collected the whole at the Great Meadows. Two independent companies of regulars, one from New York, and one from South Carolina, shortly after arrived at the same place. Col. Washington was now at the head of nearly 400 men.

A stockade, afterwards called Fort Necessity, was erected at the Great Meadows, in which a small force was left, and the main body advanced with a view of dislodging the French from Fort Duquesne, which they had recently erected, at the confluence of the Alleghany and Monongahela rivers. They had not proceeded more than thirteen miles, when they were informed by some friendly Indians, "that the French, as numerous as pigeons in the woods, were advancing in an hostile manner towards the English settlements, and also, that Fort Duquesne had been recently and strongly reinforced."

In this critical situation, a council of war unanimously recommended a retreat to the Great Meadows, which was effected without delay, and every exertion made to render Fort Necessity tenable. Before the works intended for that purpose were completed, Mons. de Villier, with a considerable force, attacked the fort. The assailants were covered by trees and high grass. The Americans received them with great resolution, and fought some within the stockade, and others in the surrounding ditch. Washington continued the whole day on the outside of the fort, and conducted the defense with the greatest coolness and intrepidity. The engagement lasted from ten in the morning till night, when the French commander demanded a parley, and offered terms of capitulation. His first and second proposals were rejected; and Washington would accept of none short of the following honourable ones, which were mutually agreed upon in the course of the night. "The fort to be surrendered on condition that the garrison should march out with the honours of war, and be permitted to retain their arms and baggage, and to march unmolested into the inhabited parts of Virginia."

The legislature of Virginia, impressed with a high sense of the bravery and good conduct of their troops, though compelled to surrender the fort, voted their thanks to Col. Washington and the officers under his command, and they also gave three hundred pistoles to be distributed among the soldiers engaged in this action, but made no arrangements for renewing offensive operations in the remainder of the year 1754. When the season for action was over, the regiment was reduced to independent companies, and Washington resigned his command.

The controversy about the Ohio lands, which began in Virginia, was taken up very seriously by Great-Britain, and two British regiments were sent to America to support the claims of his Britannic majesty. They arrived early in 1755, and were commanded by Gen. Braddock. That officer, being informed of the talents of George Washington, invited him to serve the campaign as a volunteer aid de camp. The invitation was cheerfully accepted, and Washington joined Gen. Braddock near Alexandria, and proceeded with him to Will's Creek, afterwards called Fort Cumberland. Here the army was detained till the 12th of June, waiting for waggons, horses, and provisions.

Washington had early recommended the use of pack horses, instead of waggons, for conveying the baggage of the army. The propriety of this advice soon became apparent, and a considerable change was made in conformity to it. The army had not advanced much more than ten miles from Fort Cumberland, when Washington was seized with a violent fever, but nevertheless continued with the army, being conveyed in a covered waggon, after he had refused to stay behind, though so much exhausted as to be unable to ride on horseback. He advised the general to leave his heavy artillery and baggage behind, and to advance rapidly to Fort Duquesne, with a select body of troops, a few necessary stores, and some pieces of light artillery.

Hopes were indulged that by this expeditious movement, Fort Duquesne might be reached in its present weak state, with a force sufficient to reduce it, before expected reinforcements should arrive. General Braddock approved the scheme, and submitted it to the consideration of a council held at the Little Meadows, which recommended that the commander in chief advance as rapidly as possible with 1200 select men, and that Col. Dunbar should remain behind with the remainder of the troops and the heavy baggage. This advanced corps commenced its march only 30 carriages, but did not proceed with the rapidity that was expected. They frequently halted to level the road, and to build bridges over inconsiderable brooks. They consumed four days in passing over the first nineteen miles from the Little Meadows. At this place, the physicians declared that Col.Washington's life would be endangered by advancing with the army. He was therefore ordered by Gen. Braddock stay behind with a small guard till Dunbar should arrive with the rear of the army. As soon as his strength would permit, he joined the advanced detachment, and immediately entered on the duties his office. On the next day, July 9th, a dreadful scene took place. When Braddock had crossed the Monongahela, and was only a few miles from Fort Duquesne, and was pressing forward without any apprehension danger, he was attacked in an open thick set with grass. An invisible enemy, consisting of French and Indians, commenced a heavy and well directed fire on his uncovered troops. The van fell back on the main body, and the whole was thrown into disorder. Marksmen levelled their pieces particularly at officers, and others on horseback. In a short time, Washington was the only aid de camp left alive and not wounded. On him, therefore, devolved the whole duty of carrying out the general's orders. He was of course obliged to be constantly in motion, traversing the field of battle on horseback in all directions. He had two horses shot under him, and four bullets passed through his coat, but he escaped unhurt, though every other officer on horseback was either killed or wounded.

Providence preserved him for further and greater services. Throughout the whole of the carnage and confusion of this fatal day, Washington displayed the greatest coolness and the most perfect self possession. Braddock was undismayed amidst a shower of bullets, and by his countenance and example, encouraged his men to stand their ground; but valour was useless, and discipline only offered surer marks to the destructive aim of unseen marksmen. Unacquainted with the Indian mode of fighting, Braddock neither advanced upon nor retreated from the assailants, but very injudiciously endeavored to form his broken troops on the ground where they were first attacked, and where they were exposed uncovered to the incessant galling fire of a sheltered enemy.

He had been cautioned of the danger to which he was exposed, and was advised to advance the provincials in front of his troops, to scour the woods and detect ambuscades, but he disregarded the salutary recommendation. The action lasted near three hours, in the course of which the general had three horses shot under him, and finally received a wound, of which he died in a few days in the camp of Dunbar, to which he had been brought by Col. Washington and others.

On the fall of Braddock, his troops gave way in all directions, and could not be rallied till they had crossed the Monongahela. The Indians, allured by plunder, did not pursue with vigour. The vanquished regulars soon fell back to Dunbar's camp, from which, after destroying such of their stores as could be spared they retired to Philadelphia.

The officers in the British regiments displayed the greatest bravery. Their whole number was 85 and 64 of them were killed or wounded. The common soldiers were so disconcerted by the unusual mode of attack, that they soon broke, and could not be rallied. The three Virginia companies in the engagement behaved very differently, and fought like men till there were scarcely 30 men left alive in the whole. This reverse of fortune rather added to, than took from, the reputation of Washington. His countrymen extolled his conduct, and generally said and believed, that if he had been commander, the disasters of the day would have been avoided.

Intelligence of Braddock's defeat, and that Col. Dunbar had withdrawn all the regular forces from Virginia, arrived while the assembly of that colony was in session. Impressed with the necessity of protecting their exposed frontier settlements, they determined to raised a regiment of sixteen companies. The command of this was given to Washington. So great was the public confidence in the soundness of his judgment, that he was authorized to name the field officers. His commission also designated him as commander in chief of all the forces raised, or to be raised, in Virginia.

In execution of the duties of his new office, Washington, after giving the necessary orders for the recruiting service, visited the frontiers. He found many posts, but few soldiers. Of these the best disposition was made. While on his way to Williamsburg to arrange a plan of operations with the lieutenant-governor, he was overtaken by an express below Fredericksburg, with information that the back settlements were broken up by parties of French and Indians, who were murdering and capturing men, women, and children, burning their houses, and destroying their crops, and that the few troops stationed on the frontiers, unable to protect the country, had retreated to small stockade forts.

Washington altered his course from Williamsburg to Winchester, and endeavoured to collect a force for the defense of the country. But this was impossible. The in habitants, instead of assembling in arms and facing the invaders, fled before them, and extended the general panic. While the attention of individuals was engrossed by their families and private concerns, the general safety was neglected. The alarm became universal, and the utmost confusion prevailed. Before any adequate force was collected to repel the assailants, they had safely crossed the Alleghany mountains, after having done an immensity of mischief.

Irruptions of this kind were repeatedly made into the frontier settlements of Virginia, in the years 1756, 1757, and 1758. These generally consisted of a considerable number of French and Indians, who were detached from Fort Duquesne. It was their usual practice on their approaching the settlements, to divide into small parties, and avoiding the forts, to attack solitary families in the night, as well as the day. The savages, accustomed to live in the woods, found little difficulty in concealing themselves till their fatal blow was struck. Sundry unimportant skirmishes took place, with various result, but the number killed on both sides was inconsiderable, when compared with the mischief done, and the many who were put to death, otherwise than in battle.

The invaders could seldom be brought to a regular engagement. Honourable war was not in their contemplation. Plunder, devastation, and murder, were their objects, The assemblage of a respectable force to oppose them, was their signal for retreating. Irruptions of this kind were so frequent for three years following Braddock's defeat, that in Pennsylvania, the frontier settlers were driven back as far as Carlisle, and in Maryland, to Fredericktown, and in Virginia, to the Blue Ridge.

The distresses of the inhabitants exceeded all description. If they went into stockade forts, they suffered from the want of provisions - were often surrounded, and sometimes cut off. By fleeing, they abandoned the conveniences of home, and the means of support. If they continued on their farms, they lay down every night under apprehensions of being murdered before morning.

But this was not the worst. Captivity and torture were frequently their portion. To all these evils, women, aged persons, and children were equally liable with men in arms; for savages make no distinction. Extermination is their object. To Washington the inhabitants looked for that protection he had not the means of giving. In a letter to the governor, he observed, "the supplicating tears of the women, and moving petitions of the men, melt me with such deadly sorrow, that I solemnly declare, if I know my own mind, I could offer myself a willing sacrifice to the butchering enemy, provided that would contribute to the people's ease."

Virginia presented a frontier of three hundred and sixty miles, exposed to these incursions. Hard was the lot of Washington, to whom was intrusted the defense of these extensive settlements without means adequate to the purpose. The regiment voted by the assembly was never filled. Its actual number was oftener below than above 700 men. The militia afforded a very feeble aid, on which little reliance could be placed. They were slow in collecting, and when collected, soon began to hanker after home; and while in camp, could not submit to that discipline, without which an army is a mob.

The militia laws were very defective. Cowardice in time of action, and sleeping while on duty, though crimes of the most destructive nature, were very inadequately punished by the civil code under which they took the field. Desertion and mutiny, for some considerable time, subjected the offenders to nothing more than slight penalties.

Washington was incessant in his representations to the governor and to the assembly, that no reliance could be placed on the militia, under existing regulations, and that the inconsiderable number, enlisted for regular service, together with the plans proposed for the security of the frontiers, were altogether inadequate. He not only pointed out the defect of the systems which had been adopted, but submitted to the consideration of those in power, such measures as he thought best, and particularly recommended, in case offensive operations were not adopted, that twenty-two forts, extending in a line of three hundred and sixty miles, should be immediately erected and garrisoned by two thousand men, in constant pay and service; but on all occasions gave a decided preference to the reduction of Fort Duquesne, as the only radical remedy for the evils to which the frontier settlements were exposed.

Propositions to this effect were made and urged by him in 1756 and 1757, both to the government of Virginia, and the commanders in chief of the British forces in America; but a short-sighted policy in the first, and a preference given by the last to a vigorous prosecution of the war in the northern colonies, prevented their acceptance. To his inexpressible joy, the project obtained, in the year 1758 the complete approbation of Gen. Forbes, who was charged with the defense of the middle and southern colonies. This being resolved upon, the movements of the army were directed to that point. Part of the force destined for this expedition was at Philadelphia; part at Ray's Town; and part dispersed on the frontiers of Virginia.

To bring all together, was a work of time and difficulty. Washington urged the necessity of an early campaign; but such delays took place that he did not receive orders to assemble his regiment at Winchester, till the 24th of May; nor to proceed from thence to Fort Cumberland, till the 24th of June; nor to proceed to Ray's Town, till the 21st of September. The main body did not commence their march from Ray's Town, till the 2d of October, and it was as late as the 25th of November when they reached Fort Duquesne. These delays were extremely mortifying to Washington, and threatened to render the campaign abortive. He urged the necessity of expedition, and most pointedly remonstrated against one of the principal causes of delay. This was a resolution adopted by his superiours, for opening a new road for the army, in preference to that which was generally known by the name of Gen. Braddock's. Being overruled, he quietly submitted.

Instead of embarrassing measures he thought injudicious, the whole energies of himself and his regiment were exerted to make the most of those which his commanding officer preferred. The progress of the army was so slow that it did not reach Loyal Hannah till the 5th of November. Here it was determined in a council of war, "to be unadvisable to proceed any further that campaign." If this resolution had been adhered to, the only alternative would have been to winter an army of 8000 men in a cold inhospitable wilderness, remote from all friendly settlements, or to tread back their steps and wait for a more favourable season. In either case they would have suffered immensely. The propriety of the remonstrances made by Washington against the many delays which had taken place, now became obviously striking. The hopes of restoring peace to the frontier settlements by reducing Fort Duquesne, began to vanish. But contrary to all human appearances, success was now offered to their grasp at the very moment they had given up every hope of obtaining it.

Some prisoners were taken, who gave such information of the state of the garrison, as induced a reversal of the late determination, and encouraged the general to proceed. Washington was in front superintending the opening of the road for the accommodation of the troops. They advanced with slow and cautious steps until they reached Fort Duquesne. To their great surprise they found the fort evacuated, and that the garrison had retreated down the Ohio. The reasons for the abandonment of so advantageous a position, must be looked for elsewhere. The British had urged the war with so much vigour and success against the French to the northward of the Ohio, that no reinforcements could be spared to Fort Duquesne. The British fleet had captured a considerable part of the reinforcements designed by France for her colonies. The tide of fortune had begun to turn against the French in favour of the English. These weakened the influence of the former over the Indians, and caused them to withdraw from the support of the garrison. Under different circumstances, the success of the campaign would have been doubtful, perhaps impracticable. The benefits which resulted from the acquisition of Fort Duquesne, proved the soundness of Washington's judgment in so warmly urging, for three years, an expedition for its reduction. These were not confined to Virginia, but extended to Pennsylvania and Maryland.

While the French were in possession of that post, the Indians near the Ohio were entirely at their beck. This was their place of rendezvous, and from it they made frequent and ruinous incursions into these three colonies. They neither spared age nor sex, but killed or captivated indiscriminately all who came in their way. Fire and devastation - the scalping knife and tomahawk, marked their route. A complete revolution in the disposition of the Indians, resulted from the expulsion of the French.

Always prone to take part with the strongest, they deserted their ancient friends, and paid court to those who, by recent conquest, were now in possession of the country. A treaty of peace was soon after concluded with all the Indian tribes between the lakes and the Ohio. Fort Duquesne henceforward assumed the name of Fort Pitt, received considerable repairs, and was garrisoned by 200 men from Washington's regiment. It became as useful in future to the English settlements, as it had been injurious while in the occupation of the French.

The campaign of 1758 ended the military career of Col. Washington, as a provincial officer. The great object on which his heart was set, the reduction of Fort Duquesne, being accomplished, he resigned his commission.

During the three preceding years in which he was charged with the defense of Virginia, none of those great events occurred which enliven and adorn the page of history; yet the duties he performed were extremely arduous. He established exact discipline in his regiment, though unaccustomed to restraint, and infused into them such a spirit as made them, when in action, fight like men, and die like soldiers.

The difficulties of defending such an extensive frontier, with so inadequate a force, would have chagrined almost any other man into a resignation of the command, but only excited in him greater importunity with the ruling powers, for the correction of errors. The plans he proposed, the systems he recommended for conducting the war, displayed an uncommon vigour of mind. He retired from the army with the thanks of his regiment, and the esteem not only of his countrymen, but of the officers of the British army; and what is particularly remarkable, with the undiminished confidence of the frontier settlers, to whom he was unable to extend that protection they expected from his hands. They were thoroughly convinced he had made the best possible use of his scanty means for the security of so extensive a frontier; and to the weight of his advice in recommending, and spirited co-operation in executing, they ascribed a large proportion of the merit of the late successful expedition against Fort Duquesne; an event from which they promised themselves an exemption from the calamities under which they had long laboured. As a reward of his gallant and patriotic services, he shortly after obtained the hand of Mrs. Custis, who, to a fine person and large fortune, added every accomplishment which contributes to the happiness of married life. Col. Washington, by the death of his elder brother Lawrence, had a few years before acquired an estate situated on the Potowmack, called Mount Vernon, in compliment to admiral Vernon, who, about the year 1741, commanded the British fleet in an expedition against Carthagena, in which expedition Mr. Lawrence Washington had been engaged.

To this delightful spot the late commander of the Virginia forces, released from the cares of a military life, and in possession of every thing that could make life agreeable, withdrew, and gave himself up to domestic pursuits. These were conducted with so much judgment, steadiness, and industry, as greatly to enlarge and improve his estate. To them he exclusively devoted himself for fifteen years, with the exception of serving in the house of burgesses of the colony of Virginia, and as a judge of the court of the county in which he resided. In these stations he acquitted himself with reputation, and acquired no inconsiderable knowledge in the science of civil government.

During this period, the clashing claims of Great-Britain and her colonies were frequently brought before the Virginia legislature. In every instance he took a decided part in the opposition made to the principle of taxation claimed by the parent state.

Had Great-Britain been wise, the history of George Washington would have ended here, with the addition that he died in the sixty-eighth year of his age, having sustained through life the character of a good man, an excellent farmer, a wise member of the legislature, and an impartial distributer of justice among his neighbours.

Very different was his destiny. From being the commander of the forces of his native colony, Virginia, he was advanced to the command of the armies of thirteen United Colonies, and successfully led them through a revolutionary war of eight years duration, which issued in their establishment as thirteen United States. The origin of these great events must be looked for across the Atlantic.


End of Chapter One. Continue to
Chapter Two of The Life of Washington