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Band of Giants
The Amateur Soldiers Who Won America's Independence
By Jack Kelly
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Jack Kelly
All rights reserved.
KNOWLEDGE OF THE MILITARY ART
Silence. Rain spat cold on the napes of forty armed Virginians groping through "a Night as dark as Pitch." They found the camp of their Indian ally Tanaghrisson and his braves. The two groups of men could smell each other: the rancid odor of the greased natives, the fetor of the unwashed white men. Tanaghrisson told their leader that the French raiding party was camped in a nearby hollow. He would take them there. Would show them.
They padded on through the soggy forest "one after another, in the Indian Manner." The rain ceased, the mist brightened. A summer day was percolating into the Ohio Country, then a vast wilderness, now western Pennsylvania. On that breathless late-May morning in 1754, each man listened to his own anxious heartbeat.
Their commander, a twenty-one-year-old lieutenant colonel named George Washington, crept with Tanaghrisson to the edge of a low cliff and peered into the hollow where about thirty-five French soldiers and Canadian militiamen were waking. Washington listened to the murmur of foreign tongues, breathed the incense of smoky fires. The enemy had posted no sentries and had chosen a poor defensive position. Washington lacked formal military training, but he recognized that high ground and surprise afforded him a masterful advantage.
The Virginian had orders to enforce the sovereignty of His Britannic Majesty, King George II. In that endless western forest, Washington relied on the guidance of Tanaghrisson, known as the Half King. It was Tanaghrisson, a man in his fifties, who had alerted him to the danger, who waited silently beside him, watching.
At six foot three, Washington stood eight inches taller than the average man of his day. Gilbert Stuart, the portrait artist who would become most intimate with Washington's face, would see in his features "the strongest and most ungovernable passions." If let loose from his exacting will, Stuart speculated, those passions would make Washington "the fiercest man among the savage tribes."
Born to a prosperous tidewater planter family, Washington had lost his father to fever when he was eleven. The death meant that George, unlike his older brothers, had missed the chance for a classical European education. Instead, he had learned the craft of surveying. Long trips to delineate claims on behalf of the powerful Fairfax family had hardened his already vigorous constitution and solidified valuable social connections. He had come to know the backcountry and had developed an eye for the lay of the land, a boon to a military mind.
Now, cotton-mouthed with excitement, the young officer directed his men with hand signals and whispers. The Indians circled to the downhill side, ready to block the Frenchmen's escape. Washington's lieutenant Adam Stephen shifted half of the Virginians into positions along the top of the fifteen-foot-high ridge. Washington led the others down the slope to the right. He was about to plunge into his first battle.
Each soldier became acutely aware of the heft of his loaded musket and of the vulnerability of his own precious flesh. Fear and excitement crowded the men's minds. A Frenchman, suddenly alert to the danger, grabbed his musket and fired. Washington rose to his full height. Fire! The crash of his men's volley shattered the quiet. Time galloped. The startled Frenchmen scrambled. Some fell. Some lifted their firelocks to shoot back. No man could reload quickly enough.
The milky gunpowder smoke smeared the air with a sulfurous haze and the taste of burnt metal. Washington stood exposed on the right, sword in hand, shouting orders to his men. An officer must post himself in the thickest of the fighting — throughout his military career, Washington would never shirk the danger of combat. He heard the thud of a bullet tear into the torso of the man beside him. A leaden musket ball three-quarters of an inch across could penetrate six inches of pine. Its effect on flesh from short range was murderous. The Virginian fell heavily to the ground, blood gushing.
The enemy were running, intent on escape. Faces painted with yellow, black, and red stripes suddenly leered through the leaves in front of them. The Frenchmen came sprinting back, throwing down their weapons, begging for mercy.
Washington's initial taste of combat, lasting less than fifteen minutes, had ended in the savor of victory. Still sizzling with adrenaline, he would write to his eighteen-year-old brother Jack, "I can with truth assure you, I heard Bulletts whistle and believe me there was something charming in the sound." What happened next was not charming, and Washington would write of it to no one.
As the Indians pushed forward, Washington ordered his men, giddy with the thrill of their first fight, to close ranks around the French prisoners. The frightened captives cringed at the Indian war whoops. Their ten wounded comrades sobbed as pain lit their flesh. In the confusion, Washington's interpreter was conveying the words of a man who said he was Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers, sieur de Jumonville, the commander of this small battalion. The British officer, Jumonville insisted, had made a mistake. The French soldiers were not a war party, merely an escort. He was an envoy sent to deliver a message from His Most Christian Majesty Louis XV, le roi. He produced a document that established his authority and contained a proclamation.
His words clouded Washington's mind. Violating the customs of diplomacy could stain a man's honor. Worse, his blunder could spark a war. Britain and France had managed six years of uneasy peace since the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. This incident might threaten the delicate equilibrium.
One of Jumonville's aides began to read the proclamation in French. The decree claimed the Ohio region for France based on the explorations of La Salle in the 1680s. Washington was chagrined by his own ignorance of French, the language of European culture and diplomacy. Tanaghrisson, an overseer of the interests of the Iroquois federation in the region, knew French well and keenly understood the situation. Discord between his British allies and the encroaching French was what he wanted, was why he had brought the Virginians to this glen. He approached Jumonville and said in French, "You are not yet dead, my father."
Mon pére. He jerked his tomahawk high and brought it down on Jumonville's skull. Another blow struck off the nobleman's cranium. The Half King returned his bloody weapon to his belt and plunged his hand into the pulp of Jumonville's head. He tore out the man's brain and mashed it between his palms.
A minute earlier, Washington had been concerned about diplomatic protocol. Now he faced responsibility for the murder of a royal envoy.Savagery was staring him in the face. Tanaghrisson's braves leapt onto the wounded Frenchmen, slit their scalps, and peeled their hair away. They decapitated one of the enemy soldiers and raised his head on a pole. They danced, sang. Licks of blood splashed onto the green shoots of the springtime forest.
Red is a startling color in a world of greens and browns. Before marching, Washington had hoped to outfit himself and his company with scarlet uniforms. To Indians, Washington wrote, the color red is "compared to Blood and is look'd upon as the distinguishing marks of Warriours and great Men." He added, "It is the nature of Indians to be struck with, and taken by show."
Now it was the young commander who was being struck by show, who was getting an eyeful of the bloody hue. The intimacy of the violence hurled him across the gap that separates the fighting man from the farmer, the surveyor, or the drawing-room gentleman. The rush of uncontrollable events, the impinging chaos, and the shame at witnessing the butchering of one's own species were his sudden initiation into the cold-minded fraternity of the warrior.
* * *
The Virginians hurried their surviving twenty-one French prisoners back to their own camp in a clearing called the Great Meadow. The drama was playing out sixty miles southeast of the Forks of the Ohio, the site of present-day Pittsburgh, where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers merge to form the Ohio River. The French had recently ousted the British from this strategic spot and had begun to construct Fort Duquesne.
Robert Dinwiddie, the beefy lieutenant governor of Virginia, had sent Washington and 160 militiamen marching through miles of gloomy, cantankerous forest to defend the critical Forks. Virginia authorities asserted that their territory extended westward to the Mississippi. They were growing increasingly aware of the value of this frontier land and were determined to ward off French domination of the Ohio country.
Following the violence at what would be known as Jumonville Glen, Washington was by turns cocky and nervous. One minute, the young soldier proclaimed that he had "the resolution to Face what any Man durst." The next, he was writing to Dinwiddie that he wished himself "under the Command off an experienced Officer."
He soon learned that the colonel who was to follow him with reinforcements had fallen from his horse and died. This left Washington commander in chief of the Ohio Country and commandant of the makeshift stockade he called Fort Necessity. By July 3, a French attack wasimminent. Jumonville's brother, Louis Coulon de Villiers, was leading a force of French soldiers and Indians to avenge the atrocity. Washington's men waited in the shallow trenches they had dug in the boggy Great Meadow.
The French and their Indian allies dispersed along the tree line. Favored by greater numbers, high ground, cover, and mobility, they began to fire at Washington's troops. Fighting in a driving rain storm, they quickly got the better of the inexperienced Virginians. By the time night came on, more than a hundred of Washington's soldiers lay dead or wounded. Others broke into the rum supply and got drunk. Then a small miracle — the cautious Villiers, fearing British reinforcements, offered Washington a chance to surrender. He had little choice but to comply. The next morning, July 4, Washington and his remaining men slunk away from the Ohio Country on parole, leaving behind a brief victory and an inglorious defeat.
Washington could not imagine how far the ripples from these bursts of violence would travel. He could not know that Jumonville's death was the first casualty of the Seven Years' War, a global conflagration that would kill one and a half million. As Horace Walpole, the British man of letters, put it, "The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire."
* * *
His Excellency Major General Edward Braddock came to America to finish the fight with the French that Washington had started. The short, fat, gray-haired general wore a scarlet uniform faced with yellow silk, his shoulders draped in gold braid. He brought an ornate carriage unsuited to the awful roads of America. He brought not one but three suits of polished armor. He brought a dream that he would "conquer whole nations."
Braddock drank, swore, and lacked the manners expected of a gentleman. Yet Crown officials saw fit to make him commander in chief of all British forces in America. They gave him two regular army regiments of about five hundred men each and a wealth of heavy artillery. This was the first substantial force of redcoats most provincials had laid eyes on — rough men in fancy clothes, armed with glittering muskets, shining bayonets, and a cocksure disdain for their enemies.
Braddock had never led troops in combat. Although the son of a general, he had risen through the ranks with difficulty. He was hardly a diplomat. Benjamin Franklin saw in him a "haughty and Imperious Temper." Braddock might do for a European war, Franklin later observed, but "he had too much self-confidence, too high an opinion of the validity of regular troops, and too mean a one of both Americans and Indians."
It was only natural that George Washington should apply for a position with Braddock. Here was his opportunity to go to school with a major general of the most powerful army in the world. The young Virginian wrote, "I wish for nothing more earnestly, than to attain a small degree of knowledge in the Military Art."
To take advantage of Washington's familiarity with the terrain, Braddock allowed him to join the army as a volunteer and attached him to his staff, or military "family." The provincial colonel would serve as aide-de-camp reporting directly to the commander. Washington hoped the resulting connections with top British officers might pay off in a commission from the king as a regular officer himself. First he had to learn.
He began by acquainting himself with the sometimes prickly intricacies of military logistics. In essence, Braddock would have to transport a small city into the wilderness, including a blacksmith's forge to facilitate repairs. The general scoured Virginia and Maryland for wagons but came up short. Fuming, Braddock demanded that the governors of all the colonies meet him in Annapolis, where he treated them, an observer noted, "as if they had been infinitely his Inferiors." This was unprecedented. Each colony had always dealt individually with London — Americans had never thought of themselves as united. Braddock browbeat the governors for failing to support the expedition. He saw "the necessity of laying a tax on all His Majesty's domains in America," one of the earliest suggestions to tax the colonies. He threatened to quarter troops in colonial homes.
Washington also learned about discipline and drill. At Jumonville Glen and Fort Necessity, he had seen how easily undisciplined troops could turn into a mob. In professional armies, the threat of punishment was the prime motivator of men who had been pressed into service by force or economic necessity. Braddock was hard. He ordered a public reading of the Articles of War, which prescribed the severest punishments for a wide variety of offenses. "Any soldier who shall Desert tho he Return Again shall be Hanged without Mercy." Lacerating strokes with the cat-o-nine-tails were the standard punishment for misbehavior. For example, the theft of a keg of beer earned a soldier nine hundred hard lashes.
Americans did not take well to military discipline. Among the most recalcitrant were the civilian laborers, most of them cocky backwoodsmen. To the British, these provincials appeared barely more civilized than the natives. "You see, sir," a British officer wrote home, "what a wild set of Creatures our English Men grow into when they lose Society."
Among the wildest were the teamsters Braddock hired to drive his many wagons westward. They included a twenty-year-old named Daniel Morgan. A Virginian like Washington, Morgan hailed from the opposite end of the social spectrum. He had strolled into the frontier village of Winchester two years earlier as a footloose teenager and found work at a saw mill, then as a wagon driver. Like Washington, he was a strongly built man, more than six feet tall. He loved handling horses, moving from place to place, gambling, wrestling, hunting, and drinking. He had saved enough to buy his own wagon and team. The Braddock expedition promised him welcome cash and a tempting dose of adventure.
At one point during the expedition, Morgan quarreled with a British officer and knocked the man down. A quick drumhead court-martial sentenced the teamster to five hundred lashes. Morgan was tied to a tree and whipped. In his telling, the number was 499 because the drummer miscounted and Morgan "did not think it worthwhile to tell him of his mistake, and let it go so!" He would bear the scars throughout his life.
The severity of discipline grew out of a concept of war that viewed soldiers as cogs in a machine. The self-willed warrior of the Middle Ages, the knight, had little place in modern fighting. Disciplined troops who followed orders were essential.
Washington learned that the principal actor in battle was not the soldier but the officer, who, by moving units of men as one, amplified and directed the power of their violence. Musket fire, inaccurate at a distance, was most effective delivered in massed volleys. Lines of men standing shoulder to shoulder two or three deep could load and fire in unison and with great speed. Initiative and individual action were counterproductive. Efficiency required drill, an exercise in obedience. As they marched, wheeled, handled their weapons, the men came to resemble a single mechanical mass, their movements automatic, their response to bellowed orders or drumbeats instantaneous.
American militiamen had practiced only a weak semblance of these drills on muster days. Braddock assigned a lieutenant to exercise the provincial troops, "long, lank, yellow-faced Virginians, who at best are a half-starved, ragged dirty Set." In the short time available, the men barely learned the rudiments.
The British soldiers were receiving an education of their own. The intimacy of slavery in Virginia surprised them. "How it strikes the Mind on the first Arrival," an officer observed, "to have all these black Faces with grim Looks round you." Then, when the army finally marched to Fort Cumberland, a primitive stockade at the limit of settled territory in western Maryland, the soldiers first encountered America's indigenous people. The customs and manners of these natives, one of Braddock's men said, "are hardly to be described."
Excerpted from Band of Giants by Jack Kelly. Copyright © 2014 Jack Kelly. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of ContentsContents
Chapter 1 Knowledge of the Military Art - 1754
Chapter 2 Blows Must Decide - 1774
Chapter 3 The Predicament We Are In - 1775
Chapter 4 Learning to be Soldiers - 1775
Chapter 5 Precious Convoy - 1776
Chapter 6 Sudden and Violent - 1776
Chapter 7 Valcour Island - 1776
Chapter 8 An Indecisive Mind - 1776
Chapter 9 Your Country is at Stake - 1776
Chapter 10 A Continual Clap of Thunder - 1777
Chapter 11 Fight As Well As Brag - 1777
Chapter 12 Something More at Stake - 1777
Chapter 13 The Discipline of the Leggs - 1778
Chapter 14 The Boldest Conduct - 1779
Chapter 15 The Fate of Battle - 1780
Chapter 16 Downright Fighting - 1780
Chapter 17 War is an Intricate Business - 1781
Chapter 18 America is Ours - 1781
Chapter 19 Our Troops - 1782
Chapter 20 The Large Hearts of Heroes - 1824