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The French were the first European discoverers of the Mississippi, and claimed all those extensive regions whose waters emptied into that river. They had just formed a plan of connecting their possessions in America, by the union of Louisiana with Canada. In pursuance of this design, a line of military posts from the lakes to the Ohio had been commenced in the year 1753. This territory was situated within the boundaries of Virginia, and the governor of that province deemed it his duty to remonstrate against encroachments, which he considered in violation of previous treaties. He determined to send an agent to the French commandant on the Ohio, to convey his views upon this important and delicate subject For this purpose Mr. Washington was the person selected.
In discharge of this trust, he set out about the middle of November, from Wills' Creek, then an extreme frontier settlement, and pursued his course over an unexplored tract of morasses and forests, over rivers of diffi cult passage, and among tribes of hostile Indians. Reaching the Monongahela on the twenty-second, he there learned that the French general was dead, and that the greater part of the army had retired into winter quarters. He spent a few days among the Indians, and very wisely secured the services of some of their chiefs, who guided him to the fort at French Creek, where he found the commanding officer on the Ohio. Delivering his letters, in three or four days he received an official reply, and immediately set out on his return. Finding the snow deep, and his horses weakened with fatigue, he determined to pursue his way on foot. He took his necessary papers, a gun and a pack, and wrapping himself in his watch-coat, set ont with a single companion. On the day following, they fell in with a party of French Indians, one of whom fired upon them. They took this Indian prisoner, and kept him until nine o'clock in the evening, when they released him, and walked without stopping all the rest of the night, in order to be out of the reach of pursuit.
As the answer of the French commandant indicated no disposition to withdraw from the disputed territory, the Assembly of Virginia determined to maintain by force the rights of the British crown. A regiment was immediately raised of three hundred men. The command of this body was given to Mr. Fry, and Washington was appointed lieutenant colonel. Desirous to engage in active service, and take as early measures as possible in defence of the colony, Washington obtained permission to march in advance of the other troops, to Great Meadows. On reaching this place, he learned from the friendly Indians that a party of the French were encamped in a valley a few miles to the west. The night was dark and rainy, and entirely concealed the movements of the troops. They surrounded the French camp, and took it completely by surprise. The commanding officer was killed, one person escaped, and all the rest immediately surrendered.
Soon after this affair, Colonel Fry died, and the command of the regiment devolved upon Washington, who speedily collected forces at Great Meadows, to the number of four hundred men. A small stockade was erected, called Fort Necessity, in which a few soldiers were stationed to guard the horses and provisions, while the main body moved forward to dislodge the French from Fort Du Quesne. They had not proceeded more than thirteen miles, when they were informed by 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 Du Quesne had been recently and strongly reinforced.” In this critical situation it was resolved to retreat to the Great Meadows, and every exertion was made to render Fort Necessity tenable. Before the completion of the works erecting for that purpose, the fort was attacked by a considerable force. The assailants were protected by trees and high grass. The Americans received them with great intrepidity, and Washington distinguished himself by his coolness and address. The engagement continued from ten in the morning until dark, when the French general demanded a parley, and offered terms capitulation. These were refused, but in the course of the night other proposals were accepted. The fort was surrendered on condition that the garrison should march out with the honors of war, should be permitted to retain their arms and baggage, and to proceed without molestation into the inhabited parts of Virginia. A public vote of thanks was given to Washington and the officers under his command, for their conduct in this affair ; and three hundred pistoles were distributed among the soldiers.
The controversy in respect to the Ohio lands, which commenced in Virginia, was taken up with much zeal in Great Britain, and two regiments were sent to America to support the pretensions of his Britannic majesty. They arrived early in 1755, under the command of General Braddock, who invited Washington to serve the campaign as a volunteer aid-de-camp. This invitation he at once accepted, and joined the regiment on its march w Fort Cumberland. Here the army was detained till the twelfth of June,
waiting for wagons, horses and provisions. Soon after resuming their march, Washington was seized with a violent fever, but refusing to remain behind the army, was conveyed with them in a covered wagon.
The object of the campaign was the capture of Fort Du Quesne. Washington advised the general to leave his heavy artillery and baggage behind, and to press forward with a chosen body of troops as expeditiously as possible. This advice was adopted, and twelve hundred men were selected, to be commanded by General Braddock in person, and to advance with the utmost despatch. This corps immediately commenced its march, but did not move with the celerity that had been expected. “I found,” said Washington, in a letter to his brother, “ that instead of pushing on with vigor, without regarding a little rough road, they were halting to level every mole hill, and to erect bridges over every brook.” They were four days in passing over the first nineteen miles from the Little Meadows. Here the sickness of Washington made it impossible for him to proceed on the march. General Braddock ordered him to stay behind with a small guard, till the arrival of Colonel Dunbar, with the rear division of the army. As soon as his strength would permit, he rejoined the general, and immediately entered on the duty of his office.
The next day was an eventful one in our early history. It was the ninth of July. General Braddock had crossed the Monongahela, and was pressing forward, with no apprehension of danger, to Fort Du Quesne. He was already within a few miles of his destination, marching on an open road thick set with grass, when on a sudden a heavy and well directed fire was opened upon his troops by an invisible enemy, consisting of the French and Indians. From their sheltered retreats they were able to take a safe and steady aim, and the officers of the British troops were slain in great numbers. In a short time Washington was the only aid-de-camp left alive and unwounded. He was obliged consequently to carry all of the general's orders, to every part of the battle-field in person. In performing
this duty, he had two horses killed under him, and four balls passed through his coat. “I expected every moment,” says an eyewitness, “ to see him fall. Nothing but the superintending care of Providence could have saved him from the fate of all around him."
During the whole course of the battle Braddock displayed the utmost intrepidity and firmness. He encouraged his men to keep their ground; but valor was useless, and he saw his army falling around him like grass under the scythe, without being able to render them any assistance. Unacquainted with the Indian mode of fighting, his efforts to form his broken troops only exposed them more surely to the galling fire of the enemy. The action continued for three hours, in the course of which the general had three horses killed under him, and received himself a mortal wound. His troops immediately fled in great confusion. It was impossible to rally them, until they had crossed the Monongahela, and placed a river between themselves and their enemy. The Indians were too much occupied with the plunder, to think of continuing the pursuit. Braddock was carried to the camp of Dunbar, where in a few days he died.
On this occasion the British officers behaved with admirable bravery, but the common soldiers broke into confusion in spite of every effort to rally them, and fled like sheep before hounds. The three Virginia companies, on the contrary, conducted with great spirit, and fought with such disregard of danger, that there were scarcely thirty men left alive from their whole number. This defeat did not injure the reputation of Washington. His countrymen praised his conduct, and it was well understood that the disasters of the day originated in a neglect of his advice.
Intelligence of the defeat of Braddock, and of the withdrawal of the regular forces from Virginia, arrived while the Assembly of that colony were still in session. It was at once resolved to raise a regiment of sixteen companies to protect the frontier settlements. The command of this was given to Washington, with authority to name the field officers.
In executing the duties of his office, Washington visited the frontiers, and made the best disposition of the few soldiers he found in the various posts. On his way to Williamsburg, he was overtaken by an express, with information that the back settlements had been broken up by the French and Indians, who were burning their houses, devastating their crops, murdering and leading into captivity the men, women and children. The few troops stationed on the frontiers were unable to render them any assistance, but retired for their own safety to the stockade forts. Alarm and confusion prevailed on all sides. Before any sufficient force could be collected to repel the assailants, they had retreated beyond the Alleghany mountains, and were out of the reach of punishment. Irruptions of this kind were repeatedly made into the frontier settlements during the years 1756, 1757, and 1758. The distresses of the inhabitants were extreme. In the forts they suffered from hunger, and were often besieged and murdered. In their farms and villages they lay down every night with the fear of a cruel death, or a more cruel bondage, continually before them.
The people looked to Washington for the protection he was unable to give. The difficulty of raising a large number of men, and the inability of a small number to protect the extensive frontiers of Virginia, were continual sources of anxiety and distress. The savages made no distinctions in their warfare. They slew the women and children, the aged and the helpless, as well as the men whom they found in arms. Washington, in a letter written during this period to the governor, 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.” He was indefati. gable in representing to the governor the wretched condition of the inha. bitants, and the great defects of the existing mode of defence. He advised the reduction of Fort Du Quesne, the lurking-place and strong hold of these predatory bands, as the only means of effectually restoring secu rity to the frontier settlements. In case this measure was not adopted, he advised that twenty-two forts, extending in a line of three hundred and sixty miles, should be erected and garrisoned by two thousand men, in constant pay and service. In the autumn of 1758, to the great joy of Washington, an expedition was fitted out against Fort Du Quesne; but on reaching the post, they found that the garrison had deserted it and retreated down the Ohio. A treaty of peace was soon after concluded with the Indian tribes. Fort Du Quesne received the name of Fort Pitt, was repaired and garrisoned with two hundred men from Washington's regiment. Henceforward it was a source of as much advantage to the English settlements, as it had before been of detriment. The remains of this fort presented the following appearance in the year 1831.