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WASHINGTONA Legacy of Leadership
By Paul S. Vickery
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2010 Dr. Paul S. Vickery, Ph.D.
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePreparation for Leadership
I can't say that ever in my Life I suffer'd so much Anxiety as I did in this affair. —George Washington
There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure. —Gen. Colin Powell
If ever a life fit the description of "preparation, hard work, and learning from failure," it was that of George Washington. Viewed in hindsight, his entire life was a preparation for the role he would play in the American Revolution and as the nation's first president. His early years display the faith, ambition, work ethic, and character of the man that he became.
At the age of twenty-one, in February 1753, Washington began his military career when he was appointed major in the Southern District of Virginia by Governor Robert Dinwiddie. As adjutant of the militia his duties were not taxing and he was able to continue to develop his skills as a surveyor. Personally, he owned about two thousand acres of land; after Lawrence's death the potential existed to inherit even more.
Thus he began the life of a Virginia landowner, part-time officer, and aspiring gentleman. In 1758, his friend George Mercer described Washington as "straight as an Indian, 6 foot 2 inches in his stockings and weighing 175 pounds." He was "a splendid horseman," and his "movements and gestures are graceful, his walk majestic." Although he focused his attentions on improving the gentlemanly pursuits of riding, land acquisition, and planting, world events would change the course of his life.
During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, both the French and English had discovered that wealth was to be made by trading with the Indians in the Ohio River Valley. Formed where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers merge to become the Ohio and site of present-day Pittsburgh, the area was known at that time as "the Forks." Both nations recognized that control of the Forks was the key to possession of the entire valley. Both nations desired the profits of the rich fur trade and abundant raw materials available there. Both also believed they had a legal claim to the area—the French because of the travels of LaSalle in 1669–70, and the British as a westward extension of Virginia and Pennsylvania. The British also insisted the 1744 Treaty of Lancaster made with the Iroquois gave them legal ownership. But in 1748 the Iroquois gave assurances to the French that they had not ceded the territory. Native Americans did not believe in individual ownership of land. Although they might claim tribal control of an area, land—indeed all nature—was the possession only of heaven. Therefore no chief or individual tribe had the authority to cede lands, they believed.
Governor Dinwiddie, who was also a partner in one of the first land speculation companies in America, the Ohio Company, was concerned. French occupation of the Forks threatened his interests. "I hope you will think it necessary to prevent the French taking Possession of the Lands on the Ohio ..." Dinwiddie wrote the Board of Trade; "indeed in my private Opinion they ought to be prevented making any Settlements to the Westward of Our present Possessions." In August of 1753, the Crown responded by giving Dinwiddie the authority to discover the location of the French. If settled in the disputed area, he was to ask them to leave. If they refused, he had the authority "to drive them off by Force of Arms." With royal approval granted, Dinwiddie prepared to send an expedition to locate the trespassers and present them with a letter ordering them to leave.
Major Washington, adjutant general for the southern district of Virginia, eagerly volunteered and was selected to lead this delegation. His mission was to find the French commander, present his credentials and Dinwiddie's letter, and demand an explanation for their presence. The directions also specified that he should seek intelligence concerning the number and placement of the French forces. Upon hiring the Dutchman Jacob Vanbraam as interpreter and Christopher Gist as guide, along with four others, Washington set out, eager to fulfill his mission. True to form, he departed on the same day he received his commission—October 31, 1753.
As was his habit, Washington maintained a journal of his experiences. In it he confirmed what his responsibilities were and how he was to conduct them. He recognized that he was a man under authority and understood he was to follow the orders of his superiors and carry these out to the best of his abilities. Obedience to orders was a lesson he had learned early and this principle became fundamental to his nature. After trudging over eighty miles in three weeks during "excessive Rains & vast Quantity of Snow," his party arrived at a small trading post established by a Mr. Fraser at the mouth of Turtle Creek, about ten miles north of present day Pittsburgh.
Perhaps because of his training as a surveyor, Washington had a keen eye for the terrain. "I spent some Time in viewing the Rivers, & the Land in the Fork," he wrote in his journal, "which I think extreamly well situated for a Fort as it has absolute Command of both Rivers." He described the depth, width, and speed of the rivers. This was critical. In the eighteenth century, waterways were the key to transportation. Since "roads" were little more than improved animal paths, rivers were highways of trade and movement.
The French needed control of the Ohio River, as it connected their settlements in Canada with those in the Illinois Territory and eventually to their colony in New Orleans. The British viewed control of the rivers as essential to the opening up, development, and settlement of the western lands. Thus the stakes were high as to who held control over the Ohio River Valley.
Washington then went to make contact with the natives. Traveling thirteen miles over "some extream good & bad Land" his party arrived at the village of Logstown, where Washington encountered four French deserters from New Orleans. "I enquir'd into the Situation of the French on the Mississippi," he chronicled, "their Number & what Forts they had Built." It was also at Logstown where he met Tanacharison (also known as "Half King"), a chief who claimed to speak for the Iroquois Confederacy. Washington had wisely brought twists of tobacco and other presents for the Indians and immediately gained their goodwill.
Washington inquired about the French presence in the area. Tanacharison had just returned from a confrontation with the French at the nearest fort, French Creek, which was not "under 5 or 6 Nights Sleep, good Traveling." There he met the arrogant French commander, who had insulted him. "I am not affraid of Flies or Musquito's; "the Frenchman had scoffed, "for Indians are such as those." Should the English or anyone else try to block the river, he possessed sufficient strength "to burst it open, & tread under my Feet" any opposition. Several days later Washington and his party, led by Half King and three Indians, left for the trading post at Venango.
Constantrain, snow, and drizzle complicated the nearly seventy-mile trek. On December 4, they met the fort commander, Captain Phillipe Thomas de Joncaire. "He invited us to Sup with them," wrote Washington, "and treated with the greatest Complaisance." Soon the French tongues were loosened. "The Wine, as they dos'd themselves pretty plentifully ... gave license to their Tongues to reveal their Sentiments more freely." Keeping a cool head and wisely restraining himself from imbibing, Washington listened and observed. Though he hid his feelings, Washington was astounded that they provided him with the number of troops and location of their forts. The French recognized the British had a two-to-one numerical superiority, but boasted they "were too slow & dilatory to prevent any Undertaking of theirs." After dinner, Washington presented Dinwiddie's letter. Joncaire refused to accept it, explaining he did not have the authority to do so. They would have to go to Fort Le Boeuf, roughly sixty miles away.
Although he had privately gloated over the intelligence he had learned, Washington was shocked to realize he'd underestimated the cunning of Joncaire, who plied the Indians with liquor and gifts and urged them to remain with the French. Only after Gist confronted Half King "with great Perswasion" did he agree to leave. Departing on December 7, the journey was slowed "by excessive rains, Snows, & bad traveling, through many Mires & Swamps." Finally, on December 11, the frozen, wet party arrived at Fort Le Boeuf.
There they met Jacques Le Gardeur de Saint-Pierre, a knight of the Royal and Military Order of St. Louis. Washington described him as "an elderly Gentleman, & has much the Air of a Soldier." Washington presented Dinwiddie's letter to him and awaited a response. The French officers withdrew to consider the matter, leaving Washington with the run of the fort. He used his time wisely, subtly making sketches of the fort, fixing the disposition and number of weapons, and the size and location of buildings. "I cou'd get no certain Account of the Number of Men here," he reported, "but according to the best Judgement I cou'd form, there is an Hundred exclusive of Officers, which are pretty many." He also ordered a count of the number of canoes available to transport forces south in the spring, "50 of Birch Bark, & 170 of Pine; besides many others that were block'd out, in Readiness to make." He was now anxious to get back to Williamsburg and report his findings.
On the evening of the fourteenth, Washington received the reply he had been waiting for and attempted to leave on the fifteenth. The French, however, had again plied the Indian guides with alcohol; guns and other presents would follow if Tanacharison refused to accompany Washington. Half King made it abundantly clear he wanted to remain with the French and Washington became worried. "I can't say that ever in my Life I suffer'd so much Anxiety as I did in this affair," he noted. The French used "every Stratagem that the most fruitful Brain cou'd invent" to get the Indians to remain. Finally, an angered and frustrated Washington put his foot down and "press'd him in the strongest Terms to go." On the sixteenth, Half King relented and together they began the journey home.
The six-day trip back to Venango was made by canoe down a narrow, crooked river filled with rocks and ice. Snow pelted them and several times they had to get into the freezing water for as much as thirty minutes to get over shoals. At one point the ice became so hard they needed to portage the canoe a quarter mile, where they joined the horses that had been sent on ahead.
After resting a day in Venango, Washington was ready to leave on the twenty-third. Half King, pleading illness, asked to wait a few days. Frustrated and anxious to get the French letter back to Dinwiddie, Washington left the next day, according to Gist, "in Indian dress." As the weather got colder and the roads filled with snow that froze at night, the horses sickened, forcing Washington to continue on foot. Three days later, in order to make better time, he decided to leave the horses and baggage with Vanbraam and continue with Gist.
The next day after passing a place called Murdering Town, they met a party of French Indians who apparently were waiting for them. In his own diary, Gist provided a much more complete account of what happened next. One of the Indians called Gist by name and Gist seemed to recognize him and asked him to act as guide. They moved "very brisk for eight or ten miles," recorded Gist. Washington was now weary and his feet hurt, so he wanted to make camp. The guide urged them on as his camp was only "two whoops" away. As they came into an open field, separated by fifteen feet, "The Indian made a stop, turned about; the Major [Washington] saw him point his gun toward us and fire." Before he could reload, they wrestled his gun away. Gist wanted to kill him but Washington passed it off as an accident. At about nine o'clock they let him go, giving him a piece of bread, and then hustled away, traveling all night to prevent his joining up with others and following them.
After traveling through the night and most of the next day, they arrived at the Allegheny River. They expected to cross on frozen ice. The river, however, was not frozen but full of chunks of floating ice. Using "one poor Hatchet," they cut trees and tied together a makeshift raft "after a whole days Work." In the freezing weather they set off across the river using poles as oars. About halfway across, the raft became jammed by the ice and "we expected every Moment our Raft wou'd sink, & we Perish." To get free, Washington stuck his pole in the river. The current was so violent that "it Jirk'd me into 10 Feet Water." Desperately he grabbed a log and struggled to hold on until Gist pulled him out. They were forced to spend a miserably cold, wet night on a small island. "The Cold was so extream severe," recorded Washington, that Mr. Gist got all his Fingers & some of his Toes Froze." The good news was that night the river froze solid so they could walk across the next morning.
Two days later, on January 1, 1754, Washington arrived at Fraser's trading post, bought a horse, and left alone for Williamsburg. Arriving on the sixteenth, he "waited upon His Honour the Governor with the Letter I had brought from the French Commandant and to give an Account of the Procedures of my Journey." He was anxious to report "the most remarkable Occurrences that happen'd to me."
The twenty-one-year-old had successfully completed his first military mission. Demonstrating courage and persistence and making on-the-spot decisions, he had learned valuable lessons in leadership. His self-confidence rose dramatically as he had commanded men and survived two life-threatening experiences. Washington's first military expedition as ambassador to the French was considered such a success that the governor later published The Journal of Major George Washington. Washington's next mission, however, would allow him to hear the sound of bullets and smell the smoke of battle.
Chapter TwoA Military Career Begins
I heard bullets whistle ... there was something charming in the sound. —George Washington
The young major couldn't have known that the news in the letter he carried back to the governor would begin a chain of events culminating in a war that would be fought not only on the American continent but around the world. Dinwiddie's letter had ordered the French to leave the Ohio Valley; the French response was not what he wanted to hear. "As to the summons you send me to retire," wrote Le Gardeur de Saint-Pierre, "I do not think myself obliged to obey it." The French were not budging. In fact, they determined to expand their fort building in the area.
Dinwiddie immediately made Washington's journal public, describing both his adventures and the French response. Published in colonial newspapers and in London, the Journal of Major George Washington both popularized the western frontier and provided Washington certain fame. He was even voted a bonus of fifty pounds sterling from the Virginia House of Burgess.
The Crown commissioned Dinwiddie; if the French remained in the Ohio Valley he was "to drive them out by force of arms." Seeking to fulfill this royal mandate (and, of course, to protect his financial interests in the Ohio Company),he appealed for troops from the other colonies, though the request fell upon deaf ears. Even the young major could raise no militia. If patriotism could not inspire volunteers, though, perhaps money could. After much discussion, the Virginia House of Burgesses allotted Dinwiddie 10,000 pounds sterling to prosecute the action. Washington wanted to play a role and quickly made his intentions known.
"The command of the whole forces is what I neither look for, expect, nor desire," he wrote in a letter to House member Richard Corbin. He would be content to be second in command and receive "the post of lieutenant-colonel." Should Corbin recommend him, however, he would, of course, "entertain a true sense of the kindness." Washington received his commission and a professor of mathematics, Joshua Fry, was appointed commander.
Excerpted from WASHINGTON by Paul S. Vickery Copyright © 2010 by Dr. Paul S. Vickery, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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