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Lessons in Leadership
By Gerald M. Carbone
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2010 Gerald M. Carbone
All rights reserved.
"Something Charming in the Sound"
WITH SOLID EVIDENCE THAT THE FRENCH INTENDED TO CLAIM A good chunk of North America from Lake Erie to Louisiana, Governor Robert Dinwiddie appealed to the 13 colonies for militia to oppose this scheme. He had little success. The colonies rarely acted in concert on anything, and were as apt to be rivals as allies. Even Dinwiddie's own colony of Virginia was lukewarm to the idea of a confrontation with the French; many in the House of Burgesses suspected the governor of trying to manipulate the militia in a selfish bid to protect wealthy cronies who had invested heavily in settling those frontier lands through a venture called the Ohio Land Company.
In February 1754, Virginia's House of Burgesses reluctantly agreed to spend £10,000 on sending an armed expedition into the Ohio and a race was on for the "Forks of the Ohio," site of present-day Pittsburgh, where the Alleghany and the Monongahela flow together to form the Ohio River. Washington had identified this as the perfect place to build a fort in the region, and the natural advantages were so obvious that the English colonies had to hurry before the French built there first.
Washington volunteered to be "among chief officers of this expedition" to fortify the Forks. He knew that at age 22 he was too green in the military arts to actually lead the expedition, writing: "The command of the whole forces is what I neither look for, expect, nor desire; for I must be impartial enough to confess it is a charge too great for my youth and inexperience to be intrusted with."
Washington became second in command for this foray to the Forks, receiving his commission as lieutenant colonel on March 15, 1754. Even as second in command, he was over his head. Some expeditions, blessed with good luck and good planning, click like clockwork; others are beset with problems from the beginning, where error compounds error, officers snipe at each other, and troop morale sinks into the mire. This expedition was of the latter stripe; for Washington it was a horrible experience but an excellent education. If his epic journey through the wilderness in 1753 set the foundation for his military career, this expedition toward the Forks of the Ohio framed it.
Even before Washington stepped off at the head of his troops, he learned an age-old lesson in the problems of supply. From Colonel William Fairfax's lavish estate of Belvoir, where Washington was welcomed thanks to his half brother's marriage to Fairfax's daughter, Washington wrote to Dinwiddie in early March: "We should be glad to have so many Tints [tents]sent up as can be spard, for there is no proper Linnen to make them of here and would be difficult to get done if there was[.] We also are much in want of Cutlasses, Halbards, Officer's half pikes, Drum's &ca ... that Drum which was sent up with the Artillery being very bad is scarcely worth the trouble of carrying."
Besides tents, weapons, and drums, Washington's gathering army required clothing, preferably uniforms with red coats to impress Indian allies and strike fear into their foes. For the Indians, red "is compard to Blood and is look'd upon as the distinguishing marks of Warriours," Washington wrote Dinwiddie. "It is my acquaintance with these Indians and a study in their Tempers that has in some measure let me into their Customs and dispositions."
Through his journey to Fort Le Boeuf, Washington had learned something of the "Customs" of the Indians; the Seneca Chief, Tanacharison, had even given him an Indian name: Conotocarious, meaning "town taker" or "devourer of villages." Tanacharison knew that this had been the Indian name of Washington's grandfather, John Washington, who had proven to be adept at taking Indian land not by force of arms but through force of law. Washington's own father, Augustine, had been a Virginia planter, land speculator, and iron forge owner who died when George was 11. He had left a large family—three sons with his first wife (one of whom died in childhood) and four sons and a daughter with his second, Mary Ball, among whom the eldest was George.
In the first six years of Washington's life, his family moved three times, finally settling at the Ferry Farm Plantation near Fredericksburg, where they were living when his father died. This is where Washington spent his boyhood, receiving tutoring from an unknown teacher or teachers in all of the fields that a planter's son would be expected to master: mathematics, accounting, an understanding of legal instruments such as deeds and wills.
Augustine Washington left enough money to keep his families comfortable, but it was George's older half brother, Lawrence, who lifted the family into the upper tier of Virginia society by marrying Ann Fairfax of the rich and influential Fairfax family. Lawrence Washington had received a liberal education in England, a luxury not available to George after the family's fortunes fell with his father's death; Lawrence moved comfortably in the upper strata of society and showed George how to do the same.
At the age of 19, George accompanied Lawrence on a trip to Barbados intended to improve Lawrence's health (he suffered from tuberculosis), the only sea voyage Washington ever made. Washington contracted smallpox on this trip, which made him immune to the recurrent epidemics of the 1770s; it also may have rendered him sterile.
Through his brother's connections with the Fairfax family, George, at the age of 20, won a lucrative sinecure as a county surveyor—in his studies he had demonstrated a natural talent for the field; Lord Thomas Fairfax had previously hired a 16-year-old Washington to accompany a survey party across the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1748 to document Fairfax's vast, ancestral holdings in the Shenandoah Valley. Washington, a precociously ambitious young man, used some of the £400 he earned as a surveyor to buy 2,300 acres of his own in the Shenandoah.
Following his brother's death in 1752, Washington took Lawrence's place as an adjutant in the Virginia militia, earning another £100 a year. With his military and surveying incomes, plus receipts from tobacco grown on his Shenandoah Valley lands, Washington was doing all right for a 21-year-old.
But lands west of the Appalachian Mountains, such as Washington's Bullskin Plantation, were then at the nexus of a growing dispute among France, England, and the Native American tribes that had long lived there. By the mid-1700s, both the French and the English realized enormous profits trading in furs and deerskin with the tribes, and they understood that the Ohio River Valley was key to tapping into the Mississippi and controlling the vast continent's interior.
On April 2, 1754, George Washington marched out of Alexandria, leading two companies totaling 167 officers and men. He was a tall man, somewhere between six feet and six-foot-two, slender but broad-shouldered and strong, with blue eyes, thin eyebrows, thin lips, sandy hair, and a barn owl's wide face. His regiment climbed the Blue Ridge Mountains, crossing through Vestal Gap, then ferrying across the Shenandoah. Less than three weeks into their march, word came that 1,000 French with 18 artillery pieces had come down the Ohio in canoes and ordered a few dozen members of the Ohio Company erecting a fort at the forks to leave. They did, and a primary objective of the mission, securing the Forks of the Ohio, had been lost.
At his camp on Wills Creek in the Appalachians of western Maryland, Washington held a council of war to determine what to do next. He took stock of his situation: He had in camp 167 troops plus a few dozen men from the Ohio Company whom he had deputized as militia—men who turned out to be more liability than asset. The French toward whom he was marching had about 1,000 men.
"It was thought a Thing impractical to march towards the Fort without sufficient strength," Washington wrote in his diary. But the Seneca Chief, Tanacharison, made a strong case before the war council that his warriors needed to see English troops gathering in the region to buck up their spirits.
And, Washington figured, help was on the way: The overall commander of this expedition, Colonel Joshua Fry, was crossing the Blue Ridge with 10 cannon and 100 men to round out the Virginia regiment of nearly 300. Two independent companies paid and equipped by King George II had also been raised to head for the Ohio and together they'd bring another 300 men commissioned as regular troops. North Carolina had also raised 400 men under Colonel James Innes, and Tanacharison had pledged fidelity from the Six Nations tribes and their allies in the region; with artillery, 1,000 men, plus assistance from the Indians, it looked like the English could gather a credible threat.
From Wills Creek, Washington decided to press on: He pushed his troops deeper into the backcountry toward Redstone Old Fort, more than 80 miles distant on the Monongahela River. There the Ohio Company had already built a blockhouse that could be used for a fort to meet the French threat. In order to clear the way for the troops and artillery that he was sure would follow him, Washington had his men chop a road through the wilderness, slowing their progress to a mere two or three miles a day.
By May 9, they had cut through two dozen miles of forest to a place called the Little Meadows; there Washington dismissed the Ohio Company laborers he had deputized. They had become a sullen drag on the camp after having their wages cut to 8 pence per day, the same rate as Washington's volunteers. His detachment was now down to about 160 men, but Washington was as optimistic as he was indefatigable—he continued to push on, eventually pitching camp in the Great Meadows, a boggy clearing in the forest between two hulking mountains.
Naturally, the French learned of a detachment of English encamped about 50 miles south of the Forks; with advance scouts from both sides prowling the woods, conflict was a distinct possibility.
As heavy clouds descended just before sundown on May 27, 1754, a mounted messenger galloped into George Washington's camp bearing news from Tanacharison, the Half King: He had followed the tracks of two men toward what Washington described in his diary as a "low obscure Place" in the woods, where the footprints merged with the tracks of many. Tanacharison was sure a party of French was hidden in a glen there, about seven miles northwest of Washington's camp.
Washington immediately ordered 40 men under arms for a nighttime march toward Tanacharison's camp. They stumbled through the rain, men bumping into each other in the darkness, frequently losing the path then finding it again; they wandered into the Indian camp around daybreak, where they united with 13 warriors and hiked in single file toward the secluded glen. When they reached the glen, they encircled it. Down in the hollow, a few of the French soldiers had emerged from their bark-over-stick lodgings to light smoky fires of wet wood for their breakfasts.
"We were advanced pretty near to them ... when they discovered us," Washington wrote in his diaries, "whereupon I ordered my Company to fire."
In pulling his trigger, Washington provided the casus belli for France and England to resume long-standing hostilities. The resumption of war between these two European powers, sparked in an obscure glen in western Pennsylvania, drew in their allies overseas and ignited the Seven Years' War, a global conflagration that would burn for more than seven years and eventually engulf France, England, Spain, India, Austria, several German states, and dozens of American Indian nations with battles fought as far away as the Philippines. The boom of musket fire lasted less than 15 minutes, but the controversy over who started it lasts till this day.
From Washington's point of view, the French party of 35 men were "spies" sent to gather intelligence about his troop strength and to reconnoiter the roads, rivers, and landscape all the way to the Potomac. He had surprised them in their camp and, as he wrote to Dinwiddie days after the skirmish, "Fir'd briskly till they were defeated."
When the smoke cleared, 1 of Washington's men was dead and 3 were wounded. All 35 of the French but 1 were captured or killed. From Washington's viewpoint, a hostile force skulking about near his encampment had gotten what it deserved.
Among the French dead was the party's commander, Joseph Coulon de Villiers, sieur de Jumonville. From the French point of view, Jumonville was on an ambassadorial mission to present Washington with a summons demanding that he quit the area, similar to the summons that Washington had delivered to Fort Le Boeuf. The ambush of an ambassadorial party was an egregious war crime.
When the firing began one French soldier, a Canadian named Monceau, managed to slip out of the noose of English and Indian troops and escape. According to Monceau, the French troops were surprised in their camp at around 7 A.M., when the English poured two volleys into their ranks. Jumonville then successfully called for a cease-fire. He gave his summons to the English and gathered his troops peacefully around him while awaiting their reply. Monceau did not wait for the answer; he made his way barefoot through the woods to the Monongahela, where he had stashed a little canoe.
The last Monceau knew, when the firing ceased, Jumonville was still alive. How did he die? One of Tanacharison's warriors said that he knew. Days after the skirmish, the warrior appeared before the French erecting a fort at the Forks and told their commander that during the cease-fire, Washington's troops shot Jumonville through the head in cold blood. The "English" would have killed all of the surviving French "had not the Indians who were present, by rushing between them and the English, prevented their design."
Two other accounts of the skirmish at what became known as Jumonville's Rocks surfaced, one told by a man who was there and another told by one of Washington's soldiers who was not present in the glen but who shared campfires with, and heard the story time and again from, those who were. In several key aspects, these stories aligned: When the firing ceased, Jumonville was wounded but alive, and he did send over a summons. While Washington pored over the document, Tanacharison, the Half King, approached the wounded Jumonville and said something in French. According to a deserter from Washington's camp, an Indian warrior named Denis Kaninguen, Tanacharison said, "Thou art not yet dead, my father." Then he cleaved Jumonville's head with a hatchet, reached into the skull, and pulled out his brains. At this, Tanacharison's warriors ran amok, killing all of the wounded French, taking their weapons, accoutrements, and scalps.
This last version has the ring of truth. The warrior sent to the French camp to blame Jumonville's death on the English had an obvious agenda: to ingratiate Tanacharison's warriors with the most powerful army in the Ohio.
And Washington's terse account failed to reconcile the impossibly high ratio of French dead to French wounded, variously stated by Washington as 10 to 1 or 12 to 0. The muskets of that time were neither accurate nor lethal enough to engender that kind of ratio—after any battle or skirmish, the tally of wounded to dead almost always ran between 2 or 3 wounded for every 1 killed. (Washington had suffered 3 wounded and 1 killed.)
Denis Kaninguen's account makes the most sense of them all. As a Six Nations chief, Tanacharison's power base was in the Finger Lakes region of New York; he had been steadily losing his authority over the Ohio region tribes to the south, and he desperately wanted help from those tribes to remove the French from the Ohio. To get their attention, he needed French booty and scalps as tangible evidence of English power and will to drive off the French.
Tanacharison often played the part of the obsequious Indian; but he was older than Washington, had far more experience, and had shrewdly summed up the young colonel as "a good-natured man" who "had no experience." When Tanacharison's warriors fell on the French wounded, standard tactics for Iroquois warriors, the 22-year-old Washington in his first combat command could do nothing but watch.
In his first after-action report to Governor Dinwiddie, Washington wrote: "[A]fter an Engagement of 15 Minutes we killd 10, wounded one and took 21 Prisoner's, among those that were killd was Monsieur De Jumonville the Commander." In his diary, Washington dryly noted: "The Indians scalped the dead."
Technically, everything that Washington wrote was almost true: It was more like 13 French killed with 1 or none left wounded; and the Indians did scalp the dead. But his report left out so much as to appear untruthful, a lie to cover up what Europeans would view as a massacre. Only after Governor Dinwiddie expressed his approbation of the killing and capturing of the French (he even ordered medals struck for the occasion) did Washington 'fess up a little; in a follow-up letter to Dinwiddie, he wrote: "There were 5, or 6 other Indian[s], who servd to knock the poor unhappy wounded in the head and beriev'd them of their Scalps." In a letter written from Great Meadows to his brother John, Washington boasted about the fighting: "I fortunately escaped without a wound, tho' the right Wing where I stood was exposed to & received all the Enemy's fire and was the part where the man was killed & the rest wounded. I can with truth assure you, I heard Bulletts whistle and believe me there was something charming in the sound."
Excerpted from Washington by Gerald M. Carbone. Copyright © 2010 Gerald M. Carbone. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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