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Three major factors caused the American Revolution: a dissident Protestant tradition that established a de facto independent, self-governing commonwealth in New England; heavy-handed, shortsighted, and incredibly inept British policy; and the emergence of George Washington, a vestryman in Virginia's Anglican Church who brought discipline and decorum to a wild and disorganized band of predominantly radical Protestant-Separatists. The ideology for revolution had been expounded for 150 years in New England's pursuits, had been secularized to some extent by such Whig political theorists as John Locke and William Blackstone, and had been given fresh religious impetus by Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and the "New Light" preachers of the Great Awakening who brought the ideology of revolution to the Southern colonies. America's religious institu- tions, for the most part, had long ago declared their de facto independence. The people of New England were ripe for rebellion.
By the middle of the 18th century, what they needed was a pretext, and a leader. That leader arrived on a white horse. George Washington was 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighed 220 pounds; massive proportions for those times. He was the indis- pensable man; one who brought coherence, leadership, and symbolism to the cause of liberty and self-government. He was 43 years old when he assumed command of the Continental Army in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but had already had a remarkable military career.
Born on February 22, 1732, at Wakefield Plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia, George Washington was the son of Augustine Washington and his second wife, Mary Ball. He had a modest upbringing. An inventory made of his family's possessions when he was 11 shows the Washingtons' proudest possessions being: 1 soup spoon, 18 small spoons, 7 tea spoons, a watch, and a sword. George's formal schooling went only through the elementary grades. His father died when he was 11. The farm became run down, and George had to take on many of his father's duties. His half-brother, Lawrence, 14 years George's senior, was a regular in the British Army and, in the absence of a father, became a role model for our future hero. Lawrence, though, died of tuberculosis in 1752.
At an early age, George became a great horseman, and at age 17 he set himself up as a surveyor of the Blue Ridge Mountains. During these early years, he gained knowledge of the ways of the wilderness and of how to get along with the Indians. At age 18, he made his first land purchases 59 acres on Bullskin Creek, a part of the Shenandoah. Washington's mother worked hard to raise him a committed Christian, and admonished him before he left home as a young soldier: "Remember that God is our only sure trust." "My son," she added, "neglect not the duty of secret prayer." Young Washington was a diligent and earnest reader of the Scriptures, which he always kept near his bed at night.
Washington joined Virginia's volunteer militia, and by age 20 achieved the rank of major. This was not considered terribly significant, since the volunteer militia resembled more a political club than a fighting force. Nevertheless, to those who knew him it was immediately clear that Washington was a born leader and that he had the air of manifest destiny about him.
Washington came to the public's notice for his exploits during the French and Indian War, known also as the Seven Years War between Britain and France. It might also be considered the first world war. The conflict between Britain and France spanned the globe, from Europe to the Philippines. But Washington had little interest in geopolitics. His country was Virginia. His concerns were local He did, however, want the French Army out of Virginia. So did Governor Dinwiddie, who employed young Washington to deliver a message of ultimatum to the French to leave the Ohio Valley, a British possession.
Washington departed for the French stronghold in November 1753 with a small party, including his guide and lifelong friend Christopher Gist. This 1,000-mile journey through the wilderness in the dead of winter made Washington a local hero. Along the way he encountered numerous Indian leaders, many of whom were wreaking havoc on the white settlers along the Virginia frontier. Through skillful diplomacy, he survived meetings with Shingiss, the king of the Delawares; the chief of the Oneidas; and Half-King, chief of the Senecas. The weather was terrible, and Washington had difficulty even finding the French encampments. He finally reached Fort Le Boeuf on December 12, 1753, at one point walking with Gist 200 miles on foot through trackless forests and freezing rivers. When Washington returned, Governor Dinwiddie was so amazed that he published a narrative of Washington's journey, which was widely read, not only in Virginia, but throughout the colonies and even in England. At age 21, Washington was the most celebrated hero in Virginia.
So impressed was Governor Dinwiddie with the young major that he put Washington in command of an attack on the French Fort Necessity, which had assumed control of the Ohio Valley. The battle turned out to be a complete fiasco, as the heavily out-gunned and out-manned Washington lost a third of his men. It was a horrible defeat for the British, and was the trigger for the extremely bloody French and Indian War. Nevertheless, Washington had gained valuable battle experience: "I heard the bullets whistle," he wrote in a letter, "and believe me, there is something charming in the sound."
The Virginia militia was disbanded, however, upon the arrival of British regulars, leaving Washington without a military post. In 1755, Major General Edward Braddock arrived in Alexandria with two regiments. Braddock was contemptuous of the colonials, and did not want any part of them in his army. He had heard, however, that George Washington knew more than anyone about the wilderness in the Virginia region, and decided his expertise might be of use. The British military was a well-oiled machine, and Braddock's men were part of an elite corps. Superbly equipped and supplied, they could move and wheel with perfect precision in any direction. Braddock's mission was to take the French Fort Duquesne, located at the fork of the Ohio River.
But Washington saw immediately that the British approach was inappropriate for the American wilderness. He warned Braddock that the Indians had their own ways, and that heavy artillery and rows of riflemen clad in red, though suitable for the wide open battlefields of Europe, were doomed in the American forests. Braddock paid no attention to Washington, seeing him as an upstart colonial who had no sophisticated understanding of the world of empire-building.
British progress toward Fort Duquesne was incredibly slow, because engineers had to construct roads on which to transport the heavy guns. Washington informed Braddock that this was absurd. Not only would the British be cut to ribbons in an Indian ambush, but they would not reach the French fort before winter. His warnings fell on deaf ears. Braddock proceeded according to plan, and Washington, suddenly seriously ill, probably with dysentery, was left behind.
Despite his illness, the young warrior concluded that he did not want to miss this chance to repay the French for what they had done to him at Fort Necessity. Washington hitched up a wagon and, barely able to sit up, caught Braddock, who had decided, after all, to take Washington's advice and pick up the pace. July 9, 1755, would, however, prove to be one of the bloodiest days in Anglo-American history.
Washington, still in terrible pain, managed to mount a horse and join Braddock's assault on Fort Duquesne. But as the British forces proceeded through the woods and entered a clearing, shots suddenly rang out, followed by a series of blood-curdling war whoops. One thousand warriors had come from all over the region to assist the French. British soldiers began dropping in bloody heaps. Washington pleaded with Braddock to allow him to lead, to no effect. Unnerved by the Indian screams, British soldiers panicked in the face of an invisible enemy. Braddock was shot off his horse, and Washington seized the opportunity to lead the desperate British regulars in an orderly retreat. Twice Washington's horse was shot out from under him, and twice he mounted a new one. Four bullets tore through his clothes, but miraculously he remained unscathed. Washington moved unflinchingly through the shower of lead to collect hundreds of wounded soldiers, including Braddock, and loaded them into wagons. Fortunately for him, the Indians were too busy scalping and torturing to pursue Washington's wagons, or they could have butchered every single man in Braddock's force. But the damage was done. Of 1,459 British soldiers, 977 were killed or wounded. Incredibly, providentiaHy for the fate of our nation, Washington's body had not been touched, though his clothes had been shredded by gunfire.
The wounded Braddock ordered Washington to ride 40 miles through the night to get reinforcements. He tore through the woods, encountering incredible scenes, horrible beyond description, piles of mangled flesh and earth soaked with blood. The forest was so dense and dark that at times Washington had to dismount and crawl on his hands and knees to find a path. Still sick with fever, his resilient constitution summoned the strength to carry him to his destination. But when he told British forces what had occurred, they were too terrified to march. Braddock died of his wounds.
The expedition was a clear catastrophe for the British, but not for Washington. The veteran regulars marveled at his bravery, and his reputation spread throughout the colonies. "I was saved," said Washington, by "the miraculous care of Providence that protected me beyond human expectation." The story of his valor, loading the wounded into wagons without regard to his personal safety, became legendary. Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania praised young Washington publicly for his bravery and cool head in a time of such grave disaster. One preacher told his congregation that surely God had spared this young soldier's life for some great future purpose. The Braddock defeat was a Pearl Harbor for the British, but on that day the world took notice of the birth of the Washington legend.
The British decided to pull their forces out of the region, leaving Virginia's inhabitants to fend for themselves. It was a decision, no doubt, that planted a seed of doubt in Washington's mind about the benefits of remaining a part of the empire. Washington did not care about power politics. His love for Virginia, not imperial interests, was his reason for fighting the French and Indians. The British departure left a power vacuum, and the Indian attacks on frontier homes grew ferocious. The Virginia Assembly voted to reconstitute the militia, and to make Washington Commander in Chief of Virginia forces. While Washington was headquartered in Winchester, terrifying reports of burnings, scalpings, death, and mayhem poured into the young commander's offices. "The supplication and the tears," Washington lamented, "melt me into 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 . . . If bleeding, dying'. would glut their insatiate revenge, I would be a willing offering to savage fury, and die by inches to save a people."
To make matters worse, Washington came down with tuberculosis, which actually turned out to be a blessing, because it immunized him from the worst killer of the American Revolution The Army doctor James Craik believed that "the fate of your friends and country are in a manner dependent upon your recovery." Craik had given up hope. But, just as Washington appeared about to die of "violent pleuritic pains," he suddenly, and inexplicably, got well.
Meanwhile, William Pitt, the great empire-builder, had taken over as Prime Minister. He saw England's future as being tied to North America. Pitt decided to withdraw British forces from the European continent, and concentrate them almost exclusively in the American frontier. He would keep the French occupied in Europe by subsidizing his Prussian allies. Brigadier General John Forbes arrived with a force three times the size of Braddock's. Forbes had the foresight to recognize Washington's experience and made him a brigadier general. They would launch another attack on Fort Duquesne, and Washington would lead the advance brigade.
During the expedition, however, Washington's troops got split up. Edgy after the Braddock affair, his men panicked and began firing wildly at every movement, having confused each other for the enemy. But Washington, cool as always, saw im- mediately what had happened. He rode out in the midst of the crossfire and with his sword knocked his soldiers' rifles upward so that the bullets rocketed harmlessly into the air. Fourteen men were killed and 26 wounded. But, again, Washington emerged untouched, despite the fact that he was the most exposed.
The rest of the tale is an anti-climax because the French, upon hearing about the size of Forbes' approaching force, abandoned the fort and burned it to the ground. The location was renamed Pittsburgh, after the British Prime Minister. The Indians were no longer so interested in fighting for French causes, and Pitt's army and navy in short order defeated the French forces everywhere on the continent: Pennsylvania, New York, Quiberon Bay, Quebec. In 1763, the Treaty of Paris was signed, marking the end of France as a power in North America.
But the Washington legend seemed etched forever, not just in the minds of Virginians, but also in the memories of the Indians who fought against him. Fifteen years after the war, according to an account in George Bancroft's Histoiy of the United States, Washington and Craik were exploring the forests on the banks of the Ohio River when they encountered a band of Indians. They immediately recognized the war hero, and invited the two white men back to camp to powwow with the chief. As it turned out, the tribe had fought on the side of the French, and the chief remembered Washington's exploits at the battle of Fort Duquesne.
"I am chief and ruler over all my tribes," he told Washington. "My influence extends to the waters of the great lakes, and to the far blue mountains. I have traveled a long and weary path, that I might see the young warrior of the great battle. It was on the day when the white man's blood mixed with the streams of our forest that I first beheld this chief," he said, pointing to Washington. "I called to my young men and said, ‘Mark yon tall and daring warrior? He is not of the redcoat tribe-he hath an Indian's wisdom, and his warriors fight as we do-himself alone is exposed. Quick, let your aim be certain, and he dies.' Our rifles were leveled, rifles which, but for him, knew not how to miss... ‘Twas all in vain; a power far mightier than we shielded him from harm. He cannot die in battle . . . The Great Spirit protects that man, and guides his destinies. He will become chief of nations, and a people yet unborn will hail him the founder of a mighty nation."
But after the French and Indian War, Washington had no appetite for more military glory. The Virginia frontier seemed safe for the time being. He decided to go home and nurture a prosperous marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis, to whom he was engaged before the Forbes expedition. Martha was a widow with two small children when she met the great soldier. Washington believed his marriage to her was the event of his life. Martha was not a talker or an intellectual. She was, said Washington, "a quiet wife, a quiet soul," and most "conducive to happiness." Until America's war with Britain, he would devote his energies to becoming a large-scale
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Published by the Christian Defense Fund.
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© Copyright 1988, Benjamin Hart